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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 February, 2005, 19:18 GMT
Mother tackles Blair over autism
Maria Hutchings (right) and Allison Edwards
Mrs Hutchings (right) and Allison Edwards, who spoke to Mr Blair
The prime minister was interrupted during a televised debate by a mother upset about what she said was the proposed closure of a special school.

Essex County Council has said there is no threat to close her son's school.

But Maria Hutchings approached Tony Blair on a live channel Five programme as he spoke about school discipline.

"Tony that's rubbish," she said, before being calmed down by studio staff. Mr Blair spoke to her after the show and was, she said, "very attentive".

Mrs Hutchings said: "He listened to everything we had to say. We are going to meet him again.

"He said to me that he knew something about autism. He felt sorry for what we had to go through. He said that he would be looking into all this personally."

'Angels'

She said she was concerned that the special needs school which teaches her 10-year-old son - who is autistic and has learning difficulties - was under threat of closure.

Previously, in an article for the National Autistic Society, she has described the school - Cedar Hall in Thundersley - as "run for angels by angels".

"Each day a small miracle happens; a child smiles, another learns to join the queue and several learn to giggle regularly, on a daily basis," she wrote.

But Essex County Council's cabinet member with responsibility for special schools, Tracey Chapman, said there was "absolutely no intention" to close the school.

The county was developing a system in which a school for children with severe learning difficulties was grouped with one for children with moderate difficulties and with mainstream schools, which had increasing numbers of children with special needs.

Cedar Hall was a moderate difficulties school in an area which already had one.

So it did not quite fit the pattern. Its provision might alter - as provision always had, to meet changing needs - but there was no plan to close it, Mrs Chapman told the BBC News website.

"Where there's a school with very good staff we are doing everything we can to keep them open," said Mrs Chapman.

Essex is a Conservative-run authority.

'Cynicism'

The shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, said: "For Tony Blair to attempt to portray himself as the champion of special educational needs is the ultimate in pre-election cynicism."

Since 1997 ministers had closed more than 70 special schools, he said.

"Far from believing in diversity of provision, they have consistently pursued a one-size-fits-all ideological obsession with inclusion."

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Phil Willis, said children should be taught in "the most appropriate setting".

"Special schools perform a vital role in our education system and the Liberal Democrats support expanding their role by linking them to local universities and colleges so that they can become centres of research and excellence," he said.

The Department for Education and Skills said the number of places in special schools had "remained consistent" since 1997 - "what we are delivering is bigger, better special schools".

Following her outburst on Wednesday Mrs Hutchings told reporters at the television studio in Birmingham that she had been inspired by Sharon Storer, who tackled Mr Blair about her husband's cancer treatment during the last general election campaign.

"It was the only way I could get his attention and become his Achilles Heel in the way that that lady was in the last election," she said.

She said this was "the new way to get issues into the media", with a prime minister who appeared more concerned about foreign affairs than the taxpayers of "Middle England".

A spokesman for the prime minister's office confirmed that the conversation with Mrs Hutchings had taken place but said it was a personal matter about which his office would have nothing further to say.



SEE ALSO:
Schools 'need not fear inclusion'
04 Nov 04 |  Education
Behaviour problems strain schools
12 Oct 04 |  Education
Family's landmark autism victory
06 Oct 04 |  Northern Ireland


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