Samuel Bartley, 17, has gone to mainstream schools for his whole life.
But at times, getting a place has been a challenge.
Samuel, from south west London, has both physical and learning disabilities and uses a wheelchair.
His mum Lucy said far more needs to be done to make mainstream education more inclusive.
“Instinctively when Samuel was born, I knew he shouldn’t be treated differently from his sisters,” Lucy said.
“Why would you separate a whole group of people on the basis of their impairments? You wouldn’t do that in any other area.”
She said the family “had a battle” getting Samuel into the local primary school his older sister was at.
They ended up fighting the matter at a tribunal, which they won.
Legal protections introduced five years ago emphasised the rights of children like Samuel to go to a mainstream school where possible.
But new analysis by JPIMedia shows that despite this, it is getting harder for many families to secure places.
The number of children with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream education has fallen by a quarter (24%) in England since 2012, while the number attending special schools has risen by nearly a third (31%).
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) described the situation as an “on-going attack on disabled people’s rights to be included rather than segregated from society.”
The Government said all schools should be inclusive.
‘A hostile education system’
Lucy campaigns for more inclusion in mainstream schools as a special educational needs disability advocate.
She believes schools put too much emphasis on their results and reputations.
Lucy said parents could never take their “foot off the pedal” in fighting for a place in mainstream education.
She said: “We have a fairly toxic and, I would argue, a hostile education system with the fact that the emphasis is all on results and attainment and schools’ reputations.”
The Children and Families Act 2014 set out that children with SEN should be offered a place in mainstream classes unless they choose to go elsewhere or it would clash with “the provision of efficient education for others”.
A key part of the act was the introduction of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), meant to set out the support a child needs.
But Lucy claimed these plans were being used to justify sending children to special schools.
Making inclusion work
Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator at ALLFIE, said: “Parental choice is a myth – parents we know do not choose special school provision, they are forced into it because mainstream schools no longer have the money and support to implement inclusive education practice.”
She said the Government was dealing with a shortfall in SEN places by planning new special schools rather than funding better provision in mainstream education.
She added: “This is no longer about austerity, but rather this Government’s on-going attack on disabled people’s rights to be included rather than segregated from society.”
The Department for Education said: “All schools must be inclusive of children with disabilities and 82 per cent of all pupils identified as having special educational needs are in state-funded mainstream schools.
“Additionally, we have created new special schools in response to the increasing number of pupils with complex special educational needs and are committed to delivering even more provision to ensure every child is able to access the education that they need.”
Inclusion in mainstream schools
Inclusion rates vary widely across different parts of the UK.
Scotland has seen a sharp rise in the overall number of children registered as having Additional Support Needs (ASN) since 2012.
And while the number of children with ASN in mainstream education has also risen substantially, the number of children in special schools has stayed fairly stable.
In comparison, inclusion figures in mainstream schools have stayed relatively steady in both Northern Ireland and Wales.
In Northern Ireland, 22 per cent of children in mainstream education have SEN, whereas the proportion in Wales is 23 per cent.
‘Still playing major catch-up’
Even in Scotland, the drive to be more welcoming to children with disabilities has come with its limits, according to those working in the sector.
Jack*, a pupil support assistant from Edinburgh, said: “There seems to be an idealistic vision of schools being wholly inclusive and every individual child’s needs being met.
“Of course ethically and morally that is great but the implementation of that is still paying major catch-up.”
Jack has worked with pupils with ASN across special and mainstream schools for the last eight years and said children were often placed into segregated systems within schools.
He added: “By sticking a kid in a mainstream school but in a segregated department or even an outbuilding at times, all you are doing is displacing the issue. You’re not dealing with it and these children are not being fully integrated.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “All children and young people should receive the support that they need to reach their learning potential and all teachers provide support to pupils with additional support needs, not just ‘support for learning’ staff.”
The spokesperson said councils made decisions about resources, teaching and staff.
They said: “New online resources have been created to support school staff and guidance on the presumption to include ASN pupils in mainstream education has been updated.”
* name has been changed.