The involvement of parents in the formal education of their children in the United Kingdom stands today at the crossroads between two ideologically conflicting conceptions of its purpose. On the one hand, there is the view, encapsulated in the social welfare policies which were in ascendance during the period of post-war reform, that the state in partnership with its citizenry can and should work towards improving the conditions of people’s lives, especially for those who are disadvantaged. On the other hand, there is the view, espoused by the neo-liberal ‘new right’, that a system of state welfare stifles the independence and self-reliance of individuals, the family and local communities. From the former perspective, parent-professional partnership in education was seen as central to achieving the desired improvements for future generations. The neo-liberal perspective, by contrast, with its origins in the demise of the post-war economic miracle, has taken a much more cautious view of the ‘benefits’, of partnership, radically confronting what it sees as the professional self-interest of a ‘left-wing’, interventionist bureaucracy (Cox et al. 1986).
In this chapter these differing attitudes towards the role of parents in educational decision-making are examined. The contribution of parents within the procedures for assessing children with special educational needs is considered in detail, with particular reference to the Warnock Report (DBS 1978) and the 1981 and 1993 Education Acts. Whereas the 1980 and 1986 Education Acts and, more especially, the 1988 Education Reform Act made widespread and fundamental changes to the organization and control of the education system in this country, the pattern of reform in special education has, to date, been less affected by the thinking of the new right. Although local management of special schools has been introduced and, at the time of writing, the first special school in the country is about to be awarded grant-maintained status, the principles of social