There are so many agendas at work in this emotive area of special educational needs that it is difficult to cut through them all and to get to the basis of good practice. There are the professional educationalists and politicians who see the area of special schools and inclusion in terms of a financial balance sheet. They plan for major savings by closing, reorganising and restructuring the system. Somehow they are persuaded that the children will benefit from these changes and, indeed, they are receptive to all ideas that fit in with this strategy.
There are the parents who have to come to terms with the trauma of a difficult birth and disabled child. They are vulnerable and need support. The concept of mainstream education for all is a very appealing one for some of these people who desire a vestige of normality for their children.
Some educational psychologists see the social benefits of integration as being paramount. They and their LEA colleagues feel that schools have a duty to provide SEN children within their classes, thus making such schools as caring establishments for all their pupils. Alas, the resources to do this often fall short of the idea. Several academics have found the inclusion theory worth supporting and, in making a case for this, have concentrated on the perceived benefits of this strategy.
Surrounding all of this is a cloud of emotion and rhetoric which turns the issue into a crusade for inclusion at all costs and poses those of us engaged in special education as being stuck in the past of locked wards and children who are shut away from society—perhaps a slight exaggeration, but not far from the truth. This crusade oversimplifies the issues and accuses anyone who is not a total inclusionist as being against any idea of inclusion. There does not seem to be any room for a middle view. This debate should not be about the persecution of special schools, it should be about what is right for the children who are unfortunate enough to have special educational needs, and also about what is right for the teachers and children in mainstream education.
I am going to attempt to strip away the layers of fog and look as objectively as I can at the facts. I hope to draw conclusions that make commonsense to everyone.
I am a deputy head of a school for children with severe learning difficulties and, perhaps, it is these children who present the strongest case for special schools and special education. Others, too, might benefit from this. There are those pupils who are violent and disruptive to a degree beyond usual antisocial behaviour. There are those with profound sensory losses who could well benefit from a period of intensive training to compensate for these losses and to prepare them for a chance of success in mainstream schools later on. A few children have delicate health and need specialist care in a protected environment. Some children on the autistic spectrum will find great difficulty coping with the organised chaos of a busy and productive classroom.
I am not against inclusion and I believe that those who can succeed in a mainstream environment should be there, with support as required. Indeed, some of our pupils have been included in mainstream. We have given them the confidence, the education and the social skills they need to leave. We see this as a success story for the school and for those pupils who have made the carefully organised transition to their local secondary school.
I want to start with schools such as ours, to consider this end of the inclusion debate and then to move to the mainstream.
As an aside, I have to say that an autonomous establishment like ours is much easier to run than a unit attached to another school. We are totally focused on the needs of our children and staff and the head has no dichotomy of funding, resources and timetabling to complicate his decisions. While units do have advantages for social inclusion—attendance at assemblies, communal dining—these outweighed by the shared budget and the lack of the whole-school approach to the children that we can offer. When we have a sporting success, the whole school cheers. That sporting event will have been possible because staff have selected pupils from the school to take part. Would the unit be included in such a way in an ordinary school? Would they have identified a sporting venue suitable for those children to compete in? Would the unit receive the same accolade and enthusiasm from other staff, pupils and parents for its homespun Christmas show, as ours does? Would they even be able to mount such an event? Units tend to be small affairs—we have the numbers to branch out and be adventurous.
We go to Austria skiing each winter. We represented Great Britain at the Disabled Winter Olympics in Alaska in 2001. Pupils go to the outward bound centre and staffing allows us to take a wide range of disabilities in safety. Our senior school has formed a limited company to market card, tee shirts and printed plates. Last year we won £5000 for the presentation from our board of directors describing our marketing strategy for our celebration cards. We won because we were the only school where pupils made the complete presentation without staff intervention. Hours of work went into this half-hour of glory.
Before getting back to the main integration debate, it would be useful to give a very brief outline of what we do—our strengths and our rationale. Most people know what takes place in an ordinary school, and to appreciate any inclusion argument it is important to have a balanced view of what is on offer.
We are an all-age family school, currently with 75 pupils. We know all children by their first names and, although there is a well defined disciplinary policy and behaviour code, we can relax with the pupils who see us as adult helpers and not teachers. They are anxious to succeed and to understand the complicated world they live in. They are so busy doing this that most deviant behaviour is caused by being unwell, frustrated attempts at communication, and problems out of school. We also have our share of naughtiness, but this is innocent and, usually, uncalculated. The strong hidden curriculum set by example, by friendly contact, by enthusiasm and patience means that the school runs without major incidents.
We have an open-door policy for parents and encourage them to see us as colleagues, rather than authoritarian figures. We form an extension of social services, while being careful not to let this interfere with our major teaching role. Other professionals are welcomed and we have access to speech, physio- and occupational therapists.
Our curriculum is a balance of traditional learning, social and self-help skills, life-skills (especially further up the school) and social integration with the local community. We can offer individual education programmes, one-to-one sessions and combined-class activities. We teach many skills that normal children assimilate naturally as they grow up. It is this social and behavioural curriculum that works for us, but which could fall down with a pupil and carer isolated in a mainstream class. Above all, we offer a climate for success and an umbrella to thrive. Our children are happy to come to school. They do not look over their shoulders at other children; this is their world. They can cope with it happily; they are not lost in the mainstream jungle which sends many children back to us at eleven, with failure stamped all over them. We have to restore their self-confidence and desire to succeed before we can continue to educate them.
All that has been written above, and a good deal more that could have been said, prepares the ground for some fundamental questions. Would it be a recognised truth that some children can never fit into a mainstream environment?
Take, for example, a child in my care, who is currently eleven. He functions at a six-month level, is often sick, is noisy and needs total adult support to survive. Here he has an intensive work programme of basic communication and self-help skills, supplied in an environment which is warm, stimulating and well used to body functions of all kinds. He has no place anywhere else in the educational hierarchy. Accept that he is correctly placed, and run the mind forward up the performance scale to the point where the grey area begins. Here are children who might cope in an ordinary school. Perhaps they need emotional support and some extra tuition and they can make it, perhaps they will succeed better with us. These are the most able pupils in our school. Those in between belong with us and will always need some adult guidance throughout life. Inclusion will strip away that parachute to which they cling and no amount of outreach and centres of excellence, that we might become in this idealised inclusion world, will bring that back. The pupils don’t feel disadvantaged in our school, so why should their parents feel so passionately about it? To be fair, most of our parents don’t, and we work well together.
Move now to mainstream. It is assumed that the school has a moral and statutory right to accept pupils with special educational needs. Let’s even accept that adequate funding is in place—a bit concept to swallow. Some pupils with special needs will integrate well; most pupils with profound and multiple or severe learning difficulties would not. By definition, they are at least three-to-four years behind their peers. The teacher has to do a huge differentiation exercise within the class to make any lesson remotely accessible to these pupils. Doesn’t he have enough to do in his classroom without diluting attention from the main class in front of him? Why should he or she have to learn new skills to accommodate special children, when he or she is an excellent practitioner in the job already? What right have the class to accept a diluted curriculum because they have to share their education with a child or two who need extra prompts? What right have we to expect the class to assume a caring role for one who does not belong there? Yes, it’s good social training, but at what cost? Who plays with them in the playground, and if they do, what happens to the natural rhythm of playground life?
Finally, move to life after school. Where will the mixture of special needs and normal people be? Probably the streets and restaurants, the shops and back gardens, cinemas and, maybe, the pub. Very few will mix in the workplace. There are none, currently, in our school who will ever take full-time employment in the accepted sense, though some of the most able might survive in a sheltered environment, with supervision.
In my view, social inclusion is mandatory to allow this meeting in public places to happen (even for the eleven-year-old I described earlier), without staring people.
I would like to see the inclusion debate calm to a level where rational decisions can be made without doctrinal and emotive overtones. Please accept that there are alternatives to inclusion which make common sense. A special school is not a prison where children are locked out of sight and made to look like idiots; and a mainstream school is not a place in which to artificially mix those who should not be mixed academically. Everyone deserves a place in society and where society meets, everyone is equal.