Special Needs: How to get the best of both worlds

Special schools are joining mainstream partners to provide better care for their pupils.
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The Independent Online

Although it was dreamed up with the best of intentions, the educational mantra of inclusion has led to the closure of special schools and placed vulnerable children in mainstream schools ill-equipped to deal with their complex needs.

Now, however, after the original policy has failed to deliver even a basic education for many children - pupils with special needs account for two-thirds of school expulsions - and desperate parents have doggedly opposed school closures, there seems to be a better understanding of how to help children with special educational needs (SEN). Inclusion is still the official policy, but across the country there are many different models of what an inclusive education should look like.

Some schools in the London Borough of Ealing, for example, have received grants to work with the Lindamood-Bell Learning Centre, a private organisation that provides intensive one-on-one instruction for up to two months. While this may seem like the opposite of inclusion, it seems that this intensive intervention gives children with a range of learning disorders, from autism to dyslexia, the independence to return to the mainstream classroom.

There are many within the SEN community who are relieved the brake is being applied to school closures. "Some mainstream schools have a remarkable capacity to deal with some very complex educational and behavioural needs," says Richard Milligan, head of Beacon Hill, a school for children with severe learning disabilities in Essex. "But the picture is very patchy. Thankfully, it's now dawning on people that special schools are a valuable community resource."

Milligan's school was created two years ago from the amalgamation of two existing special schools. The LEA in Thurrock is now committing £28m to a co-location new build in the Thames Gateway. The site will house Beacon Hill and Tree Tops School, which specialises in autism and mild learning disabilities. The new two-school site, which will be ready by 2009, will share facilities, such as a respite care facility and hydrotherapy pool, and provide improved outreach services to local mainstream schools.

Increasingly, special schools are being paired with their mainstream counterparts. Earlier this year, a £37m "education village" opened in Darlington, bringing together an all-age special school with mainstream primary and secondary schools. And Suffolk County Council has recently given the go-ahead to build a new site for Thomas Wolsey School, which serves more than 90 pupils with complex physical needs, on the site of the existing Thurleston High School, a mile away.

Hazel Court School in Eastbourne and its mainstream twin, The Causeway School, joined forces in 1998 as the first purpose-built co-location school. They operate as separate entities, but come together when appropriate. They share each other's specialist areas, wear the same uniforms, come together at lunchtimes in the dining hall. Currently, about 50 per cent of Hazel Court pupils regularly attend lessons with their mainstream peers.

Head teacher Peter Gordon, himself the father of a son with profound learning disabilities, is something of an evangelist on the subject of co-location. "It's the best of both worlds," he says.

This model balances each SLD pupil's need for specialist teaching and facilities with immediate opportunities to access a mainstream setting. It also offers a safe haven when SLD pupils want to retreat from the mainstream school and, what's more, it's an opportunity for able children to learn about disability and difference. This, perhaps, is inclusion at its best.