Unlocking everyone's potential

Children with special needs are increasingly being integrated into mainstream schools
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The Independent Online

Tring School in Hertfordshire has two children with Down's syndrome, one with cerebral palsy, a few with Asperger's syndrome and many with dyslexia or dyspraxia. "As the only state secondary school in the area, it is the natural choice for most families in town, including those with special educational needs," explains Julie Butters, the school's head of learning support.

Tring School in Hertfordshire has two children with Down's syndrome, one with cerebral palsy, a few with Asperger's syndrome and many with dyslexia or dyspraxia. "As the only state secondary school in the area, it is the natural choice for most families in town, including those with special educational needs," explains Julie Butters, the school's head of learning support.

It is among the growing number of Britain's schools that embraces the principle of inclusion so that children with special educational needs (SEN) can fulfil their academic potential, and develop physically and socially, by being educated alongside their peers. This is achieved, says Butters, through preparation and being inventive. "Rather than debating whether a particular child may slot into our school, we turn it around. We say, 'This child wants to come to our school, so what can we do to meet their needs?' We start this process from the moment we know that a child with special educational needs, currently in primary school, is likely to move on into our school."

Successful strategies include a scheme called "Circle of Friends", which encourages volunteers to play with isolated children; computer games clubs to occupy pupils with Asperger's syndrome (a "high-functioning" form of autism); and the provision of Braille translations of class material where it is needed.

The Government's aim is to increase the number of schools like this. Indeed, "Removing Barriers to Achievement", published earlier this year, is its long-awaited strategy document for teaching children with SEN whenever possible within the mainstream. The goal, according to education secretary Charles Clarke, is to "unlock the potential of the many children who have difficulty learning, but whose life chances depend on a good education".

The strategy has been broadly welcomed - not least because as many as one-quarter of all pupils are now judged to have a physical, mental or emotional impairment entitling them to extra classroom help. In the past, many such children often found themselves described as "maladjusted" or "subnormal" and were sent to separate schools. Increasingly, they can expect to be taught in ordinary classrooms of mainstream primary and secondary schools.

"Schools have been moving towards an ethos of community responsibility for some time and so staff working in schools largely support the recent policy changes," says Chris Darlington, director of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN), the main lobby group in the field. He adds that most parents don't want to see their children unnecessarily segregated. "Removing Barriers" is, he says, an important part of rolling legislation around SEN that started with the 1981 Education Act. This Act obliterated the 11 categories of mental and physical disability that previously justified children going to separate schools and said instead that pupils should be integrated into ordinary schools, getting extra help as a result of a generic "special educational need". Many hundreds of the former specialist institutions have since closed down.

Twenty years later, the Government has sought to strengthen the move towards inclusion further still with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA), which had three major effects. The first was to limit the ground on which a school or local education authority could turn away an SEN child, and the second was to make sure that all pupils got the same social, as well as educational, treatment in school. The third effect, and probably the most far reaching, was the requirement for schools and local authorities to plan not only for the current range of pupils in their care, but for future generations with special educational needs.

"SENDA was important because it formalised the rights and entitlements for children with special educational needs, as well as sending out very clear messages about schools' responsibilities," says Darlington. "No longer could schools just say, 'We can't take this child', and that applies not just to physical disabilities but to everything from dyslexia to ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). A number of schools that have refused to do this, or who have taken such children in but not met their needs, have been taken to account in court."

What the "Removing Barriers" strategy has done, he says, is to give the inclusion agenda even more clarity and seek to address some of the major problems currently being faced by children with SEN, their parents, schools and local authorities.

Darlington describes the situation as a "postcode lottery" and welcomes the Government's promise to seek solutions. "I spend a lot of time talking to frustrated parents about the fact that getting a good deal for their child depends on where they live," he says.

He believes one cause is the significant discrepancy over what one local authority considers to be a SEN compared with another. Then there is the question of varying resources. "We are also living with the legacy of many local authorities who misunderstood the Government's agenda on inclusion - they responded by closing down many special schools. Whilst the Government supports inclusion, it has never supported getting rid of all special schools."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers (NUT), agrees. "I applaud the Government's acceptance that inclusion doesn't have to be an either/or situation when it comes to the mainstream-versus-special-schools debate," he says. "The 'Removing Barriers' document is particularly exciting because it outlines a genuine third way where there is room for both, and it's a sensible third way. It acknowledges the need for a collection of provisions to meet individual children's needs, but that where children do need to attend a special school there must be close links so that children are never completely isolated."

The partnership between the 85-pupil Marjorie McClure School for the disabled in Bromley, Kent, and its mainstream neighbour - the 1,800-strong Coopers Technology College - is one example. Although fiercely protective of its "special" status and rejecting of the belief that all such schools should eventually be integrated into mainstream education, McClure also accepts that its close relationship with Coopers benefits pupils enormously. "As a special school, we are well resourced and have excellent specialist teachers and facilities to offer. Combined with the fact that many pupils spend much of the day learning alongside their able-bodied contemporaries at Coopers, we consider ourselves very fortunate," says headteacher Dr Jeff Wardle.

Dr Ivan Tucker, principal of Mary Hare, the national grammar school for deaf children near Newbury, Berkshire, also supports increasing links between special and mainstream schools. "We ensure that all our youngsters have opportunities to do a variety of things with those in mainstream education, including sport, music, dance and drama," he says.

But like McClure, Dr Tucker is proud that the school is "special". "In primary schools, inclusion of children with hearing loss is easier because there is one teacher who can get to know each child well and classrooms are often carpeted," he says. "But when they go to secondary school, they suddenly have eight to 10 different teachers whose focus is more on teaching the subject than the individual child. In addition, there is hardly a secondary school around that meets the Government's requirements for educating children with deafness in terms of acoustics. Both these factors make it difficult for youngsters with hearing loss to reach their full potential."

Another problem addressed by the Government's latest SEN strategy is related to performance tables. Until now, Sats results below the national average have been cited as proof of poor performance in schools. But the Government has promised changes to the performance tables to give schools credit for the achievement of all pupils, including those with special educational needs. Ofsted, too, will be putting inclusion centre-stage by publishing judgements on schools' inclusiveness in performance tables.

Not all aspects of the Government's inclusion policy have been greeted with delight, however. Darlington says: "We contributed significantly to the early debate around the 'Removing Barriers' document and it is clearly an ambitious programme. But it didn't take into account as much as we would have liked the issue of interpersonal and social skills development. It's often that dimension of a child that is the greatest area of need and the one that can stop a child being included in mainstream schools. So while we were pleased with the main thrust of the document, we believe some of the detail needs further work."

Meanwhile, Richard Rieser, a prominent member of the NUT and head of the Disability Equality in Education pressure group, believes that the Government's agenda doesn't go anywhere near far enough. "The 'Removing Barriers' strategy means we have come a lot nearer to achieving inclusion than a year ago, but we would like to see all special schools closed by 2020," he says. "If we continue to endorse special schools, as the Government is doing, there could be future generations of kids who will continue to have their lives ruined. Just look at the number of children who have been through mainstream schools who are now going on to do degrees - children with Down's syndrome, for instance, who in the past would have been segregated and lucky to get basic qualifications."

Currently working on a project for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), Rieser is filming in 50 schools around the country to show how they are meeting the challenge of the 2002 Disability Discrimination Act.

On the other hand, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has called for more special schools to be built, warning that efforts to integrate children with physical and mental disabilities to those with behavioural problems has gone too far. "The ideal of inclusive schools is a fallacy which betrays the majority of pupils and parents," says Chris Keates, acting general secretary. Teachers view the trend towards greater inclusion with cynicism, she warns, regarding it as a backdoor cost-cutting measure because mainstream schools are not given essential resources needed to deal with children's needs.

Beyond this debate, even schools that do meet government requirements of inclusion are often left feeling confused. The Ripple School, a small village school near Deal in Kent, which prides itself on never having turned away a child because of a disability, is under threat of being closed down by Kent county council, largely because of funding. "It's a shame because all our children benefit from inclusion," says headteacher Sue Hope. "They grow up accepting that individuals have different needs. It helps them become socially responsible, which is good preparation for life."