Leading article: A more enlightened approach

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's report on the effects of the Government's inclusion policies offers further powerful evidence of the damage caused by a blinkered approach to the education of children with special needs. The report, published by the National Union of Teachers, reveals teaching staff having to undertake all manner of duties for which they are untrained and ill-equipped. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to say, as has the union's general secretary, that youngsters in classes where their needs are not catered for suffer a form of child abuse.

Belatedly, the Government is adopting a more enlightened approach than in its early days, when a fiercely pro-inclusion agenda was driven by the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett. Legislation stipulated it was the right of any child to be taught in a mainstream school. Fair enough - but it was accompanied by an over-zealous approach to special schools, which led to scores of closures and the dispersal of expertise. As a result, Baroness Warnock, whose own inquiry pioneered inclusion nearly 30 years ago, recently condemned the legacy of such a dogmatic approach.

Several generations of children, among them thousands of those most in need of state care, have been failed by education zealots. Thankfully, opinion is changing. The new attitude was neatly illustrated by a resolution passed by the National Association of Head Teachers earlier this month, which said it was the right of any child to have his or her special needs addressed in a special school.

The simple truth is that there should be an array of solutions on offer, depending on circumstances and the wishes of parents. Some mainstream schools have had remarkable success in integrating children with a range of disabilities. Others are less successful. Additionally, given the high costs of special needs education, it remains a postcode lottery and is, too often, driven by financial rather than educational considerations.

The more rational approach now emerging owes something to the stance taken by David Cameron, both as Opposition education spokesman and as Conservative leader. The Government's belated pledge not to close any more special schools and its embrace of "whatever works" is a healthy change from previous orthodoxy. It must, however, follow these warm words with policy reforms and hard cash, especially given the rising number of children born with severe special needs.

Where inclusion works, it benefits all children, both with special needs and without. But there are children for whom this approach does not work. Hopefully, both national and local government will heed the lesson of their failures on this front in recent years.