LEADING ARTICLE:When children should be special

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The Independent Online
Picture a typical urban primary school. Thirty fidgety seven-year-olds are working together in small groups. One set is painting, another making electrical circuits. In the corner, the maths group is drawing right angles, while several children are working on a computer. The remainder are writing what happened to them over the weekend. The teacher moves around each group encouraging them. But nothing goes quite according to plan. One disturbed child is pouring glue over neighbours. Another keeps poking the other children and crawling under the desks. A third sits silently in the corner, will not take part in activities and cannot even make eye-to-eye contact. Several have reading difficulties and stare out of the window instead of writing their weekend diaries. The teacher struggles to carry the class, control the difficult ones, stimulate the quiet and help the slow pupils.

But it is an impossible task. One disruptive child is sent to a nearby room to cool off. There is no time or opportunity for the teacher to discover why another pupil refuses to speak. Nor has he or she had the chance to extend and enrich the educationaldiet of the ablest. The teacher completes the day dissatisfied, angry and regretful.

What he or she needs is proper support. Several of the children are living in bed-and-breakfast and are leading disoriented lives. Others are emotionally disturbed. Another is dyslexic. Yet requests for special needs support seem to have fallen on deaf ears as the teacher waits for the bureaucratic machine to grind away. Help requested two years previously for one pupil has only just materialised in the form of one-to-one reading support. But it is too late. The child is now being bullied as the class "thickie", hates school and may never catch up with his contemporaries.

This is an imaginary class, but many teachers and parents will recognise these scenes as typical of an education system that is failing to provide for the special needs of pupils. At some time in their careers, one in five children need particular attention. Yet provision is being further cut back as local authorities this year face one of their tightest ever spending squeezes.

The irony is that testing and league tables are making it easier to spot when schools fail pupils. But diagnosis is not being followed by a cure. As we report today, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities finds that schools are excluding more and more difficult pupils because they do not have the resources to provide proper support for them. Competition between schools means that difficult children are even more educationally unattractive than they used to be. Disruptive children, poorly supported,can wreck classes, damaging the performance of their classmates.

It is in the interests of all, not merely children with difficulties, that schools should cater for those with problems. This will require extra cash so that difficult children will come with a flow of resources that encourages schools to help, not exclude them. At present, as more special schools close each year, children requiring expert help are being absorbed into the mainstream on the cheap. The price of such neglect will be higher in the long run.