I was recently disturbed by a discussion I had with a colleague who has given forty years of her life to working with children described as having special educational needs. Early in her career she taught in a small school for children who had just left what at that time was known as a “long term mental subnormality hospital” where children had been labelled “mentally handicapped”. These children had for the most part known no home other than a hospital ward and their experiences outside of the high hospital walls were negligible. This teacher soon developed a reputation for her dedication to children who had been institutionalised, many of whom had developed stereotypical behaviours and through lack of opportunity had poor social and communication skills. Through her commitment and that of her colleagues, many of the children with whom she worked made great progress, learning the skills they required to leave school into employment and semi-independent living. Throughout her teaching life this dedicated teacher has made a determined effort to understand all that she can about how children learn and how to address the many obstacles that many of them have faced in their lives. She has gained additional qualifications and read widely around all aspects of special educational needs and has taken all the actions of an exemplary professional. In a few months’ time she will retire, but sadly she does so feeling devalued and unhappy about the way in which her service to children is now perceived.
When groups of teachers, researchers and policy makers gather together to discuss the development of inclusive schooling, nothing generates as much argument as the place of special schools in our societies. There are many committed “inclusionists” who see the existence of special schools as nothing less than an abomination and an affront to the dignity of children. Others, and I would include myself here, take a different line. I would suggest that this is a far more complex issue than that which is often painted in black and white, and that we need to spend more time examining why, even in those societies that claim to have become “fully inclusive”, special schools continue to play a role.
I think most teachers, like myself would agree that in an ideal society all children would attend their local school and learn alongside their neighbourhood peers. If we are committed to creating a more just society then children need to grow up learning to respect individuality and difference, and to recognise that everyone has their own needs and abilities. I firmly believe that this will be most readily achieved in inclusive schools. Furthermore, there is evidence to demonstrate that in inclusive schools, where teachers learn to address a range of learning needs and plan to ensure that all children have access to an appropriate curriculum, then levels of attainment and achievement rise and all learners benefit.
The case for inclusion has been well defined, so why do I feel so uncomfortable when I hear colleagues attacking our remaining special schools? Well, the truth of the matter is that there are children and young people who continue to be rejected by the majority of mainstream schools. In my own country exclusion rates remain too high, with children refused access to schools on the grounds that their behaviour is unacceptable or that their needs are so complex that they cannot be met without specialist facilities. Accepting that some schools try far harder than others to address these needs, are there underlying principles in respect of teaching these rejected pupils that we need to explore? Too often at present we need special schools to act as a safety net; a place where there are teachers who are willing to pick up those children who have been ejected from the mainstream system.
Whenever I visit special schools I find teachers and other professionals who are in every way as dedicated to their pupils as those who I see working in the mainstream. Furthermore, I often find that these teachers are as committed to inclusive schooling as others but are aware of the fact that the children with whom they work have not always been made welcome in a mainstream environment. I regularly visit the special school where the teacher I mentioned at the beginning of this posting works. The school provides for children with a range of needs, many with complex medical conditions and some with limited life expectancy who are taught by teachers who have committed themselves wholly to providing quality learning opportunities in their classes. Sadly my colleague tells me that she now feels like an educational pariah in some situations where others are discussing inclusion. Some teachers, including those who have never visited her school believe that in respect of inclusion she is a problem, not part of the solution. She finds this particularly distressing as she knows that some of her professional colleagues who work in mainstream schools would resist the admission of the children she works with into their classrooms, yet still feel able to criticise the enrolment of pupils into her school.
So, what is the solution here? I would suggest that some pupils need the best of both worlds. I don’t believe that it is right for any child to be denied access to their peers, but can see that some of our most vulnerable children need access to the specialist teaching and therapeutic approaches most commonly available at present in special schools. Surely the time has come for every special school to become part of the mainstream. Can we not create learning environments where specialist facilities are available for every child that needs them, but locate these in situations where pupils may freely move between those facilities most readily seen in the special school and the mainstream provision?
If we can blur the boundaries between mainstream and special schools through co-location of facilities and by making sure that all pupils have access to a curriculum that addresses their needs, then we will be taking a large step towards inclusion. As market forces increasingly dictate the kind of schools that are being advocated in our societies we are in danger of increasing the gap between special and mainstream provision. By creating a dialogue between special school teachers and their mainstream counterparts we can find common ground and also share expertise and experience for the benefit of all learners. At the same time we should ensure that those teachers who have opted to work with pupils who many others have chosen to reject, are respected for their commitment and professionalism. In this way we may all learn from each other.
I am saddened that my colleague is now seen as a problem when she is so willing to contribute to finding solutions.