Let’s make the mainstream school special


School Jayanagar Bangalore

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.

5 thoughts on “Let’s make the mainstream school special

  1. Richard, it is good to see that you are continuously creating a facility for an interesting discussion around the placing of children with special educational needs. Here in Kerala, what i am firming now that the use of terminology like ‘mentally retarded’ is very strong (40 years ago in England according to your description) since my association with Centre for Disabilities Studies Kerala, and people have not seen yet this is a more of the view of something wrong within the child. However, on the discussion of placement for the children with special educational needs, I heard that the Government of Kerala is conducting a survey to evaluate the effectiveness of placing children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. It is because many teachers in Kerala are complaining about their lack of efficiency, difficulties for ‘other’ children and parents’s pressures etc…I think you are right to say that children should be educated with their neighbourhood peers. Here again in Keralan context, there are issues of parent’s choices of their children’s school, meaning that influential (financially and socially) parents are not interested in the concept of neighbourhood schooling-so educationists and passionate teachers have to make a tremendous effort in this regard in the context of Kerala

  2. Hi Johnson,
    The issue of language is an interesting one and has many cultural connotations. One of the safeguards here is to use language that individuals themselves are comfortable with and consulting them at every stage.
    I think the point you make about choice of schooling and where the power lies is important. There are certainly influential groups – including parents who act as gatekeepers and prevent the development of more inclusive schools. This is a theme to which I will give some thought and maybe discuss further in a later posting.

  3. Hi Richard
    It’s not about special schools- it’s about the context.Your colleague’s service of forty years in a special school is extremely valuable – she has been amongst the first few educators who entered the field and worked on something that really needed to be done four decades ago. It was because of educators like her that institutionalised children and young adults got a chance to get out ,learn new skills and and transition / join the mainstream through employment – Special schools were actually the first step towards inclusion and if it weren’t for educators like her, children with disabilities would still be hidden behind walls- be it institutions, hospitals or homes.
    “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.” That’s true.”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” That’s also true to an extent.
    For me, it’s not about attacking special schools and wanting them to be shut down. Inclusive education expects general educators to reflect on their current exclusionary practices and move towards inclusion. Inclusive education also expects the same from special educators and special schools -to reflect on their current systems ,beliefs and practices – the best of intentions are not always translated into best practices.
    I envisage a place for special schools in the future…but taking on a very different role and with an additional set of skills …in fact that’s my current area of interest.
    It’s interesting to note that your colleague feels like a pariah….because as an inclusive educator I feel the same….unable to identify myself with either sector-special or general!

  4. Hi Kanwal,
    Your comments are very interesting. The fact that you also feel under attack but because of your commitment inclusion, wheras my colleague feels the same because of her association with special schoolsis perhaps a reflection on the differing contexts in India and England. You are right to say that specialschools actually played a part in the route towards inclusion. They were the schools that first took in pupils who had been described as ineducable. Like you I feel that the contribution my colleague has made needs to be recognised in relation to the situation of the forty years of her career. I hope that in years to come this will be recognised.

  5. The problem will cease to be a problem when the compartmentalization ceases. Why should there be labeling as mainstream, inclusive, special. I do not understand mainstream. For me education can only be inclusive. If there is an exception of children in a particular environment, then that is not education. Special schools have come into being because there were no schools for these children, so if they had to learn, someone had to take them in. Recently, we went on a field trip to Lalbagh with children in our SEN programme. I posted the photos on facebook and was glad to see “like” from parents of typically developing children for the photos. I realised that it is possible to get through to people, it only takes time. At the same time, a parent of Pramiti is opening a school. When asked if she would take in children with special needs, she said a firm No. She has taken a place on the parallel road as us and she called me to tell me that we are not competing, we can help each other by sending children to each other. So, I was happy, I finally could send those children who are on the “waiting list” to her. She immediately said that she would welcome typically developing children who are sent but not children with special needs. Unfortunate, I do not have a waiting list of typically developing children yet!
    With attitudes like these how are we going to be able to spread inclusive education. Without an inclusive attitude and realization, special schools have to be alive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *