Can mainstream schools cope with children who have special needs?

For those who had long campaigned for greater inclusion of
children with special needs and disabilities in mainstream
education, the legislation which took effect from September to
eliminate discrimination on those grounds was long overdue.

Three months on, it is too early to judge what impact the Special
Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 has had, but a report
released last week by the Audit Commission suggests that many
mainstream schools are ill-prepared for an increase in students
with SEN or a disability.

Although over two-thirds of children with special educational needs
attend mainstream schools, the report says that many of them face
barriers within them and are often excluded from certain lessons
and social activities.

It adds that many schools are deterred from accepting students with
SEN because they fear that they will affect their position in the
league tables.

Sir Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, says that
league tables “weaken schools’ commitment to working with pupils
with SEN – for fear they will drag down their position”.

Caroline Cooke, research and public policy officer at mental health
charity Scope, believes the report “highlights the tension that
exists in the government’s agenda”. She adds: “It is promoting the
policy of inclusion at the same time as failing to value anything
other than the achievement of academic targets”.

Unsurprisingly, the National Union of Teachers’ head of education
John Bangs supports the criticism made of league tables and
welcomes the report’s recommendation that the government introduce
new systems for recognising schools’ work on SEN by raising its
profile in school inspections.

Chief executive of the General Teaching Council Carol Adams agrees:
“League tables do a disservice to schools. Many children with
special needs perhaps achieve little in measurable terms but an
enormous amount for them. We need something which is a more
sensitive measure of progress.”

Lack of incentives for schools to accept more children with SEN is,
however, not the only problem facing schools, with the report also
calling for “sustained investment in staff skills and schools

One in five children in England and Wales – 1.9 million children –
have special educational needs, meaning that every teacher is
likely to have more than one child with a special need in their

President of the National Association of Teachers in Further and
Higher Education Gerard Kelly says greater inclusion of children
with special needs will require a “sea change in teaching
approaches” within the profession, adding that training will be

The Department for Education and Skills has also recognised this
and allocated £30m to train England’s 450,000 teachers to deal
with children with special needs.

But both the National Union of Teachers and the General Teaching
Council believe that the money is not nearly enough.

“There is a problem with releasing teachers for training because of
shortages. You need people to cover, and that costs. You also need
to have enough permanent people in post to deal with going to
meetings where kids have statements,” Bangs says.

He adds that the money will have to stretch to provide initial
training for all teachers as well as ongoing training in order to
deal with the myriad of disorders that can be classified as special

Adams also acknowledges these problems, and believes that each
school should have a share of the fund to spend on a mixed package
of training for teachers.

Some types of special needs are highlighted within the report,
particularly autism spectrum disorders. Last year in Wales it was
estimated that the number of children with an autism disorder had
risen by 124 per cent.

Steve Broach, policy and campaigns manager for the National
Autistic Society, says that he would like to see some of the
£30m ring-fenced specifically for training in how to teach
children with autism.

Research carried out by the organisation found that 72 per cent of
teachers felt that teachers were not highly trained enough to deal
with children with autism who, he says, have a very different way
of learning from other children.

Many such children do not understand rhetorical speech and are
unable to work in a group. Teachers have to be able to deal with
this as well as teach the rest of the class.

He says that teachers often lack understanding of autism and many
children with the disorder are excluded because there are deemed
disruptive. After literacy issues, autism results in the second
largest number of tribunal cases brought by parents against local
education authorities.

Gerry German, director of the charity the Community Empowerment
Fund, which represents children who have been excluded from
schools, says many of his clients have special educational needs.
“Despite the good intentions, children with special needs are being
short-changed by the system,” he says.

He adds that the government’s movement away from comprehensives to
specialist schools will pit them against each other and increase
the need for them to select the most able pupils, which will lead
to more students with special needs being rejected.

Increasing support for teachers is vital if schools are to fulfil
their duties under the new act, as is improving not just the
relationship between local education authorities and schools but
with social services and health as well.

The importance of joint working is also highlighted in the report
and many believe that the effectiveness of the act hinges on the
relationship between social services and schools.

Philippa Russell, director of the Council of Disabled Children,
says that good multi-agency working will be key not only for
children with special needs but also those who have medical
problems, especially as diabetes is growing among young

Broach agrees: “This is a real problem. While LEAs share
responsibility for implementing the act, it is social services that
are supposed to fund speech therapists and many other supportive

He adds that speech therapy is a “very undervalued profession and
there should be a drive to increase the number [of therapists]”
because many councils do not have enough.

Strengthening joint working between social services and schools can
only be done if more time is made available to teachers, Bangs

For Adams the key is also more time. She believes that teachers can
always benefit from support from social services but acknowledges
that social workers, who are also under pressure, will often not
have time to attend school-based multi-agency meetings.

“Teachers are under an enormous amount of strain,” she says. “By
nature they do have an inclusive attitude towards all children. But
there are huge problems in terms of bad behaviour. Schools are
feeling very overwhelmed. More time, opportunities and resources
are needed.”

“Special Educational Needs: A Mainstream Issue” is available from


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