How Special?

Graham Barton tried very hard to settle his autistic daughter in
mainstream education, but eventually he had to give up. “My child’s
special needs were such that the school could not cope with them
and my child could not cope with the school,” says Barton, who is
also chair of the Gloucestershire Special Schools Protection
League. “My child’s education, social well-being and confidence
suffered and that was in a good mainstream provision.”

Despite this, Barton believes that the government’s policy of
integrating as many children with special educational needs (SEN)
as possible into mainstream education is a good one – as long as
there is alternative provision, should the child need it. “I firmly
believe in the concept of inclusion and that all children have the
right to mainstream education. However, if mainstream education
isn’t right for the child then there must be some other provision
that suits them.”

A recent Ofsted report claims that the government’s policy isn’t
working.(1) The report finds that there is little change in the
proportion of children with SEN in mainstream schools or
improvements in the provision for their needs. Only a minority of
mainstream schools are providing for special needs very well,
although there is an increase in the awareness of the issues, with
some schools improving their practices.

Most schools say they are committed to special needs provision. Yet
Ofsted inspectors report that few schools evaluate their provision
systematically, the quality of teaching is variable and that many
schools are unable to fully involve pupils with SENin school life
and help them fulfil their potential.

The admission, teaching and retention of pupils with social and
behavioural difficulties is highlighted as a particular problem and
there has been an increase in the number of children placed in
pupil referral units and independent special schools. Children with
behavioural difficulties are seen as the biggest test of the
inclusion framework, particularly as some head teachers are
reluctant to accept children who have already attended other
mainstream schools without success.

What annoys John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, about the
Ofsted report is that he thinks it unfairly blames teachers for the
situation. “It looked like a bit of a blame culture”, he says,
adding that the report implies that teachers are preventing the new
forms of inclusion from being successful. “That is not our
experience at all,” he says.

He also feels that Ofsted missed the point of what the government
is trying to achieve. “I thought it was out of step with policy as
the government’s strategy makes it clear that there is a future for
special schools.”

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 states that
every child with SEN has the right to attend mainstream schooling
and be helped to fully participate in all aspects of school life.
But the government recommends schooling in a specialist environment
if their parents choose, or if mainstream schooling is incompatible
with “efficient education for other children” and there are no
reasonable steps that the school and local education authority can
take to overcome that incompatibility.

Like Barton, Bangs believes in the principles of inclusion and that
the government’s policy is a good one, but thinks there is still
much to be done to successfully implement it. He agrees that some
schools are struggling to cope with SEN children with behavioural
difficulties, and thinks teachers should not be put in the position
where their ability to teach an entire class is impaired by having
one or more SEN pupils displaying disruptive behaviour. “Some of
these children destroy the learning of others,” he says.

Primary school teacher Susan Morris* couldn’t agree more. Having
taught a class of 18 year one children, half of whom were on the
special needs register and four with very specific needs, she says
she was unable to give any of the children the education they
deserved. “I agree with the idea of inclusion in mainstream
education, but it’s not working in reality. People like me find
themselves with children in their class with very particular needs
and no real training in how to deal with them. The training often
doesn’t happen until you have that child and it’s too late by then
and the education of the whole class has been disrupted.”

Last year, Morris taught a child with Asperger’s syndrome who
presented particular problems. She only received appropriate
training two-thirds of the way through the academic year. “The
training was about building relationships with the child, but it
was almost the end of the year when the child was soon to move

But in her previous school, Morris had a more positive experience
of inclusive education. She says that was because the school had
sufficient resources to cope.

Lack of proper government funding is where the real problem lies,
according to Bangs. He cites a lack of funding for training, staff,
resources and even for proper disability access. He also claims the
government’s inclusive policy conflicts with the many other targets
schools are now supposed to meet and the conditions under which
teachers are expected to work. “Large class sizes, benchmarks,
league tables and the current curriculum all undermine

Barton agrees that there is a clash of priorities for schools but
believes that it is because schools are primarily concerned with
their positioning in the league tables. While schools may say they
are keen to be inclusive, they don’t want to be seen as too
inclusive, he adds.

The Gloucestershire Special Schools Protection League, formed
primarily by parents of children with SEN who are fighting against
council plans to close most special schools, tried to get one of
three local schools to have a special needs centre built on their
campus. After discussing the proposal, the three head teachers
responded that either they would all have an attached special
centre or none of them would. “They said it was because they didn’t
want to be labelled, which goes to the core of how honest people
are about being inclusive,” says Barton. “A lot of schools are keen
to specialise in A, B and C, but not in special needs.” He says
there should be many more specialist centres attached to mainstream
schools, for those children who do not suit full mainstream
education but would thrive in a partially integrated setting. The
government is also in favour of this.

The Ofsted report found, however, that partnership work between
mainstream and special schools is the exception rather than the
rule. This may change as many local education authorities are
reviewing special schools provision and some plan to locate them on
mainstream sites.

The consensus is that the government is right to push for better
SEN provision in all types of schooling, whether it is mainstream,
a special school or a partially integrated school. But there is a
long way to go. The main thing, Barton says, is that all children
can receive the education they need, as his daughter does now. “For
the first time ever, we have a child happy to go to school and
thriving,” he says. “That is absolutely down to the fact that she
is in a special school environment where she can get on.”

* Name has been changed

(1) Ofsted, Special Educational Needs and Disability: Towards
Inclusive Schools, October 2004


The Mainstream Cannot Cope   

Amanda Batten, the National Autistic Society’s policy and
campaigns officer for children, argues in favour of specialist

  “Given an estimated prevalence rate for autism of one in 110,
all schools need to have the expertise, resources, training and
specialist support to meet the needs of these children. The Ofsted
report makes clear that where training and resource needs are not
met, the principle of inclusion is undermined. The importance of
training cannot be overstated. The National Autistic Society (NAS)
carried out research in 2002 that found that 72 per cent of schools
are dissatisfied with the level of teachers’ autism training.  

“Autism is a spectrum disorder so every child has different
needs and abilities. The pupil’s individual needs should be the
starting point for decisions on school placement and support.
Ofsted identifies that special schools, such as those run by the
NAS, contain a wealth of skills and expertise, but that partnership
working between mainstream and special schools is underdeveloped.
We believe that special schools have a key role to play in
educating children with complex needs, and supporting more
effective inclusion in mainstream schools.  

“The most alarming finding of Ofsted’s report is the systematic
lack of monitoring concerning the progress, provision and outcomes
of children with SEN in schools. Given this lack of accountability,
the NAS questions the saliency of government policy to increase the
delegation of funds directly to schools and reduce reliance on
statements. Delegated funding impacts directly on resources
retained centrally to support children with complex SEN through
statements and specialist support services.  

“Genuine inclusion requires real understanding of an individual
child’s needs. Training is key, but there is a long way to go. In
the meantime, local policies that risk erosion of specialist
support services for schools, and make it more difficult for
children with complex SEN to access the ringfenced support
currently outlined in a statement, are unlikely to bolster parental
confidence in mainstream education”.

Policy Contradicts Itself

Mark Vaughan, founder and co-director of the independent Centre
for Studies on Inclusive Education, argues in favour of inclusive

“Ofsted reports that the government’s framework on inclusion has
had ‘little effect’ on actual numbers of children with special
educational needs in mainstream education. This is hardly
surprising given the ambiguous and contradictory messages ministers
have given in recent years.  

“In many areas, inclusive education has progressed in spite of,
not because of, government policies, which since 1997 have called
for a permanent role for special schools alongside the development
of inclusion.  

“The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 brought
in a long-overdue strengthening of the right of SEN children to
attend mainstream school and the revised Code of Practice of 2002
said that SEN children would ‘normally’ be educated in the ordinary
sector. But the most recent document from the Department for
Education and Skills, Removing Barriers to Achievement, is a
favourable response to the special school lobby by the former
minister Cathy Ashton and calls for a re-invigorated role for
special schools in perpetuity. A confusing contradiction.  

“The Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education supports the
restructuring of all mainstream schools in order to develop
inclusive settings for 100 per cent of pupils and the gradual
closure of special schools. It bases this approach on children’s
rights principles that were first articulated by the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.  

“But the UK has a problem with endorsing human rights principles
and the education service is no exception in largely rejecting
inclusion as a rights issue. If the social model of disability were
considered the norm, then the care and education of SEN children
would be a radically different story – and a much healthier

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