Echoes of bad old days

There was an air of smug superiority in the right-wing press last
week when Baroness Warnock announced her volte-face on the merits
of special schools.

It was her committee that, during the 1970s, put forward the then
revolutionary idea that it would be better to educate disabled
children and children with learning difficulties in mainstream
schools. It fitted well with the wider shift away from
institutional settings and the bureaucratic interest in herding
together everyone with distinct sets of needs. The closure of the
long-stay hospitals, a process begun more than 40 years ago and
going on to this day, can be seen in a similar light. The theory
was – and still is – that people should be entitled to ordinary
lives, enjoying the support necessary to live, learn and work with
everybody else.

As a way of taking the stigma out of the care system the theory
made sense. But it has often failed to work out like that, hence
Mary Warnock’s much publicised retreat. The inclusion of special
needs children in standard classrooms has sometimes stretched
schools to breaking point, damaging the prospects both of these
children and of their peers. Statementing has been used by local
education authorities more as a weapon to resist meeting children’s
needs than as a means of providing for them.

Similarly, the experience of care in the community for some
long-stay hospital dwellers has often been less a liberation than a
casting into outer darkness. The alternative to institutional life
has not been integration into the mainstream but isolation,
loneliness and neglect.

It was never thought that this assimilation would happen by magic,
though the various agencies have often stood by as if waiting for a
miracle. But Warnock goes too far in repudiating past errors and
wholeheartedly embracing special schools after all.

It wasn’t so much the theory that she got wrong all those years
ago, it was the practice that followed which was at fault. Rather
than the hostile communities that usually lay beyond the
institutional gates, it would have been better if more effective
mechanisms and networks of support had been in place: proper
support in communities, proper support in schools, proper support
in workplaces.

The government’s Supporting People programme was a step in the
right direction. It funds a range of housing support for vulnerable
groups and such was the need for it when it was launched two years
ago that costs spiralled from the original estimate of between
£300m and £500m to £1.8bn. But instead of seeing
this as a healthy expression of desire for the independence,
well-being and choice envisaged by the adult green paper, the
government plans to wield the axe.

If the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister steers the funding away
from community care projects, it will be making a grave mistake.
The newly styled minister of communities, David Miliband, must live
up to the promise of his title as he reviews the future of the

But the government’s attitude is part of a malaise which is still
far too common in the public sector. In the same spirit as the
green paper the Valuing People white paper spoke of independence,
inclusion, choice and rights for people with learning difficulties.
Yet long-stay hospitals continue to be replaced with privately run
institutions that may look more modern but share substantially the
same ethos.

How much easier to herd everyone into the same pen than rise to the
challenge of independence and inclusion. “There are problems in
mixing everyone together,” Warnock now says. That may be, but going
back to the bad old days is no solution.

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