Best in class?

Should children with special educational needs go to mainstream or
special school? This question always provokes strong opinions, but
over recent months the debate has raged with renewed vigour. Why?
Because Baroness Mary Warnock, the pioneer of inclusive education,
appears to have had a change of heart over its merits.

Warnock recently wrote that it is time for a radical review of
education policy.(1) She proposes that instead of inclusion by
having all children on the same premises there should be inclusion
by learning – in other words, including all children in education
by helping them to learn in whatever environment is best for them,
which is not necessarily side-by-side in the same classroom. She
suggests that some children, such as those with autism, fare better
in separate institutions, and recommends setting up smaller,
specialist schools.

This flies in the face of current education policy and brings it
almost full circle – ironic, given that Warnock chaired the 1974
committee that led to more inclusive legislation via the Education
Act 1981.

Since the 1974 act, the direction of policy has been clear. Under
the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, children
with SEN have a right to a place in mainstream school, and schools
can only refuse to accept them if they can prove that the education
of other children will suffer.

Last year, the government published Removing Barriers to
, its long-term education strategy for children
with SEN, which included plans to educate more children with SEN in
mainstream schools.(2)

And last December, under its Specialist Schools programme, the
government selected 12 trailblazer special schools to take up a new
specialism in SEN and share their expertise, particularly with
mainstream schools, to support inclusion.

But despite these developments, a recent report has questioned
local education authorities’ commitment to inclusion. The report
from the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education finds that in
England, little progress towards inclusion was made during 2002-4.
The percentage of 0-19 year-olds placed in special schools and
other segregated settings fell only slightly, from 0.84 per cent in
2002 to 0.82 per cent in 2004 – a difference of 2,109

In addition, the report revealed wide geographic variation – pupils
in South Tyneside, where 1.46 per cent of pupils were segregated in
2004, were 24 times more likely to be placed in special schools
than pupils in the London Borough of Newham, where the percentage
was 0.06. Newham has actively pursued a policy of inclusion since
the early 1980s. South Tyneside says that the figures are skewed as
they took into account a pilot programme involving 20 mainstream
pupils who spent time in a special school, doubly counted some
pupils because of a change in data system, and included pupils who
are registered at both mainstream and special schools.

Whatever the situation in individual authorities, figures alone
seldom tell the whole story. Knowing which settings children are
placed in does not give any indication as to how well they are
getting on and just because a child is in mainstream education it
does not necessarily follow that they are automatically being

Issues such as these are likely to be central to the forthcoming
House of Commons education and skills committee inquiry into SEN,
due to begin in October. But whatever it uncovers will be too late
for the parents of children starting school this term: they have
already had to weigh up the pros and cons of mainstream versus
special school.

(1) Mary Warnock, Special Educational Needs: a New Look,
Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, 2005
(2) Removing Barriers to Achievement, Department for
Education and Skills, 2004
(3) Segregation Trends – LEAs in England 2002-4, Centre
for Studies on Inclusive Education, 2005

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