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End the Stigma – Pronto! Vivace!

May 27th, 2011

To sell the idea of mainstream education to parents of children with special needs under the banner of ‘inclusion’, they (politicians, mandarins, academics, with the media believing them) had to ‘do down’ special schools. They had, in a word, to stigmatise them. They described special schools as ‘segregation’, ie not treating kids like ‘normal’  kids. I even heard them describe the school I was a governor of as a ‘ghetto’. I know what a ghetto is, and ghetto it was not. They described ‘segregation’ as a denial of human rights. I have argued elsewhere that ‘a right  without a benefit is no great ‘right’.

Yes, I am sure that there were some bad special schools, just as there are bad mainstream schools. I was fortunate enough to see with my own eyes a very, very good one.

There is the episode of the parent demanding mainstream education for his child from David Cameron; TV reports implying that governments get it wrong if they don’t provide it on request.

Another illustration - an article in The Times on Tuesday May 24 reported a remarkable story about Lewis Hamilton’s brother, Nicholas. He is himself ‘on track for a racing career, despite cerebral palsy.’ It was a great story and a great human achievement.  In the press report, Dad is quoted as saying “If you have disabled kids don’t put them in a special school – put them in a normal one. If they can’t cope then make other provisions but give them a chance.”

I wouldn’t know what “other provisions” he has in mind – but don’t send your child to a special school? What outrageous nonsense! What a gratuitous slight on all those wonderfully dedicated teachers and carers who work in special schools.

That is how the process of stigmatising works, and The Times is as gullible as anyone in publishing it.

Mr. Hamilton, teachers tell me that they are finding parents saying that LEA’s raised their hopes that their children could be educated in ‘normal’ schools only to find, when they arrived, that they are bullied, find it difficult to make friends and excluded in an inclusive environment, just handed over to classroom assistants. Meanwhile teachers themselves can’t cope.

It is not as though Nicholas Hamilton himself didn’t have to tough it out. He himself was bullied and in bold print Nicholas himself says ‘People have no idea of the effort I’ve had to get here.’

Not all children with special needs have the same edge as the Hamiltons. Some are much more vulnerable. I have just read the latest truancy figures, still on the rise. I wonder how many of these children have been bullied in mainstream schools and that is why their parents don’t force them to go to school? Statisticians never seem to pose this question and the media never ask them to.

Yes, trumpet the success of mainstream schools in educating children with special needs, ie the ones that survive and thrive. I know that there’s some great work going on there. But don’t project narrow, singular experience for everyone else in ignorance of their needs, in ignorance of the provision that can be made to meet those needs elsewhere, and don’t stigmatise special schools in the process.

The good news is that the Government has at long last seen the light. The recent Green Paper issued by the Department for Education wants to ‘end the bias towards inclusion’.

In response to the letter in the Guardian on Saturday 12th March 2011 about the SEN Green Paper by an eminent group of professors, Minister Sarah Teather MP wrote a trenchant reply:

‘I was very disappointed to read the misrepresentation of the Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs and disabilities. (Letters p.41 Saturday 12th March) The suggestion that Government is trying to make children with complex needs ‘earn’ a place in a mainstream school is both offensive and inaccurate. At the heart of the Green Paper is the importance of parental choice. Parents know what type of education they want for their child and they should be allowed to decide if that is a mainstream or special school, academy or free school. At no point do we suggest that one form of schooling is better or preferable for children with additional or complex needs – this is about parental choice, not the ideologically driven idea that the state knows best.’

The academics Sarah Teather is referring to are the people who don’t want parents to have that choice because they continue to assert that inclusion is ‘a socially just and fair approach to schooling with benefits for all.’ By implication special schools are socially unjust and unfair.

They have not the slightest interest in trying to see and meet the differing needs of these children and respect the wishes of their parents. They see that as turning the clock back. Another smear! And they smear the Green Paper too, ‘For many, these proposals signal their likely exclusion not only from mainstream education, but also from whatever ‘big society’ this government intends to create.’

For the past thirty years Academia has treasured anything and everything that confirmed its view but binned everything and anything that didn’t. They had worked it out in the libraries of their minds not in the classrooms of the real world in the nineteen seventies, and they’ve got stuck in the same groove ever since.

Just how long will they be allowed to stigmatise special schools, teach their students the error of their ways, and require their students to repeat them to pass their exams? How long must we wait for them to eat their words or, if they can’t move their brains out of idling mode, take early retirement?

The late Flo’ Wilkinson, a retired teacher who lived to the age of 105, when asked by the Chief Rabbi the secret of her longevity, replied “Never stop learning.” I commend that advice to that twaddle of professors and others like them.