For over a century the majority of disabled children have been educated in special schools, excluded from their non-disabled peers. It is only in the last 30 years that this has started to change as more disabled children have been increasingly been given the right to a mainstream education as this form of apartheid is slowly exposed and removed.
I think before going further, it is important to understand my own education journey as someone with cerebral palsy. I was born in 1974 and my first school was the children’s ward of the local mental hospital before it became its own school for the ‘mentally handicapped’, opened and named after the Queen. They quickly realised I was rather intelligent and I was briefly integrated into my local village school at 5, with mixed success. After spending a few years at a mainstream school with a ‘physically handicapped unit’, I was fully integrated at 11 at my local all boys mainstream school, where I received a proper education although I was constantly bullied. Then I attended the local mainstream sixth form college doing my A-Levels before doing my degree at Coventry University.
I strongly believe in mainstream education because of the right of non-disabled and disabled children to be educated together. I can quickly tell those disabled adults who have attended mainstream schools, as opposed to special schools, simply by their posture. Mainstream schools provide disabled children with the same expectations to succeed as their peers, the social skills needed to compete in an non-disabled world which special schools fail to do, and toughens disabled children up for the real world, not to say anyone deserves to be bullied.
My belief in mainstream education does not mean I do not believe in special education because I do strongly believe that everyone should get the specific education they need. I believe the criticisms against mainstream education by parents and others is because many children are integrated into their schools rather than included. Integration is when the child is required to simply fit in with the school and no consideration of their needs are taken into account. This is not proper inclusion, where the school reasonably adapts its policies, practices and teaching methods to accommodate the specific needs of the child. There is always going to be some middle ground where the child must learnt how to adapt to the school in the same way they will need to adapt to other situations throughout their life to succeed.
My concern with the government is that they have turned the issue into a matter of parental choice, where parents of disabled children should have the right to choose a special or mainstream school, arguing they wish to end the ‘bias towards inclusion’. This standpoint assumes in this instance as opposed to any other, parents are suitably experienced to make decisions that would determine whether or not their child will have any opportunity to be properly included into society.
It is my belief that currently the special schools ‘market’ is dominated by third sector providers where the aim of the school is to simply prepare children for adult day services that are also dominated by the third sector. If a child is inappropriately labelled as having learning difficulties at an early age and then denied a proper education because of that label, they will become adults where it will be hard to determine whether they have learning difficulties because of an impairment or from the fact they have not received a proper education.
Special schools are ‘sold’ to parents based on promises and exploiting the parents’ fears of how their disabled child will cope in the real world. Like everything, special education has been ruled by fashion and trends over the years, rather than anything else. The policy of free schools, allowing parents and others to set up their own special schools on any ideology they choose, is a further step into this consumerism ‘fad’ culture where the parents wants come before the needs of the child.
The segregation of disabled children from mainstream education for over a century has caused immense damage to the fabric of society that can only be mended when all disabled children are fully included into mainstream education as standard policy, not just as a right but as a norm. At the same time, the education system must be responsive of the individual needs of children, disabled or not. Proper inclusion into mainstream schools must be the only ‘choice’ desired by everyone, for the benefit of everyone.