The SEN and Disability Rights in Education Bill may well stimulate the movement of more children from the special to the mainstream sector. However, concerns that the Government's emphasis on inclusion in mainstream is resulting in the large-scale closure of special schools appear to be unjustified. Some 97,000 children, 1.2 per cent of the total pupil population, are currently in special schools and this number has remained static since January 1996. While special schools have been closed in a number of LEAs - and often not as a result of a planned inclusive education strategy - new ones have been opened: 31 since May 1997.
Understandably, parents would wish to have their children educated alongside their friends in community schools. However, LEA reviews of SEN provision often reveal substantial parental and teacher support for keeping special schools. This does not mean that parents, pupils and professional workers do not welcome attempts to develop more inclusive arrangements in mainstream schools.
The National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) recognises that inclusion is not a simple concept restricted to issues of placement. It will not develop spontaneously and needs to be actively planned for and promoted. NASEN believes that special schools have a valuable place in assisting the further development of inclusion. The Department for Education and Employment's CD-Rom and video package Connecting Schools for Inclusion gives many examples of mainstream and special schools working together, with case studies on outreach, dual placement and effective inclusion.
Two recent NASEN policy documents, Curriculum Access and Professional Development, highlight some key priorities for inclusion programmes. The former recognises that rigid adherence to the broader curriculum normally available to most children may deny the opportunity to meet individual needs adequately. However, an alternative or modified curriculum may become too restrictive and its status may become devalued, leading to renewed concerns that pupils with SEN will be regarded as second-class citizens.
Particularly welcome, therefore, are the new curriculum guidelines from the QCA for pupils aged five to 16 with severe, profound and muliple learning difficulties and, in some cases, moderate learning difficulties, who are achieving significantly below age-related expectations. They are designed to help planning and teaching across the curriculum in mainstream and special schools and should contribute to promoting a genuinely inclusive curriculum for pupils with a wide range of special needs in all key stages.
In NASEN's view, professional development is central to provision for pupils with SEN. All staff need to develop their understanding, knowledge, skills and attitudes so that they can meet a diversity of needs in a wider range of settings. On many initial teacher training courses SEN issues are dealt with superficially. Inclusion practices must rigorously permeate all forms of ITT. Also, a much wider group of professionals is now involved with pupils with SEN and there is increasing potential for joint professional work as a catalyst for effective collaboration and inter-agency working.
There are concerns that greater delegation of support service funding to schools might compromise pupils' educational entitlements and inhibit moves towards greater inclusion. A joint NASENDFEE research project in 2000 focused on some of these concerns. The report of findings, called Developing Support for More Inclusive Schooling: a review of the role of support services for special educational needs in English Local Authorities was published in January.
The evidence from this research suggests that, to ensure that pupils' needs and progress towards greater inclusion are safeguarded, there should be a strong link between LEAs' delegation strategy and their strategy for inclusion. This research would support concerns about the speed of delegation in some LEAs and the extent to which it can be led by financial considerations.
The next decade may see a substantial reduction in the number of children educated in special schools. If it does not then the numerous initiatives to increase educational and social inclusion will have failed and many parents will still not have the confidence to entrust their children to mainstream education.
Mike Gordon is executive secretary, the National Association for Special Educational Needs, 4-5 Amber Business Village, Amington, Tamworth, Staffs B77 4RP. Tel: 01827 311500 Web: www.nasen.org.uk