'Children who don't fit? Maybe the problem is us'

Special schools can be great, but if pupils are struggling, the solution isn't to send them elsewhere, says Nancy Gedge

children with SEND shouldn't be out of sight out of mind in special schools

I’m not an opponent of specialist education. I sent my son to a special school, after all. But, as in life, families and everything else, in special education, there is a mix of the good, the indifferent and the truly awful.

The other day, I read a distressing article about restraint used on disabled children: restraint rather than de-escalation, leading to trauma, school refusal and calls to the police. The shocking abuse of disabled children should make us all stop and think.

A special community school

One of the things that was great about my son’s special school was that it really was a community school. Local events had a constant presence from the school, carol concerts and performances took place in the local abbey church and theatre. The last thing this school or its students were was hidden away.

The same cannot be said for every school or every alternative or specialist provision, though. Sadly, instead of community involvement, silent segregation is only too common.

Children, no longer trotting up the road to their local primary or out in the street playing with friends, seem to disappear. And out of sight is out of mind. Long journeys in taxis ensure few parents are at the school gates (and we are all at work anyway, paying off our monstrous mortgages). Low wages and a low threshold for skills and education ensure that anyone working with these children could get a better paid (and easier) job in a shopping centre, if they wanted to. You’ve got to really want to work in a specialist setting.

Florence Nightingale gloss

Now, the last thing I want to do is run down those people who do work in these schools. But it has to be said: segregated, mysterious settings with vulnerable young people – especially those who are unlikely to be believed or have communication difficulties – can attract people who enjoy the “I couldn’t do that, you must be amazing” Florence Nightingale gloss, while knowing that, if they break a rule or a code of conduct, they are unlikely to be found out. So, we see face-down restraint for long periods of time. Children wetting themselves out of fear.

When I read calls for more segregation, on the grounds that "Disabled children will find the mainstream difficult, and shouldn’t they be somewhere easier for them (aka Somewhere Else)?" I feel angry.

The real problem

Specialist settings can be great, but they are not the final answer, not really. If a child finds sports day hard, the solution isn’t to remove them as if they were the problem. If a child breaks the rules, the answer isn’t to off-roll or to exclude. We know that outcomes are worse for children in specialist and alternative provision after all.

If there are children who don’t fit in our schools, then maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe, if we care to spend some time thinking about it, the problem is us.

Nancy Gedge is Tes SEND columnist, coordinator of the Ormerod Resource Base at the Marlborough School, Woodstock, and author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers

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