The curious case of the Warnock report

Robin Jackson

It was a landmark for special needs but how independent were its findings? asks Robin Jackson

In her recent General Teaching Council for Scotland annual lecture, "From integration to inclusion", Mary Warnock provides some illuminating insights into the workings of the committee of inquiry into the education of children and young people, which she chaired. Of particular interest is her reference to the key role played by the secretariat of the Department of Education and Science in helping to shape the direction and content of the Warnock report. According to Lady Warnock, the secretariat wrote the initial papers that formed the foundation of the committee's work, decided what research needed to be done, chose the schools that the committee members would visit and provided the questions that should be asked. One is left to wonder how independent this "independent but government-financed committee" really was.

A curious omission in her lecture is any reference to the fact the Warnock committee had been forced to accept the case for integration well before the report was published. The last minute incorporation of clause 10 into the 1976 education bill changed the emphasis of education for handicapped children and young people from provision in special schools to provision in ordinary schools.

It is now accepted that clause 10 had been introduced as a result of pressure applied by a small, powerful and readily identifiable lobby which represented the interests of a minority within the "handicapped" population (those who were physically handicapped, but intellectually able). The tactics employed by this lobby succeeded in outmanoeuvring the Government, the DES and most of the professional organisations. It was a pre-emptive strike taken by a lobby which had concluded that the Warnock committee might, at the end of its deliberations, not give unqualified support for a policy of integration.

The introduction of clause 10 into the 1976 bill caused an instant tidal wave of critical reaction. The National Association of Schoolteachers Union of Women Teachers issued a statement citing difficulties in implementing the proposals. A letter from Lady Warnock was published in The Times Educational Supplement criticising the inclusion of clause 10. A leader in the Times observed that the legislation would lead to considerable controversy. Later, the Times carried a letter from Lady Warnock repeating her concern that the clause had been passed precipitately.

The National Union of Teachers made it clear that the inclusion of clause 10 was quite unexpected since it legislated for the provision of special education in ordinary schools in advance of the findings of the Warnock committee. Serious doubts were also expressed as to the effects of implementing such a clause.

In the NUT's view, this could not be seen as progress but rather a decline in the provision of special education, and a subsequent deterioration of educational opportunities for children with disabilities. Reference was also made to the fact that the NUT had submitted evidence to the Warnock committee warning it against approving a policy of integration.

An examination of the evidence submitted to the Warnock committee by a cross-section of 20 professional and voluntary organisations reveals that, while most sympathised with the principle of integration, the majority favoured it for groups of children other than those they represented. All the organisations were concerned that certain arrangements had to be put in place before integration could be successfully carried out. The Joint Council for the Education of Handicapped Children, one of the strongest opponents of the policy of integration, argued that integration too often tended to be artificially counter-posed to segregation. Further, the sociological justifications for integration had been grossly oversimplified. It was the view of the council that integration based on pious hope could prove disastrous.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Lady Warnock should state in the Impact monograph Special educational needs - a new outlook, published earlier this year, that "no serious suggestions for reform can be made without proper research and a proper reliance on evidence". The one firm conclusion made by Lady Warnock is that a Government-funded but independent committee should be set up to examine the current state of special education. Those familiar with educational research might argue that the notion of an independent government-funded project is an oxymoron. One has only to look at the experience of the Warnock committee itself.

The committee commissioned significantly less research than any previous committee appointed to examine the educational system (Plowden on primary education, 1967; Newsom on secondary education, 1963; Robbins on higher education, 1963). Why? It may have been that the person responsible for setting up the committee of inquiry, Margaret Thatcher as Education Secretary, had communicated her lack of enthusiasm for research which she saw as both costly, time-consuming and ineffectual.

It was Lady Thatcher's antipathy to academic research and her refusal to provide the funds to support it that contributed to the unprecedented refusal by Oxford University to confer an honorary doctorate upon her in 1985. The DES is also likely to have strongly advised the committee against commissioning extensive research on the grounds that it would be an expensive and pointless exercise, given that the Government had made it quite clear it had neither the resources nor the political will to support any major reforms the committee might recommend. The lack of commissioned research inevitably meant that the committee became unduly reliant on the less than objective evidence submitted by pressure groups.

The claim made in the editorial introduction to the Impact pamphlet that the Warnock committee was responsible for pioneering an "integrative" or "inclusive" approach needs to be treated with caution. For, as the Warnock report itself acknowledged, it was section 10 of the 1976 Education Act, later to be incorporated into the 1981 Education Act, that shifted the emphasis on special educational provision in the direction of greater integration in ordinary schools.

In those circumstances the Warnock committee can scarcely be characterised as pioneering when it was in fact having to follow - and one suspects reluctantly - a path that had already been created.

Robin Jackson is a professional development consultant with Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools, Aberdeen.

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