SINCE at least the time of the Warnock Report, special needs education in this country has been built on three great liberal assumptions. The first is that it is not just disabled children who may experience difficulties in learning, but a large minority of pupils - perhaps 18 per cent. The second is that schools, education authorities and the Government should respond to these difficulties within a common organisational framework. The third is that the best way to overcome children's difficulties is by careful individualised identification, assessment and provision.
Over the past 20 years, these assumptions have underpinned very real advances - the integration movement, the "whole-school approach", the push for differentiation within an entitlement curriculum - which have left us with an education system that is undoubtedly more humane and equitable than would otherwise have been the case. Not only are we now able to target substantial resources at the most "needy" children, but we can do so while maintaining the large majority of them in the mainstream curriculum and in mainstream schools.
Despite this, there is a fatal flaw in the approach. However successful we may have been in supporting individuals, we have failed to establish mainstream schools which routinely give all children a fair deal. Indeed, every time special needs education has made an advance towards mainstream schools, some other imperative - to compete, to raise standards, to deliver a knowledge heavy curriculum - has made it harder for those schools to cater for the most vulnerable pupils.
The policies of the current government have so far failed to break this pattern. An example is the commitment to inclusion which, on the face of it, seems to offer a radical alternative to traditional special needs education. However, the tightening of accountability, targets for some (but not all) pupils and the unremitting pressure to raise standards leave schools little flexibility to respond wholeheartedly. Inclusion, it seems to me, is no more likely than the other liberal moves of the past 20 years to bring about real change.
In finding an alternative, it seems to me that the only option is to reject the assumptions on which our previous efforts have been based.
We have to move away from the idea of "Warnock's 18 per cent". This definition of who is vulnerable in our schools excludes groups which fail to make it nto the special needs category - groups such as children from cultural, ethnic and linguistic minorities, children who are disaffected from school and even some able and talented children. At the same time, it creates a tenuous alliance between quite disparate groups of children who share little other than the special needs label. It is surely time to abandon this one-size-fits-all approach.
We need, for many children at least, to abandon the individualised approach that has become the shibboleth of special needs education. Children with difficulties do not come into schools in ones - they come in 10s, scores, even hundreds. Instead of a case-by-case approach, we need robust organisational and teaching strategies which schools can routinely use on whole groups of learners.
We should acknowledge that the difficulties experienced by many children arise not from their individual characteristics but from their social and family circumstances. The problems they face are compounded by structures of schooling which marginalise their interests. Therefore, we should seek structural responses. Some of these must address broad social and economic issues. Some will have to look again at the underlying structures of the education system - such as competition between schools, and the impact of target-setting. Debates around these issues have effectively been silenced in recent years, but they are now urgently needed.
The cause for hope in all this is that some government initiatives, wittingly or otherwise, have begun to indicate what an alternative approach might look like. The 1997 SEN Green Paper, for instance, seemed to promise a much-needed shrinking of the special needs empire. The pursuit of a social inclusion agenda, the intention to "join up" approaches to educational and social disadvantage and the willingness to introduce system-wide strategies to overcome endemic problems all offer the first inklings of alternatives. Whether the Government will now go on to address the hard structural issues remains to be seen. Let us hope that it has convictions which will incline it in this direction and, moreover, that it has the time and courage to pursue them.
Professor Alan Dyson is a co-director at the special needs research centre, department of education, University of Newcastle. This piece is based on an article by Alan Dyson and Roger Slee in "Education, Reform and the State: Politics, policy and practice, 1976-2001" edited by Robert Phillips and John Furlong (London, Routledge).
The views expressed are those of the author alone.