THE IDEA of choice has been at the heart of the education revolution of the past two decades.
Parents and pupils now have a right to express their preference for a particular school. But, according to research published this week, little has changed for one group of young people - those with disabilities.
The report, No Choice: No Chance, was written for Save the Children and Disability Action by young disabled people who have recently been through the education system. They talked to students at four special schools and two day centres in Belfast.
The report tells a tale of young people whose chances of a fulfilling life and career are hampered by low expectations, transport problems and lack of options.
"The young people seem to have had very little choice about which school they attend. Many of them, well over half, had been at the same school since they were two or three," the report says.
Much of the report backs up ministers' desire to see greater integration of disabled children into mainstream schools. But it is less relaxed about the effort needed to make this happen. The Government will balk at some of the recommendations, such as reducing class sizes (in all schools) to 10 or 12 children.
The report also calls for extra funding to be made available for schools which teach children with disabilities and for equipment and support to be paid for by education authorities, rather than by the schools themselves. To tackle prejudice, all teachers should have disability-awareness training.
While many of the young people interviewed had never been offered the chance to attend a mainstream school, others had spent their primary years alongside children without disabilities.
However, lack of equipment and bullying by classmates, as well as problems with access, orced many to drop out before they started secondary school.
The alternative, special schools, get a mixed verdict. The report praises their small classes and points out that many young people are happy at school. But it also draws attention to a culture of low expectations, limited subject options and lack of opportunity to gain qualifications.
"What is worse than the lack of subject choice is the low expectations that teachers have... They don't expect us to do well in examinations and that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," the report states.
"Some of us are very angry at the way in which teachers just assume we're not able to do certain subjects instead of trying to find a way around the difficulties caused by our disability... This lack of choice can really affect a young person's choice of career and so has to be addressed."
The small size of special schools, while an advantage in terms of class size, restricts the range of subjects on offer.
The report suggests that partnerships with local mainstream schools and imaginative use of new technology could help bridge the gaps.
Science is one area where disabled children face particular obstacles. Science is taught largely as a general subject. Those wanting to learn detailed physics or chemistry are usually left frustrated.
Many disabled people have to catch up once they leave school by doing GCSEs and A-levels in further education colleges or at day centres.
"While almost all the young people were going on to some kind of further education, the possibility of going to university or of having a career, as opposed to getting a job, was discussed by young people in only one of the schools we visited," the report says.
"No Choice: No Chance" is available from Save the Children, 15 Richmond Park, Belfast BT10 0HB.
Tel: 028 9043 1123
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