After decades of talk, books, articles and practice, tensions between inclusion and pupil standards remain steadfastly unresolved. As an alternative, I propose "optimal education" - putting education first and treating inclusion as an important but secondary consideration.
Optimal education involves mainstream, special schools and others working together to optimise the attainment, progress and personal and social development of pupils with special needs. But, unlike inclusion, it does not assume special schools are transitory placements for pupils whose real place is in mainstream. It involves making decisions about whether a pupil is taught exclusively in mainstream or special school (or the proportion of time spent in each) according to the progress made by the pupil in each setting. In other words, the judgement is educational, taking account of a particular pupil's progress and development.
Hampshire's 28 special schools are an integral part of the education community. They work with mainstream schools, other children's services and voluntary organisations. Data on pupils with special needs can be used to judge the relative progress of pupils in mainstream and special schools, enabling local educational authorities, schools and parents to make judgements based on evidence.
The Government says it supports special schools. The 2005 white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All mentioned special schools frequently, claiming they would be at the heart of the education system and promising money to upgrade special school buildings. Earlier this year, the Department for Education and Skills earmarked start-up funds for a national representative body for special schools, to give them a collective voice.
Special schools are eligible to apply for government funding to support developments such as the Specialist Schools Strategy.
Yet, as long ago as 1997, the special needs green paper intimated "strong educational, as well as social and moral grounds for educating children with special needs with their peers". It promised to increase inclusion within mainstream schools, while "protecting and enhancing specialist provision for those who need it".
In 2001, statutory guidance entitled Inclusive Schooling: Children with Special Educational Needs stated that where parents wanted a mainstream education for their child "everything possible should be done to provide it"; but where parents wanted a special school place merely that "their wishes should be listened to and taken into account".
The Government Strategy for SEN for 2004-5 said the proportion of children in special schools should decline over time as mainstream schools develop skills and capacity to meet a wider range of needs. Only a small number of children, with "severe and complex needs", would require special provision.
Children with "less significant needs" (including moderate learning difficulties) should be able to have their "needs met" in mainstream. A current web site (www.everychildmatters.gov.uketespecialschool) repeats this. But nobody specifies what having "needs met" means or how anyone would know when they were met.
In all this, inclusion is not about providing an education leading to a child's best academic progress and development, but about transferring pupils to mainstream schools. Similarly, Government envisages special schools attended by pupils with the most severe and complex difficulties, not by pupils who would progress and develop better there.
Mary Warnock says of this approach: "It has put special schools firmly at the bottom of the pile, not something any sane parents would choose for their child; and has perpetuated the unexamined presumption that all parents and all children prefer mainstream education."
There is much innovative work going on in special school outreach and "in-reach". Outreach may involve staff in special schools supporting pupils in mainstream, and can include helping mainstream colleagues develop skills to educate a wider range of pupils with special needs than at present.
Woodlands school, Plymouth, a school for pupils with physical disabilities, provides comprehensive outreach services to up to 40 mainstream schools that have pupils with physical disabilities on their rolls. Its staff visit the schools, offering advice and support on transition planning. They also observe pupils, and loan equipment.
In-reach may involve pupils from mainstream attending a special school for part of their timetable. If this leads to the individual pupil attending the special school for greater proportions of time, or full time, optimal education would view this in the light of the progress and development it encourages.
Highbury school, Yorkshire, is a special school for pupils aged 3-to-11 years with moderate, severe or profound learning difficulties, and pupils with autistic spectrum disorder. It places importance on outreach and in-reach. Several pupils attend the local primary school, and some from the local primary school attend Highbury for literacy and numeracy, which gives them the opportunity to progress better in small groups and to gain confidence.
Yet even in these areas, inclusion can distort the value of outreach and in-reach. Too often there is an underlying assumption that special school outreach is good (whether or not school evaluations ensure that pupils placed in mainstream are making better progress than in special school), while in-reach is little more than special schools poaching pupils.
A good education cannot be traded against inclusion if pupils are to be well served. As more and more schools recognise this, the work of special schools is becoming increasingly valued in its own right.
Michael Farrell is the author of Celebrating the Special School (David Fulton Publishers, 2006).