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Integration policy under strain

Cumbria County Council has the highest level of integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools in the country.

Its policy is viewed by some special needs campaigners as an attack on statements but it is one which has strong support in the county.

The decision to adopt a policy of integration was taken with all-party backing in 1987 and by 1993 seven special schools had been closed.

The county has more than 3,000 special needs children of which more than 90 per cent are in mainstream schools. Cumbria also has twice the national average for statemented children.

Morton secondary school, Carlisle, has been designated a strategic facility for special needs and has had Pounds 1 million of improvements to take the children from a nearby special school which closed.

Trevor Easton, its headteacher, said: "Everybody supports the integration policy in principle. This is the best way of teaching children - with their peers in their local community. Cumbria hasn't got it right yet but things are improving."

He highlighted one case alone for the benefit of the policy - an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who, after completing GCSEs and A-levels, started college this year.

"If he had remained separate and distinct in a special school he would have been lovingly cared for but would never have developed such skills."

Lanercost primary school, near Brampton, has a child with severe learning difficulties on roll. Peter Duncan, its headteacher, believes there are benefits for both the girl and her peers.

"It is good for the children to see there are others less able than themselves. It builds tolerance. And though the girl does not talk in class she does speak a little with her friends in the playground."

The integration policy is suffering tremendous tensions, however. Some of which have arisen due to circumstances outside its control.

The introduction of local management for schools, for example, meant insufficient core funds could be held back to finance integration properly. National curriculum requirements placed a further strain on teachers.

Primary schools who had positively embraced integration found they had neither the money nor expertise to address a wide range of needs and many parents took integration to mean their child could go to their neighbourhood school whatever the cost.

Michael Watmough, in charge of special needs for the LEA, admitted: "With hindsight there are things that could have been done better.

"We moved too far too fast. We were driven by good intentions and a strong parental desire for children to be supported in their local school environment. Schools took on more than they could cope with."

The local authority last month agreed a training programme for teachers to deal better with children special needs after recognising it could do more in that area.

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