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One way out of a learning difficulty?

Government advisers want special schools to share their expertise with the mainstream. Phil Revell reports.

Special schools should become centres of excellence serving clusters of mainstream schools, a group of government advisers recommended yesterday.

The report, by a Department for Education and Skills working party, suggests that special schools should take a lead role in training mainstream teachers and classroom assistants.

"There would be huge advantages for both sectors," said headteacher Geoff Price, a member of the DfES group that is defining the future role of special schools.

England's 1,300 special schools cater for nearly 90,000 pupils. Overall, 3 per cent of children have a statement specifying their needs and their entitlement to resources. In England 61 per cent of statemented pupils are educated in mainstream schools, compared with 76 per cent in Wales.

Numbers of children with moderate learning difficulties in special education have fallen in recent years because of the Government's inclusion policy. But numbers in special education have barely shifted.

"There are more severe learning difficulties and more children with emotional and behavioural problems," said Mr Price, head of Warwick Road special school in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham.

Children with autism are filling many of the special school places. Figures for Wales suggest that the proportion of children born with autism or a similar disorder has doubled in 20 years.

Until recently, special educational needs policy was driven by human rights considerations. Pressure groups used the law to argue for total inclusion.

Some heads claimed that any child can be educated in mainstream schools, and Newham, in east London, is committed to achieving 100 per cent inclusion.

But the move towards inclusion has run into difficulties, as parents with children in special schools have fought tooth and nail to keep what they see as the best provision. Special school heads also worry about a policy they see as ignoring the needs of many children.

"Inclusion is a political imperative, not an educational one," said Mary Saunders, head of Betteridge in Cheltenham, a beacon special school for children with severe and complex needs (see below).

Like many of her fellow heads, Ms Saunders argues that mainstream schools are ill-equipped to cope with children with complex needs because most teachers have had little or no relevant training.

This issue was highlighted by this year's report by the chief inspector. It said that although many schools were doing reasonably well, a quarter of primaries and secondaries had less than satisfactory provision for special needs pupils and only one in 10 education authorities had an effective strategy.

Similar criticisms were levelled by the Audit Commission report published last year. Many of the commission's recommendations have found their way into the DfES working party's consultation paper, including the call for a national qualification for mainstream special needs co-ordinators and more training for teachers.

The DfES working party argues that this training could partly come from exchanges of staff.

"There needs to be a flow of teachers between special and mainstream schools," said Mr Price. "At present, the two tracks are totally separate."

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