SPECIAL schools should be closed and their expertise and resources transferred to mainstream education, a major conference was told last week.
As MSPs on the education, culture and sport committee open an inquiry into special educational needs, the future of separate schools was called into question by practitioners south of the border and in Italy and North America. A new Scottish lobby, the Equity Group, added its voice to pleas for reform. Thousands of parents are being denied the choice of sending their children to local mainstream schools, it says.
Having organised the Edinburgh conference, Excellence in Equity, the group argues that disabled children do at least as well academically, and better socially, by being included in ordinary classes in mainstream schools. "We do not believe that their presence impedes the learning of other children," it states.
Launching a fresh drive on inclusion, Danny McCafferty, education convener of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, also backed a review of Records of Need. They are "unnecessarily bureaucratic and time-consuming" and absorb the valuable skills of psychologists, he claimed.
But the strongest integrationist demands came from Richard Rieser, chair of the alliance for inclusive education in England. Special schools should justify their existence by proving that they are leading school-leavers towards independent lives, he said.
"We should be moving towards bringing the expertise and resources of special schools into mainstream schools. If we did that, we would have no problem including children," he said.
There was a lot of research evidence to show that disabled children have "better life chances" if they are in the mainstream. Forty-one per cent of disabled people of working age have no qualifications compared with 18 per cent of everyone else. "That's something we can attribute to our segregated education system," he said.
Mr Rieser, a wheelchair-user who taught for 22 years and now works as an adviser in Hackney, London, said one-seventh of England's education budget - pound;3 billion - was spent on special educational needs and 60 per cent of that on 100,000 children in special schools. "Is that value for money? Put that money into mainstream and you get value for money."
Special schools, he said, were set up when society viewed disabled people as mentally deficient and sought to segregrate and oppress them. But pupils with even the most difficult conditions could be included in mainstream classes. Staff could adapt teaching and learning strategies to ensure that the inclusion agenda suited all children, he said.
The conference heard how Italy had scrapped all its special schools more than 20 years ago. Salvatore Nocera, a Rome-based professor and former adviser to the Italian government, said 3,500 pupils were taught in private special schools but 120,000 - 2 per cent of the school population - were now in mainstream state schools. Some parents, mostly the better-off, complained at the outset.
Professor Nocera said it would be national news if a teacher refused to teach a class with a disabled pupil, or if a parent of a non-disabled child complained. "The system works if a teacher is well-prepared and organised, and if local authorities collaborate with schools over transport, health and resources," he said.
Similarly, in New Hampshire, 95 per cent of disabled students attended regular public schools, said Jan Nisbet, director of the Institute on Disability. She called for a "war" against separate institutions, adding: "Children are much more adept at supporting students who have a disability."
Heather Anderson, secretary of Equity, said: "So long as we continue to label schools as special schools, people think they're getting something special. People believe it's the best they can get but what they're getting can be done in mainstream.
"There has been no overall increase in including children in the past 10 years. We've got a very good special school sector but for many parents there's no real choice, such as mainstream with support."
Equity argues that full integration would mean only one extra child in every four classes, or two per primary school and 10 per secondary. "We believe that all the special skills and resources which special schools now offer can be provided cost-effectively in ordinary schools, and that ordinary schools can and do offer a much broader social and academic curriculum than special schools." The group wants children with special needs to have a legal right to mainstream education with adjustment and support.
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