Dear Ted

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Our LEA wants to squash five schools into three and put children with mild learning difficulties into mainstream. How can we get them to listen to what parents want?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

There is often a sense of frustration among parents, as there is among teachers, when a body like the LEA appears to be making decisions against their wishes. There are steps that can be taken in what is left of our democratic society.

The first is for parents' representatives to canvass the views of teachers and heads. You will be more effective if there is unison between those involved, than if different and conflicting wishes are being expressed. If the professionals agree with you, then try to move ahead together. If they disagree, you should find out the reasons, because what is proposed might make more sense than you think.

It is important to find out who is making the decision. Is the LEA's education committee a key body, or is it more likely to be the full council that really counts in your area? Ask your local councillors to explain to you.

You should also invite people at the centre of the decision-making to meet parents, and teachers if you are of one mind, preferably in your school.

The smart operators make sure that children are present, so that decision-makers can see the real people affected.

If you feel you are getting nowhere, contact the local media. They will inevitably want to know what the "story" is, so help formulate it (unhappy or uncertain childrenparents, disruption, lack of concern for the individual, and so on).

Try to attend the actual meeting at which the decision will be made, preferably in numbers, as the public has a right to be present at certain committees, if they are not in confidential session. You may even be allowed to speak, briefly, before the debate.

Have an open mind. What is being proposed may be better for your children in the long run, so find out if it really is so, and make sure there is a humane and harmonious transition.

You say

Develop a 'halfway house'

If the school's roll has been growing, then it is unlikely that a school's organisation committee would agree with a proposal to close it. If numbers are falling, parents will recognise that eventually the school will not be able to deliver a curriculum, and an alternative is clearly better. The difficult case is when the roll has been stable for a long time.

Some LEAs, instead of transferring children, like yours seems to be doing, have developed resource bases in mainstream schools, a "halfway house" between special schools and mainstream. These allow the MLD pupils access to specialist resources when they need them, while making it physically easier to give them mainstream experience when that is in their best interests. They also embed special needs expertise in the mainstream, instead of risking isolating it in separate establishments.

Special schools will always be needed for children with more severe learning or behavioural difficulties, but there is a lot of good news about inclusion of those with less severe needs.

Malcolm Grimston, London

Raise awareness

We are a school for the visually impaired and are one of six special schools earmarked for closure in my local authority - despite the fact that there are no other specialist day schools for our pupils. More than half of them have come to us having failed in mainstream. We have had two brilliant Ofsteds and are regarded as a centre of excellence.

So, how do you fight proposed closure? It is down to the pupils, parents, staff and governors to raise awareness of the plight of some of our most vulnerable children. You must start now; the clock starts ticking as soon as a proposed closure is on the table. Work together and write personal letters to everyone you can think of and explain the situation. Often people have little understanding of the real issues about integration.

Raise money. We had an auction which not only raised tons of money, but generated an amazing feeling of working together for a common cause.

Approach everyone - doctors, councillors, MPs and local newspapers can all be very helpful. Start a petition. We raised more than 20,000 signatures in a month. We had a demonstration outside the town hall in our lunch hour which the pupils enjoyed. We have all learnt a great deal. At times we have become very disillusioned, but we have made sure that everyone possible is aware of the wave of anger over the proposed closure.

Special schools have a place in the education system, but unless something is done now, they'll be sold for development. We do not know the future for our school and wish every success to everyone fighting for their children's future and choice of education.

Sue Bennett, Joseph Clarke school, London

Elect a representative

Each local council has parent governor representatives (PGRs) who sit on education scrutiny panels. Contact your PGRs and ask them to find out when decisions are being made so that you can contribute - it is possible to ask for any decisions to be looked at by the scrutiny panel (within certain time frames), so find your representatives in the authority and ask them to investigate and support your concerns. Local governor services will usually have their contact details.

Alison Fisher, PGR, Kirklees

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