Don't judge Ms Kelly until you've been there

12th January 2007 at 00:00
I shared the view that inclusive education was right for all children until my friend Anita had her Down Syndrome daughter Isabel. Then I learned what it means for a child with learning disabilities to have no choice but mainstream "inclusive" education. It would be good if some of those hounding Ruth Kelly for sending her dyslexic son to a private special school could have a similar experience.

Anita is an old-fashioned leftie, so she put Isabel down for the local primary, which had special needs provision. It was fine for a couple of years but as the children progressed academically and socially, Isabel became progressively more aware that she was always bottom of the class, never anyone's chosen friend.

She hated school. Her mother was on the line. There was no state special school suitable for Isabel, and her mother had never considered private education. Then she heard about the Rudolph Steiner Camphill schools, where children with disabilities are educated with a belief that each can achieve a personal goal. The children share being different and are helped to build friendships and aid each other in daily living. The curriculum included the three Rs and other required subjects, but there is much emphasis on arts and crafts and skills such as cooking. Anita saw children like Isabel flourishing.

Anita resolved to swallow her ideology. Such schooling could give Isabel a chance to feel included and valued. With mainstream, she felt the opposite.

Yet the local authorities were vehemently opposed to private and residential schooling. Anita was a parent of three and had been on her own since Isabel's father - who rarely contributed - had left, so she could not pay. It took years of battle before Isabel received funding for a Camphill school.

It was heart-warming to watch Isabel change to become a gifted painter and musician. Her literacy skills and articulacy grew rapidly and she developed several strong, mutually supportive friendships.

I understand the arguments for inclusion, but children with learning disabilities are different - and that difference can mean that their mental welfare is sacrificed to the ideal of inclusive mainstream education, no matter how good and caring.

The British Dyslexia Association has a daunting list of the learning problems these children face, and cites poor confidence and low self-esteem, which can be huge handicaps. They may have behaviour problems that make them unpopular. Crucially, there are many learning difficulties, including dyslexia, among the prison population, says Juliet Lyon at the Prison Reform Trust. This is one of the key trajectories to enduring mental illness and crime. Inclusive education, as a precursor to an inclusive society, is a fine aspiration for ordinary children. But those with learning disabilities and the mental health issues they bring should not be hostages to the beliefs of those who haven't been there.

Angela Neustatter is editor of Young Minds magazine

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