Every need deserves our special attention;Another Voice;Opinion

16th July 1999 at 01:00
IN THE city where I live, the people who run the buses realised a couple of years ago that a significant proportion of their passengers - those with disabilities, for example, or people with baby buggies - were having trouble getting on and off.

So what they did was spend a lot of money on some new easy-access buses. As a result, you can now wheel your buggy straight on to the bus with the baby still seated. It's difficult to over-estimate the life-enhancing effect of this on someone who previously had to fold a buggy with one hand while holding a baby in the other and at the same time preventing a toddler from jumping out into the road.

This was very much in my mind when I heard a head say recently that half of his pupils had special needs - a proportion which is not, I believe, uncommon.

Everyone, of course, worries about this. "Fancy!" they say, "All those poor children having difficulty with their schooling." (A percentage as large as this, it has to be said, will usually include the "Stage One" children who are being dealt with in class by their own teachers. The fact remains that they are labelled and recorded as special.) You can see where this is going can you not? It seems to me that the current huge emphasis on special needs, well-meaning and effective in its own terms though it may be, is based on the notion that if a child cannot cope with school, then it is the child who has a problem.

The longer I stay on this earth, observing the educational scene, the more I am convinced that we should urgently consider the alternative - that the fault may lie not with the passengers but with the design of the bus.

School, it seems to me, makes quite narrowly defined demands on its pupils. To be successful in school a pupil has to be alert but not intrusive, pert but not cheeky, lively but not disruptive, bright but not excessively gifted. It is quite a sophisticated social skill and it is surely not to be wondered at that more than a few children have trouble with it, and react in ways that a teacher will see as inappropriate.

I am not convinced, incidentally, that the drive for the integration of pupils with special needs into mainstream really addresses this issue. A child who makes the move is still seen as "special" - in the mainstream but not of it, integrated but not included.

My thinking on this was given focus recently by Ian Copeland's excellent The Making of the Backward Pupil in Education in England (Woburn Press). This shows that from the very beginning of state education in this country, 130 years ago, the belief always was that there would be "exceptional" children unable to cope with the standard curriculum. "This," he writes, "effectively closed off the search for a solution to the education of backward pupils through modification to the curriculum, teaching style, or class size in the mainstream."

Copeland writes of children with learning difficulties, but the argument applies equally to behaviour. Recently I had a conversation with a woman who has a very boisterous and adventurous child of three and a half. She is deeply worried - not about his behaviour, because she knows that loving family life will settle that down - but that when he starts school he may end up being classified as "disruptive," perhaps, or even "hyperactive". Labelling him like this, she feels, will merely give everyone permission to shift the emphasis from "We can't cope", to "He can't cope".

One of the difficulties, of course, is that some parents, far from worrying about the labelling of their children, actually encourage it. The files of local authorities are stuffed with letters from parents who want their children acknowledged as having some condition or other - attention deficit disorder, perhaps, or dyslexia.

You cannot blame these families. Despairing at the inability of the basic school menu to help their children, they are forced to seek the label, which is the only passport to individual attention.

The effect of it all, though, is to reinforce the belief that the way to run an education system is to cater first for the core of "normal" children, and then look at doing something different for the others. (Which was precisely the sequence of events when the national curriculum was introduced.) What we need is for us all to learn the lesson of the easy-access bus, and try to devise a system of schooling geared, by resources, curriculum, class size and pedagogy, to a radically broader definition of what is acceptable and normal in its clients.

The demand is there - ask any parent who has struggled to have a child's individuality recognised by the education system. Or ask any of the thousands of families who have looked at schools and then chosen to educate their children at home.

And now the technology is there too, giving the prospect of undreamed of breadth, depth and flexibility to what schools can offer. At last we have the chance to add real substance to the belief, often proclaimed but rarely acted on with any seriousness, that "Every child has special needs."

Gerald Haigh is a school governor

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