Help schools be special

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Parents, teachers and pupils need much more support if inclusion for all in mainstream classes is to prosper, says Margaret Crombie.

THE Standards in Scotland's Schools Bill makes a presumption in favour of "a school other than a special school" for children with special educational needs. While it is wholly admirable that all children should attend their local school, there is a potential for disaster which has never before faced Scottish education.

Placing children with special needs in local schools is not a cheap option, nor is it an easy option. It is the right of every child and every parent. It cannot however be done without cost - not just in terms of a huge injection of cash, but also of time and effort.

Inclusive education involves more than a physical shift of children from special school to mainstream school. It involves a major shift of emotional thinking. It involves acceptance of children with special educational needs as equals - not just on the part of teachers but other children and parents. This cannot happen overnight and without support.

Children with special needs have a right to equality. Without support, however, they will be seen as a nuisance. Teachers will feel they don't have the time to spend with them. They will then feel they are failing them, though without specialist knowledge and training it is difficult to see how they could do otherwise.

Headteachers, with pressures to meet targets and raise academic standards, will feel a reluctance to welcome children who will pull down these standards. Time is required for the writing of individualised educational programmes (IEPs) which will set out what is appropriate for the young people. Without support the consequences are dire.

Parents, too, will feel that children with special needs are a drain on a school. These will be the children who are taking teaching time from those who might otherwise do well. Parent will be set against parent.

The shift in attitude must include a major curricular shift, too. Thinking in terms of 5-14 level E and Standard grade - or even level B - may be totally unrealistic. Level A may be beyond some - a potential for disaster.

We need to focus on what children can do, what they can learn. With a class of 30-33 children, what teacher can honestly say, I am enabling ach and every young person to achieve their potential? The more children with special needs, the more we must focus on what can and must be done. There is no room in the corner for wee Johnny who can't do it. He is part of the class, and it may not be enough for him to colour the picture while everyone else is accessing true learning.

Children with special needs must have peer support to succeed. That in turn requires all children to accept the rights of all other children. It is a willingness to see the other's point of view, to accept that some children learn in a different way from others, and that all have a worthwhile contribution to make. Children take their lead from adults, who can lead by example and who must themselves feel equal.

If all children are to have these needs met, they, their teachers and parents need support. Schools have come a long way in recent years, and many children with severe special educational needs are having these met in a mainstream context. Where inclusive education works best, teachers and headteachers have worked closely with support staff, parents, various other agencies and the children themselves to ensure failure is a word these children need never understand. This process has taken commitment, dedication, time and money.

But without the money to provide the necessary support, there is no future for these children in mainstream schools. Inclusive education is about inclusion, equality and rights. One of these rights is to receive appropriate support. Appropriate teaching support can only be given if someone knows what is right and appropriate. This is where support teachers play a vital part.

At present, these teachers are the specialists. They must pass on their skills to others. Teachers, parents and children all need their support. On this hinges the future of inclusive education, and hence all our futures. The Standards in Scotland's Schools legislation must reflect this.

If and when the support is in place we can look forward to a better society where we do not need to talk of special needs. It will be enough to talk of children and young people, and know that all are involved. Only then will we truly have reached inclusive schooling.

Margaret Crombie works in the field of special needs. The views she presents are her own.

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