The mainstream cannot cater for all
Special college principal Mike Syms urges caution in observing a student's right to learn
Special needs is a complex subject and means many different things to different people. After all, we each have special needs, it is just that some people's needs are more special than others. I am concerned that in a rush to effect change and save resources, the wrong decisions might be taken and have an adverse impact on some of the most disadvantaged students in our society.
To some, special needs might mean social acceptance, while to others its might be being treated like everyone else. Special needs can mean the opportunity for self-advocacy, rights and choices, inclusion and full membership of society. All laudable aims, but how best to achieve them?
It will not be enough to provide additional support in mainstream schools. Some students cannot talk without electronic help, others cannot undress themselves, others are doubly incontinent, but all are keen to learn, all have a contribution to make and all have a right to access to education and training.
Integration in the mainstream can be the answer for some, but is by no means the answer for all. The key issue is to ensure that all students have access to the right educational environment for them all, as individuals.
The argument for integration results from a range of ambivalent, educational, social and economic pressures. At Portland where we teach both children and adults disabled by accident or illness, we believe that "inclusive learning" rather than "integration" is the key issue. We are concerned with the quality of a student's learning rather than the location of the learning process.
However tempting the economic considerations, we must not allow finance to over influence the quality of provision. While we accept that students with special needs ideally should be educated in association with those who do not need support, there is an important qualification. For some special needs students, being taught alongside able-bodied students is the wrong solution and to improve it would be unfair to both and to parents and the taxpayer.
It is important to ensure that all students, with or without learning difficulties, experience an individual learning environment which matches their personal requirements. While many adapt well to general, mainstream education, there are those, many at Portland, whose particular learning approaches and goals cannot be satisfied within the environments provided by mainstream schools or colleges. The nature or degree of some student's learning difficulties requires learning to be developed in a residential setting, best provided by specialist schools and colleges.
Education, rightly, is becoming leaner and meaner. There is increasing competition to deliver the highest quality services to suit the demands of local communities. There are exciting initiatives in place to improve the methods of managing learning, all taking place against a backcloth of new courses, accreditation and a decreasing "real" education spend. All of those involved are striving to improve both the quality and adequacy of provision.
This new discussion paper actually reinforces the importance of specialist residential provision. The key objective is to help each student maximise ability, this may mean achieving a goal as huge as independent living for some or it may mean achieving full or part-time employment for others.
Quality is delivered through real "understanding": how one learns best, what one wants to learn now, what one needs to learn and, at Portland, all underpinned by a student bill of rights - a statement of the learning environment to be provided and the learning goals to be achieved. Colleges like Portland ensure adequacy, sufficiency and quality throughout an extended 24-hour curriculum provided in a residential setting, supported by specialist care staff and offering special opportunities for learning. Thus each student's "distance travelled" is recognised, recorded, assessed and rewarded.
While some students with learning difficulties will undoubtedly benefit from mainstream provision there are many who will not. Specialist educational provision in a suitable special school or college is the optimum solution. As we approach the millennium this country must ensure that we have a balanced education system which meets the needs of all students in a fair, economical and, above all, qualitative fashion.
Mike Syms is the principal of Portland Training College in Nottinghamshire.