The more you need - the less you get;Platform;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
It is wrong that the children who have most difficulty with learning are given a shorter day, says Paul Dumbleton

THE recent discussion paper on special educational needs in Scotland asserts that "all children have aspirations and all children are entitled to expect that our schools will help them to attain their full potential. Children with special educational needs are no different from other children in this respect."

The history of special education is usually told as a story of more and better provision being made as more categories of special need were provided for. The inclusion of all children into the school system in 1975, with the abolition of the practice of categorising some children as ineducable, is usually seen as the final step in this process. Since then progress has often been seen as the inclusion of children with special needs into ordinary schools and classrooms, although official policy in Scotland has always recognised the need for special schools.

These schools differ from ordinary schools in many ways, and as a parent of a child with special needs I welcome many of those differences. It means that my daughter can go to school where she is valued, where the staff are as concerned about social and personal development as about academic development, where she will not stand out as different, and less able, in almost every respect.

Given that I cannot change ordinary schools, I am pleased that she is able to go to a special school. But there are two drawbacks. The first is almost inevitable. She goes to a different school to her neighbours, and is isolated from the local community. The second does not seem inevitable to me. Children attending special schools usually start the school day at 9.30 and leave for home at 3pm. Even allowing for a shorter than usual lunch break this means that they have less time in class than they would in ordinary schools.

During the six years of the secondary stage this amounts to more than 1,000 hours of teaching time, or a school year, less. This follows the primary stage where they have already lost 500. I can think of no particularly good reasons for this - although I can rehearse some of the arguments put to me when I have questioned the practice.

The first is to do with the ability of such children to benefit from a full day at school. This seems to be based on old, medically dominated views of special education as a form of treatment or therapy for defective children, who are seen to lack the stamina needed to face a full school day. Some children with special educational needs do have health problems and may lack stamina, but current thinking emphasises individual needs and not broad generalisations, and many special school pupils are healthy and hearty.

In any case, the boundaries between special schools and ordinary schools have become blurred. Children sometimes spend part of the week in one and part in another. Many others attend an ordinary school in their earlier years and a special school later in their school career.

Do they have less stamina when they are older? Do some children have more stamina on, say, Mondays than Wednesdays? Is there any evidence that children at special schools could not benefit from a full school week?

The second main argument seems to rest on the need to provide transport to attend special schools. It is suggested that the length of day is increased by the time spent on the way to school. An earlier start would mean an unacceptably long day.

My daughter travels 12 or so miles to school in a different town. She shares transport with four other children, some of whom live a few miles from our home, yet she leaves home after, and returns home before, her brothers who walk the mile or so to the local high school. Despite her longer journey, she has a shorter day.

A few children may have longer journeys still, but most in urban central Scotland probably have a shorter journey to their special school. In more remote areas most children have to face longer journeys to school. In any case the flexibility of the special school should allow for individual circumstances in this as in other ways, and allow for exceptions.

The final argument seems to rest on teachers' conditions of service. The current day and week seem to be determined by the time a special school teacher is contracted to teach. Secondary schools provide a longer learning week for the pupils than the teaching week of the staff, and special schools could do the same.

Current educational rhetoric centres on ensuring that all children achieve all they can. The consultation document states the Government's "intention to raise standards in all schools and to raise expectations of all our school pupils". Yet those children who find most learning difficult are given less teaching time than those who find it easier to learn - if they attend a special school.

Special schools offer the best option for many children, but at the price of 1,500 lost hours of teaching time. It is a price they should not continue to pay, especially as for many of them school is their only regular opportunity to interact with other children.

Paul Dumbleton works for Enable but writes in a personal capacity.

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