Mum knows better than the politicians

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Blanket inclusion leaves many children alone, unsupported and frustrated, says Michael Russell

Maria Hutchings is a very Scottish type of heroine, in the Jenny Geddes mould. For it was Mrs Hutchings who marched up to Tony Blair in the middle of a television discussion last month to denounce what he was saying, grabbing not just the attention of viewers but the press headlines the next day. It takes a lot of guts, or a huge amount of anger, to break all the conventions and, moreover, to do so in a way that is bound to alarm and annoy the great and the good. Mrs Hutchings clearly has guts - she is the mother of a severely autistic boy - but she is also very angry, as her son's special school is threatened with closure. It was the contrast between that fact, and the Prime Minister's constant assertions about improving standards of education, which propelled her out of her seat.

Mrs Hutchings has plenty of modern Scottish counterparts. Parents of children with special needs, who choose to fight to find the right education, have to be unwilling to lie down under the perpetual bureaucratic interference, foot-dragging and downright obstruction which they regularly meet from education officials and sometimes even from elected politicians. Yet, as a consequence, their own lives are usually massively disrupted.

As an MSP, I met a number of such parents all over Scotland. One case in particular sticks in my mind, that of a young single mother with a severely autistic son who had found the local provision - a small unit attached to a primary school - completely unsuitable. She set out to find what would be best for her boy, and located an excellent establishment 30 miles away, run by a charity which was willing to take him.

But the council, while making no formal objection, point blank refused to meet the extra travelling costs which amounted to a couple of hundred pounds a week. After three years, her son had improved beyond all recognition. She, however, was virtually bankrupt.

Mrs Hutching's intervention was focused on the issue of "mainstreaming", a concept which in many - but not all - circumstances has a great deal to commend it. When implemented properly, it gives many special needs children an opportunity to enter the real world and to learn ways of coping with it.

Their educational attainment can rise and their social interactions improve. For the rest of the school, there are valuable lessons of inclusion and tolerance.

But mainstreaming cannot work unless three criteria are firmly applied. The first is that it is fully prepared for, resourced and supported. The second is that decisions must be made on a child-by-child basis. The third demands that continuing high-quality provision is made for those children who cannot be included in it.

The early reports on resourcing mainstreaming in Scotland's schools were not encouraging. Some of those, admittedly, came from parents, of both special needs and non special needs children, who felt that the whole concept was wrong. But others, including a Glasgow University study of East Lothian schools, found that teachers felt vulnerable and exposed, and that the necessary training and support issues were not being addressed.

Later work has shown an improving picture, but most staff at the chalkface will still express real concerns about what they are asked to do, and how each bit of extra help has to be fought for. Much progress still needs to be made.

The second and third criteria - the ones which so annoyed Mrs Hutchings - are also far from being honoured. Fortunately, the Scottish Executive accepted early on in the process of implementing its mainstreaming policies that the seven national special schools would be retained and funded. This was a welcome, if only implicit, acceptance that not all children could be mainstreamed.

Having visited some of these schools, it is inconceivable that they could be phased out. They provide superb care in a stimulating environment for children and young people who simply could not go anywhere else. They also give the lie to ideological concerns that education must never be delivered except directly by the state, for they are run by charities on a funding model that could be applied more widely.

None the less, these schools continue to have worries about official policy, for the first recommendation from local authority assessments of many children is for an element of mainstreaming, often through special units attached to local authority schools. Good as these often are, they cannot cope with the severely affected child and any assessment that says otherwise is usually shown to be plain wrong, and very quickly at that. It is here that the protesting parent becomes vital, if the child is to move on and to find the right placing.

But Mrs Hutchings had a wider point which needs to be born in mind. She has correctly identified the fact that mainstreaming, while beneficial in most cases, can be damaging not just to the special needs child but to all the other children. Bad behaviour need not be malicious or deliberate in order to disrupt and even destroy the learning experience of those who do not behave badly. A child who feels alone, unsupported and frustrated will exhibit all the same symptoms, with the same disastrous effects. And any special needs child who cannot cope with mainstreaming will, undoubtedly, feel alone, unsupported and frustrated.

"Education, education, education" is now not so much a mantra, as a discredited and hollow boast. If it were to mean anything again, it would be that the provision of education was tailored to the individual needs of every child, and particularly the most vulnerable. Mrs Hutchings, by rising from her seat in a television studio, has marked that card very firmly. It is just a pity that she, and so many others, have suffered so much in the meantime.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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