Pushy is the only way to be
Integration is the Government's special needs trophy, but it needs careful handling, argues novelist and parent Adrian Mourby
My seven-year-old son John has Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Like many other parents who've campaigned long and hard to get their child extra support in school, I felt like cheering when news of the Government's new initiative for special needs was announced.
Our experience of the current process whereby a statement of needs is drawn up has been horrendous. The whole procedure seems designed, like Dickens's Circumlocution Office, to slow matters down and thereby save the Department for Education and Employment money. Little or no information is given out to parents, few deadlines have to be met and local education authorities are free to push the eventual statement in whatever direction will cost them least.
It was in the summer of 1995 that John's headteacher called us in. After a year of schooling, it was clear that our son was not learning and his teachers were finding him difficult to handle. Left alone, John would work away quietly for ages, but if forced to conform to what everyone else was doing he would get angry.
The head thought John needed one-to-one supervision and, as his school could not afford to fund this, he asked if we'd be willing to sign forms that would involve the Pupil Support Service. We did so unaware of a crucial distinction that no one explained to us: requesting the involvement of the PSS is not the same thing as requesting a statement of special educational needs. The request for a statement brings with it a timetable of six weeks within which the authority is obliged to respond. There is, however, no time limit placed on a request for "involvement". What happened to us was that the forms went off in July, and when John returned to school in the autumn we found nothing had been done.
John's headmaster advised us - informally - that his experience of special needs in Britain was that things only get done if the parents push, so that is what we began to do. In response to our lobbying, the Pupil Support Service did send a support teacher to work with John, but it transpired that her role was simply to try to devise coping strategies for him and his teacher. John still wasn't learning and the statementing process had simply been stalled while this diversion took place.
My wife eventually took matters into her own hands and got enough experts - doctors, paediatrician, behavioural psychologist, speech therapist - to convince the LEA that they must consider statementing. In March 1996, the meeting that would set in motion a statement of John's special needs took place, nearly nine months after we had signed those forms in the head's office.
While the Pupil Support Service went about collecting its "advice", my wife and I were asked to look at various special schools for John. This came as quite a shock to us, as until then we'd believed we were working towards his being supported in mainstream. We were given to understand that our authority would be unlikely to pay out for such a costly scheme, so reluctantly we co-operated.
We discovered that our LEA had an assessment centre with spare capacity. As far as we could see, the statement was being deliberately weighted towards sending John to an institution that served the authority's needs, much more than his. This place had no expertise in autismand seemed designed as a catch-all forchildren with a range of behavioural, physical, emotional and learning difficulties.
We asked the PSS if there was a mainstream school with its own special needs unit that existed alongside regular classes and were sent to see one that was depressingly underfunded.
Although the teachers were battling valiantly, one of them actually asked us if we could help them lobby the LEA for more facilities. Given that we now had a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for John, we asked to see a local special school with expertise in autism. The standard of teaching there was so good that we decided, not without some qualms, to nominate John for a place.
There was some discomfort at the Pupil Support Service when we made our choice known because, as a result of reorganisation, this school now fell outside the new unitary authority. The PSS proposed to take more advice - presumably to weight the statement against John going "out of county", but my wife knew enough about education law by then to be able to stop it doing so.
A statement of John's needs was produced in the late summer of 1996, and he went to our choice of nominated special school the following October. The whole process had taken 15 months. I'm told 18 months to two years is the norm.
Against such a background - and our experience is far from unique - the Government's intention to improve the process and provision of special needs education can only be applauded. Time limits need to be set and a fundamental change of ideology is needed among those administering the system. They need to be persuaded that their job is to help parents help their children, not to save money.
The Government is very keen to increase the amount of integration of special needs children into mainstream education, and I agree with this.
The United Nations' education charity, UNESCO, has enshrined the notion of every child having the right to be educated in its own community. Initially my wife and I fought for this principle ourselves, but what I've seen of integration at work does worry me.
Recently we were considering moving house and contacted two of the authorities into which we were thinking of moving. Cornwall looked at John's statement of needs and explained that their policy was to integrate children like him into mainstream schools with whatever level of support he needed. This was good.
Devon, on the other hand, told us that their policy was to put as few children as possible into special schools and that they judged John would cope in an "appropriately supportive mainstream school". This despite the fact that the whole rationale behind drawing up a statement is that experts have decided a particular child cannot be left to cope without specialist support. Such a blanket belief that all statemented children can cope in mainstream, providing the school is nice enough, flies in the face of the facts and smacks suspiciously of cost-cutting to me.
There is a limit to the amount of good a mainstream school can do for severely disabled or emotionally disturbed children without a lot of extra resources and training. Our son has only a mild form of autism and has been given intensive help for more than a year now, but I'd still be careful of how we reintroduced him to a class of 30 children. Once, I might have leapt on the barricades with a banner proclaiming full integration, but I'd be much more cautious now.
In our own case we have been fortunate - while looking for houses - to have come across a state school in Monmouth which ought to be a model for David Blunkett and his ministry. Here the special needs unit is in the same building as the rest of the school and is always available to statemented children who, like John, will be edging their way back into mainstream education.
Those children whose needs will always be greater than can be met in a mainstream class will remain in the unit but the Johns of this world can return for particular lessons, or even for longer, if life in the classroom proves too taxing for them.
This is what special needs education should be all about. Provision that can be easily accessed and integrated into the mainstream in a way that can respond to the individual needs of each child.
Alas, it is all too rare , and finding it can be an exhausting and demoralising experience.
Mr Blunkett has his work cut out.