Swept under the carpet

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Aids is not considered to be in the special needs category, creating a secret and unknown school population, says George Currie

nce more, special educational provision is under fire because of the failure of new educational policies. We have always had the merry-go-round of government policies for children with special educational needs, which alternate between inclusion (integration) in generalist schools and exclusion (segregation) in specialist SEN schools.

And back again and again and again.

The situation is further confused when labelling and categories play a big part in this game. Past practice reminds us of the fate of previous terms - "idiot" and "moron", to name but two - and how they were once professional statements which have now fallen into social misuse and abuse. At one time teachers were not even allowed to know that a child had epilepsy.

We really got into a mess when we started to grade each handicap as "mild, moderate, severe or profound". We have so many categories and sub-categories that we lost the plot. This confusion in the infamous labelling process has led to inappropriate provision for a lot of individual children, whereas most learning difficulties stem from inappropriate methods and choice in the curriculum.

Often, the child's deficit is not ability but access, opportunity and acceptance.

What is now needed is a radical change in philosophy and practice, possibly starting with the premise that the SEN child should have more education, not less. A "normal" child's week is 27-28 school hours, whereas the SEN child has substantially less, usually because of travel arrangements. I would say that the SEN child is deprived of at least one hour of schooling each day. To allow both education and schooling to have a greater impact and influence in the child's life, it would be a sound idea to have the school building open for 300 school days a year for child attendance, as opposed to the nominal (and astonishing) 195 days for other children.

And I'm talking about real attendance and registration, not just childcare, respite care and nappy changing. So let us have a longer day and a longer year.

I come from the days of the iron lungs for children with polio, and isolated TB sanatoria for sick children. I remember the days of real starvation and poverty where some children had never even seen a cow in a field, never mind not having its milk to drink. This was the age of rickets.

My concern now revolves around the question of any new definitions of special needs, in particular for the Aids child - if the child is considered to be in the SEN category in the first place.

The Aids child sums up all the deepest questions and most profound concerns in education today. If we focus on this child and this condition, we will make major advances in the education of all children, including SEN children, and finally break out of the vicious circle of provision so characteristic of the past.

What is required is a strong and conscious social policy based on equal rights for all children. Unlike the epileptic child, this implies that the child with Aids is known to the school staff, with the headteacher making the final decisions of care. This would be followed with a formal contract entered into by the school with the parents or guardians.

The only other approach is that Aids itself is not considered to be in the SEN category, not even when the four grades of "mild, moderate, severe or profound" could be applied to it. In other words, for educational purposes the child would be considered to be "normal" and educated alongside his or her peers.

These are very serious issues and it would be interesting to establish just what are the national and local government policies and practices in these matters. At the moment, these seem to be part of the hidden agenda in the curriculum and the children part of a secret and unknown school population, either by accident or design.

We should have a strong and conscious social policy in these matters to prevent further groups of children from being hidden under the carpet.

George Currie was lecturer in special needs at the former St Andrews College of Education.

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