The way to go
The debate about inclusion for children with special needs has well-drawn battle lines. On one side are those who argue that children with special needs are best educated in an environment where those needs can be met by specialist teachers with targeted resources. On the other side are those who argue that, with very few exceptions, children should be educated alongside their peers, with specialist support provided in the mainstream classroom.
In Coventry three schools have tried to break down the artificial barriers of that debate and achieve the best of both worlds with a project that mixes mainstream and special needs children.
"I almost see us as one school with three different levels of resource," says Cathy Clarke, head of the Three Spires special school for children with moderate learning difficulties. "We have a true partnership. Historically special schools have been on the edge. When the child can't cope and their needs are very different, there will be parts of those needs that can be met by other types of resource, and that's the push we've made here."
The three schools are Three Spires (MLD), Tiverton school (SLD) and Moseley primary school. The project came about after an initiative in Coventry looked at different types of inclusion. The three schools were not involved initially, but when the heads saw the kind of projects under discussion they decided to start their own experiment. At first this was unofficial, without LEA support or funding.
Dishi Attwood is head of the mainstream Moseley primary. "Our responsibility lies beyond the fence," she says. "Our children need to have an awareness and a respect for the skills and attributes of these young people." She says there were good reasons for getting involved with the project, beyond an altruistic desire to help their special school neighbours. "We didn't want to be a clearing house for children who wanted something 'ordinary'. We saw a need in our children; we're exploring resilience and emotional literacy for our young people."
The special schools have something to offer in return. "Children on statements of level 3 or above: yes, they are placed in mainstream, but some need to be in a different environment. Some of our children use the white room at Tiverton school as part of their emotional development and understanding." The white room is a visual experience room used to stimulate children . The partnership enables children from all three schools to use the room.
"It's very easy for children with SLD to lead a completely excluded life," says Tiverton's head, Arnold Chave. "They don't go out to play with their brothers or sisters and friends. They don't to go to the things that other kids get to go to. Through this kind of activity they get known, they develop their self-awareness. They're able to go nto new situations. They go in, pitch in and say hi, and meet people on a equal footing." Each contact is carefully planned in terms of resources, training and expected educational outcomes.
"This is not a cosy project," says Dishi Attwood. "If we can't see some impact on the young people it's not worth doing."
So far children have experienced joint sports sessions at a local sports centre and some have joined Moseley's after-school club. Children from the three schools also share access to each other's facilities.
Staff have been enthusiastic supporters of the scheme, not least because it involves shared expertise. An early aim has been for every member of staff to spend some time in the partner schools. Coventry is enthusiastic about the project, which has now received financial support, but Dishi Attwood argues that mainstream schools need to have developed their thinking before they can take part in this kind of inclusion.
"We've built up a team of SEN assistants who are absolutely brilliant. That's not the case everywhere. We feel that we are a long way on in providing the right environment for children, but we're unusual. Our funding goes into the SENCO role. That means that the staff and children have a very able practitioner who can target the work and support the teaching."
The three heads see the debate about inclusion as based on a false premise. "People who advocate that particular view (inclusion) should listen to teachers in mainstream schools," says Arnold Chave, "where there is uncertainty, lack of confidence, concern, and sometimes, I'm sad to say, indifference to the needs of pupils. I don't disagree with mainstream provision, but it's a considerably long way off before it can occur as a natural thing."
Cathy Clarke sees the issue in terms of finite resources. "We do all the national curriculum subjects," she says. "We don't disapply our children. You can differentiate as much as you like but it cannot happen practically in a mainstream classroom. Our children need longer on units of work, they need reinforcement and consolidation. And it's also about ethos. In years to come, if projects like this are successful, there will be classrooms with children who are more accepting and more tolerant of their peers - but we don't live in that world yet."
In the meantime the three heads believe that the project is showing some real results. "Our children are much more confident at working with children with a disability than I ever was," says Dishi Attwood. "Alex comes in a wheelchair and the children say 'This is my friend Alex'. They're seeing the person - not the chair. And parents are saying 'I'm learning from my child how to value young people who are different'."
For the special schools there have been some unexpected bonuses. "It has helped parents to understand that moderate learning difficulties don't mean going to Three Spires and never seeing the light of day again," says Cathy Clarke.