Where variety thrives

11th July 2003 at 01:00
Children with special needs must have the chance to be different, says Mic Carolan

In the rush to close special schools, we are sacrificing tailored support, altruism and positive discrimination on the altar of political correctness.

Why are "specialist schools" flavour of the month, with the covert recognition of differences and the return of selection, while providing for the needs of children with complex emotional, medical and specific learning difficulties is seen as contrary to the 1994 Salamanca agreement on the provision of special needs education?

There are poor special schools, and the response to the 1978 Warnock report should have been critical analysis - the key is curriculum access, not the phoney cry of curriculum differentiation. If parents are to have genuine choice, they need more than one option. It is not in a child's best interests to wait until the end of key stage 2 in the hope that surrounding parents with professionals at review time will beat them into submission.

We are storing a mountain of tribunals, not from parents wishing to escape the confines of the special school, but from those trying to gain access.

It will not have escaped their notice that the sites on which special schools have thrived are being sold as prime building land. Meanwhile, we can't get enough speech therapy or physiotherapy, and parents are seeking advice and advocacy for the completion of disability living allowance application forms. It's not the intellectuals who'll notice the absence of essential services.

The move towards identifying gifted and talented pupils is inspired, but identifying individual differences is fundamental to education. The gifted and talented may progress at their own pace, with encouragement and specific funding. They get the support they need. There is no parallel provision for children with less glamorous differences. The debate has been oversimplified and we need a a thorough audit to identify which skills and resources are required within mainstream schools - and which attitudes need to change.

I have visited many effective special schools and have yet to discover a segregationist, closed-door environment. I know my school is the least restrictive environment for many children; they represent school at football and netball, they travel to Spain and speak Spanish, they exhibit their art in Liverpool cathedral and, at each key stage, work alongside mainstream colleagues.

This is based on specialist teaching, confidence-building, tolerant behaviour management and allowing the opportunity to be different.

The future is large, multi-disciplinary, "cost-effective" special schools, built with land receipts from closures, and increases in exclusions from secondary schools of frustrated people who can't succeed in a one-size-fits-all culture. Recognition of differences is not segregationist; it is the sign of a civilised society that chooses to make a more level playing field.

My socialism leads me to believe in the provision of resources wherever they are required - "to each according to their needs". Which part of this phrase do the intellectuals not understand?

Mic Carolan has been head of three special schools, and an inspector and officer in special education since 1967

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