Social inclusion policies must work with, not against, special schools, says John d'Abbro
I can see that it works in practice, but does it work in theory?" Never was the late Sir Keith Joseph's remark more pertinent than to the current debate about the management and education of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in schools. Children with EBD can be threatening, violent and disruptive, provoking anxiety in others: children, parents, teachers, governors, LEA officers and elected councillors. Many get sent to special schools or units - and everyone else relaxes and gets on with the business of teaching the more deserving!
EBD schools are then charged with the task of managing that anxiety, disruption and violence while delivering the national curriculum in a climate which pays no regard to the expertise required, and where the only teacher training available is by distance learning. But a special school's objective should not be to contain society's anxieties; its purpose is to provide for the needs of those children referred because they manifest emotional and behavioural difficulties. Despite the inadequacies of the Office of Standards in Education inspection framework, there is evidence that there are now enough effective day EBD schools that work in practice. Good schools make a difference in children's lives, arresting their social and emotional deprivation and ameliorating their EBD. If special schools are to exist, they must be special, doing a job that cannot be done in mainstream schools, and assessed against different criteria.
The idea that special schools exist to safeguard the smooth running of mainstream schools is not new, but the current debate on inclusion is an opportunity to redefine their role. In the education of children with EBD, it is now mainstream schools that have the problem, for there will always be a perceived greater need for segregated provision than places available. The removal of a child exhibiting challenging behaviour only provides temporary respite, as the second most challenging child soon moves up to fill the space available. We talk about inclusion, but how can we provide an inclusive service? Central to the debate is a lack of agreement on what schools are for. Who owns the problem of challenging behaviour? Children exhibiting EBD hve a way of attacking the resources and processes, human or otherwise, that are set up to support them. Segregated provision such as special schools work most effectively when it is clear to the children where the boundaries are and what job is being asked of them.
In the London borough of Redbridge, EBD resources are now co-ordinated within a single management structure, a framework of support. This incorporates an all-age day EBD school, two pupil referral units, early years' provision, an outreach service, including two posts jointly managed with social services and the language support service, and the education provision within an adolescent psychiatric unit. As the Italian proverb says, "Large family, quick help".
Under the Government's Social Inclusion Policy, all schools will ultimately have to move to working with more children with EBD. We need to see integration as an ongoing process, with social inclusion just as important in adulthood as in schooling. The Government and LEAs must define their commitment to inclusion and then create policies that will ensure that children with EBD are given genuine educational opportunities. There is little value in inclusive education if we as a society continue to exclude those with disabilities. If we are serious about inclusion, it is going to be genuinely expensive, resource-intensive and time-consuming.
So why will the Social Inclusion Policy, philosophically so sound in theory, not work in practice? And why does segregated special provision, theoretically suspect, demonstrably work in practice? Special schools are not politically comfortable. They are an expensive resource meeting a significant social need; when effective they are cheaper than the alternative, which is often damaged adults in prisons and psychiatric institutions while society engages in outraged debate at the manifestation of emotional and behavioural difficulties.
The bottom line is that segregated EBD provision is here to stay, and some would say a good thing too. The challenge is how best to support mainstream schools in the Government's quest for inclusion, while safeguarding the needs of some of the most damaged and disturbed pupils.
John d'Abbro is headteacher of New Rush Hall. The views expressed here are his own and not those of Redbridge LEA