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Time to reconnect

Despite a laudable Green Paper, Excellence for all Children, we are in danger of going backwards in special needs education, says Alan Dyson

Not surprisingly, debate within the field of special needs education is dominated by the new Green Paper, Excellence for all Children.

Its proposals on increasing inclusion, raising standards and developing the capacity of mainstream schools to respond to a wide range of needs are excellent ones, continuing an honourable tradition of liberal reform which goes back at least to the Warnock Report and perhaps as far as the end of the Second World War. Even the less-than-liberal policies of recent years have not been able to stifle that tradition entirely and it has continued to manifest itself in the work of many innovative special needs teachers, schools and local education authorities.

Despite the excellence of the Green Paper, however, my joy is not entirely unbounded. The liberal tradition has re-surfaced once again - but I feel that we have lost something over the past two decades. When I entered teaching in the mid-1970s, there was still a sense that education had some grand, albeit ill-defined, social mission. The campaign for comprehensive schooling, the slow emergence of mixed-ability teaching, the creation of community schools, the development of innovative, child-centred curricula - these and many other developments indicated the extent to which education was seen to have a broader social function. Latterly, this function has come to be condemned as "social engineering", but at the time we regarded it as a rather noble attempt to equalise opportunities and advantages across the whole of society.

Special needs education played its part in this liberal movement. The trend towards integration, the emerging "whole school approach", the growing critique of individualistic and psychological accounts of "special need" - all served to connect our field with wider educational and social concerns for equity. Our focus was less on explaining the cause of individual children's difficulties and deficits and more on how we might address the massive social and economic disadvantages out of which, we thought, many of those difficulties arose.

In the 1970s, we believed it was but a short step from reforming special needs education to reforming society. We were, of course, hopelessly naive. Mainstream education was far more resilient than we gave it credit for, resisting our efforts outright or absorbing them within itself, without feeling the need to change its fundamental structures and approaches.

Special needs educators contorted themselves and their work into ever more imaginative forms in order to maintain vulnerable children in mainstream schools - while those schools, for the most part, remained as alien and hostile as ever. Eventually, the mainstream asserted its supremacy with a vengeance. The 1988 Education Reform Act created a competitive, elitist system which disadvantaged vulnerable children even further and made their achievements - such as they were - quite irrelevant.

Since then, special needs education has become increasingly inward-looking, pre-occupied with its own systems and structures and disconnected from the wider social concerns which once were its hallmark. The advent of "SEN registers" and "individual education plans" have reinforced the individualistic and psychological model of need which we have been seeking to abandon since the 1970s. The "new disabilities" - dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, dyspraxia and the rest - have done much the same.

Even the jewel in the special needs crown - the inclusion movement - may be taking us backwards rather than forwards. There is much brouhaha surrounding the placement of disabled children in mainstream schools. No one, however, seems to be asking whether that placement is really going to reform mainstream education, or whether it will simply draw attention away from the vast numbers of children without disabilities who continue to be disenfranchised, disadvantaged and alienated within ordinary schools.

We need urgently to reconnect special needs education to wider social concerns such as these. The naivety of the 1960s and 70s was, perhaps, forgivable given the social optimism of those times. However, it would, in the light of our experience of the past two decades, be criminally naive to believe that yet another internal reform of special needs education is likely to have any impact on the underlying social problems out of which so many children'sdifficulties arise. Moreover, it may be that the time is ripe for such a reconnection.

In recent weeks, we have seen calls by researchers such as Peter Robinson, Peter Mortimore and Geoff Whitty and by politicians such as Roy Hattersley, for a recognition that the current fashion for "school effectiveness" and "higher standards" will not, of itself, cure the difficulties of children which arise out of poverty and disadvantage. We have also, significantly, seen the establishment of the Government's Social Exclusion Unit. This may, as yet, have few convincing answers, but it shows at least that the Government is prepared to ask the right questions.

In terms of special needs education, there are some specific actions that we should now be taking. First, we should, in a currently discredited phrase, seek to understand rather than to condemn those schools in which social problems manifest themselves most acutely. Instead of naming, shaming, special measures, fresh starts and the rest, we should work to understand how, precisely, social disadvantage, education policy and other social and economic policies interact to produce the problems which such schools face.

We should, moreover, identify both the constraints which such problems impose on school managers and the creative responses which schools can make to these problems. In particular, we should try to learn from schools which have set those problems in a wider context and have reconstructed themselves as social agents playing a significant role in their communities.

Second, we should address once again the question of how the major social agencies - Education, Health and Social Services - can work together, not simply to deal with the casualties of our social system but to be proactive in preventing such casualties from arising in the first place. The obsession in recent years with devolved management, the creation of internal markets and the setting of increasingly demanding targets within increasingly constrained budgets has made it almost impossible for these agencies to collaborate in order to address fundamental social problems.

The separation of the work of these agencies from mechanisms for economic development and from other aspects of social policy has, of course, further compounded this situation. Yet many of the difficulties which children present in schools simply cannot be resolved by action within education alone. If anything is an issue for the Social Exclusion Unit, therefore, it is this.

Finally, we should rethink the role of education as an arm of our social strategy. The model of education with which we have operated in recent years has been deeply impoverished. Do we really believe that education is simply about producing young people who read at an age appropriate level or who leave school with a clutch of A-Cs at GCSE? Are we really convinced that such young people are the economic salvation of the nation or, even if they are, that the function of education is reducible simply to economics?

It is here that special needs education is particularly relevant. I no longer believe that the way forward is through the reform - however enlightened - of the traditional structures of special schools and special provision in the mainstream. However, it is within those structures that the most obvious casualties of the current system are to be found. Looking backwards, we must understand how, precisely, we have failed these children. Looking forwards, we must test the development of a more equitable education system against its impact on its most vulnerable charges.

Alan Dyson is professor of special needs educa-tion and co-director of the Special Needs Research Centre in the Department of Education, University of Newcastle. A longer version of this article is published in the current issue of the British Journal of Special Education

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