INCLUDING some pupils with special needs in mainstream schools is becoming an increasingly risky business. A few weeks ago, the case of a young girl with cerebral palsy hit the headlines after her local authority removed her from a school run by Scope (formerly the Spastics Society) on the grounds of cost.
The case aroused public interest because the girl, who had been taught at the school how to walk with the aid of sticks, was told that she would have to use a wheelchair to travel from one classroom to another at her local primary. Classes could not be exposed to the minor inconvenience of a pupil arriving a few minutes late. One suspects that a further reason for insisting on a wheelchair was that it posed fewer risks.
It might be tempting to conclude that this is an isolated incident peculiar to the eccentricity of a local authority in the south. That is not so. Growing concern by Scottish authorities with their legal liability in the event of accident or injury to pupils and staff is encouraging them to apply risk assessments in a variety of situations.
There are a number of dangers here. With the widespread adoption of inclusion policies, more and more pupils with special needs are attending mainstream schools. But for some the experience is proving problematic. Particularly affected are those with mobility problems or those who may be susceptible to falling (perhaps because of epilepsy).
Paradoxically, some mainstream schools are introducing programmes that are intentionally protective and restrictive, characteristics frequently misattributed to programmes in special schools. Even where auxiliaries or support staff are appointed to offer physical assistance, there appears to be greater concern about the risks to these staff - the possibility of their incurring injury as a result of physical intervention - than about the pupils they are assisting.
In an increasingly litigious climate local authorities may feel compelled to seek the least risk such as by insisting on a wheelchair. But that is manifestly discriminatory and makes a mockery of the policy of inclusion. Such confinement can also be construed as an unacceptable and unnecessary degree of physical restraint. If this trend continues then the children's rights officer, where a local authority has one, is going to be kept busy.
Curtailing a pupils' freedom, subjecting them to discriminatory treatment and ignoring their wishes infringes their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But how many young people with special needs or their parentsare made aware of their rights, or the existence of children's rights officers?
Most education authorities emphasise commitment to partnership, yet when concerns arise of the kind described that partnership is little in evidence. It has been suggested that parents should be legally entitled to waive any right to claim against the local authority, thereby releasing it from the possibility of litigation. Local authorities, or their legal departments, are unlikely to be sympathetic to such an arrangement,which may not be in the best interests of parents and children unless the terms of the waiver are highly specific and watertight.
For some pupils with special needs a preparedness to take risks has to be recognised, for only by taking calculated risks is learning achieved. The pupil from the West Sussex school would never have learned to walk had not she and the staff been prepared for bruises and abrasions, sacrifices worth making for greater independence. The most enduring picture here is that of a tearful and distraught girl declaring that her confidence had been shattered not only by her removal from the school she loved but by having to return to her wheelchair.
The point is not that pupils with special needs should be kept from mainstream schools but that schools should recognise that seeking to create risk-free environments is unrealistic as well as educationally and psychologically counter-productive. Education authorities should take warning from community care, where in some areas the unthinking application of risk assessments is preventing adults with special needs from fully participating in ordinary social, educational, vocational and recreational activities.
The girl was distressed that she was no longer able to benefit from the experience and expertise of special school staff. She would not have walked without their help. Who in her local primary will have the knowledge and insight to provide specialist assistance? The absence of such staff encourages a local authority to play safe.
The independent special school from which the girl was withdrawn - Ingfield Manor - received an outstanding inspection report, including the conclusion that it "provides very good value for money". But what value can be placed on the sense of liberation experienced by a pupil freed from a wheelchair, and what price has now to be paid for the damage to her self-confidence?
Life is a risky business and we do no service to any pupil to reduce risk to the point where learning is no longer an adventure. The policy of inclusion is a risky business, too, and it is time that we woke up to that fact.
Robin Jackson works as an educational consultant.