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Why there's still a case for special treatment

Disabled pupils deserve to be able to choose to have their needs met in a mainstream school or not, writes Colin Low.

I was once described as a "young Turk for integration" - what would today be called "inclusion" - the education of disabled children in mainstream schools. In those days, the 1970s, nearly all blind children went to special schools and we wanted to see a mainstream option. Our campaign was very contentious and it was argued that there should be a choice. As we saw it then the choice argument pointed to opening up the mainstream option.

Today, the argument for inclusion has been won. Inclusion is now the placement of choice. Local authorities can only resist inclusion if it is incompatible with educating other children. The efficient use of public resources and the needs of the child in question now no longer count.

The case for choice now is about retaining a special school option. Mary Warnock, whose 1978 report is credited with inspiring the revolution in thinking about special education, has called for a re-evaluation, and the Conservative party has indicated its support. Inclusion's supporters are annoyed that this will halt the steady progress to the full inclusion of all disabled children in mainstream schools. They complain that Baroness Warnock is seeking to put the clock back. But isn't the pro-inclusion lobby forcing the issue by pressing for abolition of special schools?

The supporters of inclusion have a number of points in their favour.

Special schools can have a segregating effect and may foster the perception that disabled children are different. The supporters of inclusion maintain that special schools are wrong in principle and that arguments about efficacy are beside the point.

This would be all very well if ordinary schools could meet everyone's needs, but it is plain that they cannot, or at any rate not yet. Don't get me wrong: I am in favour of inclusion being the placement of choice for the majority of disabled children and of our mainstream education system being progressively geared up to meet their needs. But we haven't got there yet, and for as long as we haven't, it will still be necessary to keep in place a specialist option for those whose needs a still very patchy system of inclusive education cannot yet meet. And there is another group for whom it will be necessary to keep special schools in place - those with profound and multiple learning difficulties who require one-to-one attention from specialised staff.

I see this for myself as a member of the special educational needs and disability tribunal which hears appeals from parents unhappy about the provision being made for their children. Twice as many parents are appealing because they want their child to have a special school place.

I was once asked "How does the tribunal operate? Is it for special schools or inclusion?" It really doesn't work like that. The tribunal makes a careful assessment, based on the evidence before it, of the needs of the particular child and what provision can best meet those needs. Whether it is inclusive or special doesn't come into it.

Some of the arguments put forward by the advocates of total inclusion are tendentious, disingenuous or plain wrong. They say that disabled people will tell you that they felt oppressed by their special school. Well some will and some won't.

They say every type of disability can be successfully catered for in a mainstream setting. That may be so, but the existence of isolated examples of inclusion is a far cry from the generality of schools being geared up to cater for the full range of disabilities.

I have heard one inclusionist argue that if you imagine two schools alongside one another - one called mainstream and the other called special - it is impossible to distinguish between them in terms of what they do and what they can provide. But that is not true. There is all the difference in the world in terms of numbers in class, staffpupil ratios, specialist expertise and the availability of ancillary services.

For much of the time, alas, the field of special education is bedevilled by dogma. For a long time this asserted that disabled children could only thrive in special schools.

For the past 25 years however, in the wake of the Warnock report, the field has been blessedly free from dogma. A settlement has been arrived at based upon a mixed economy of provision which acknowledges a decisive shift towards inclusion, with progressive re-engineering of the system to support inclusion as the goal, but with a place reserved for specialist provision for those whose needs cannot be met in the mainstream. It is a matter of regret that this enlightened settlement is being put at risk by dogmatic challenges from those whose monolithic prescriptions of inclusion pay little regard to the needs of the children concerned.

Colin Low is chairman of the Royal National Institute of the Blind

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