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Russell Harris wrestles with the arguments for and against a truly inclusive education system

“So, where do you teach?” Conversations during coffee breaks at regional GCSE moderation meetings tend to start in similar ways. I gave the name of my school at the time. “Oh, I know, that’s that low ability place.” The accompanying dismissive wave of his hand emphasised the speaker’s view of special schools, and he turned abruptly away to seek out a more interesting conversation.

Later that evening, I reflected upon the deeper significance of this careless comment, which had come from an experienced colleague, whose contributions to the preceding group marking exercises had been perceptive, sensitive and accurate. Clearly, in his mind, special schools were different and separate places providing instruction for those children deemed to be “low-ability”, and certainly not schools worthy of his own esteemed attention, reflection or interest. I allowed my anger to build as I marked and responded to the impressive essays on Romeo and Juliet written just that week by my “low-ability” pupils.

Of course, the comment was made thoughtlessly and with no intention of causing offence. Yes, the speaker is probably a highly-skilled practitioner who is scrupulously fair with all of his students. And yet, the implications of his judgement rankled. Would he have been so dismissive if he had a “special” child himself? Would he categorise his own children as “low-ability”? Perhaps, instead, he would go for “educationally subnormal” or “mentally retarded.” However, I doubt it, since having a child, a sister, a brother or any close relative with a learning disability forces you to recognise people’s humanity, rather than categorise a perceived condition. In other words, you value an individual as an individual and not as a medical acronym (SEN, ASD, ADHD, MLD, SLD – the list of terms employed to label children seems to grow on a yearly basis).

Unwittingly, my mainstream colleague had highlighted the disabling and life-long stigma attached to children who attend a special school and, just as importantly, given voice to the highly discriminatory and often unconscious views and opinions which take seed in people’s minds when children are segregated in this way. Furthermore, through his dismissive hand gesture, which you might use to bat away a troublesome insect, he had revealed a distaste for difference that had taken on a physical manifestation. Finally, through a seemingly throw-away comment, my mainstream comrade had provided the spark for a very strong argument in favour of the abolition of special schools and the full, unconditional inclusion in ordinary schools of all children, regardless of perceived ability.

The idea is idyllic: children from all walks of life, of all abilities and interests, working together not just to gain academic awards, but in fact to build a more harmonious society in which human relationships and self-determination are more important than material wealth or economic competitiveness. Special schools, it would seem, are a barrier to the realization of this vision as they segregate and categorize, assigning young people limiting identities and disabling labels, while facilitating and promoting the growth of wider discrimination. The sooner these ghettoes are abolished, so this argument would run, the better for everyone.

Switch now to a different conversation. This one is taking place in the staff-room of a special school. “I am not precious about special education,” replies a colleague to my challenge, “but the fact is that the majority of our children here have been totally let down by mainstream schools. What they have been through has left them so distraught by their experience of school that, in many cases, they have refused to go to school for months on end and, in some cases, for years. Here, they grow and succeed. When parents and children stop coming to us in tears, desperate for a school which treats and values pupils as individual human beings, then, and only then, will I argue for the closure of special schools.”

I have now taught in both a special school and a mainstream academy (my current post). I also have an assertive, witty and highly confident younger sister who happens to have Down’s syndrome. She attended special schools and colleges until her early twenties, has now worked for ten proud and successful years in a large supermarket, and has recently started running training sessions for new MENCAP staff. The academic, social and personal achievements, not to mention the growth in self-confidence, self-belief and self-worth, that I have seen in pupils at a special school would not, I strongly believe, have been possible had those pupils remained at their mainstream schools. And yet, I see fully the arguments for the abolition of special education altogether. How can I resolve this contradiction?

Yes, I would support unreservedly the right of all children to be educated together in an ordinary school. Moreover, I believe it certainly is possible to improve academic standards while including learners of all abilities. However, I would also say that any move to close special schools requires a simultaneous and deep-rooted re-evaluation on the part of teachers, children, academics, policy-makers and society at large of the purposes of education. Clearly, this would need to go much deeper than the constant call for “more SEN training” for mainstream teachers. This, surely, is about learning to engage and interact with other human beings who may perceive the world very differently to you, rather than merely gaining new strategies to manage learning and behaviour. It is, in other words, about a deep-rooted shift in mindset.

Many of the children I have worked with have found a large, impersonal, mainstream school to be an extremely unhappy and damaging experience. While far from perfect, the special school in which they found themselves has facilitated personal achievements and academic success that both parents and previous teachers had openly said to be impossible. My fear in a policy that closed special schools rapidly and without a corresponding shift in mindset of the whole of society is that instead of the inclusive approaches to education I have mentioned being incorporated into “ordinary” schools, they would simply be lost.

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Russell Harris is a teacher and freelance writer. He is also older brother to a young woman with Down's syndrome.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.

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