Special Schools: A pedagogical resource for the whole community

Here is the contribution I made to the National Education Trust’s collection of essays, Special Education for  The Next Generation. The full document can be found at:

http://www.nationaleducationtrust.net/Resources.php#SENforTheNextGeneration

Following the commitment by the Coalition, during the build up to the General Election, to ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’ and the aspiration within the Green Paper to strengthen the role of early intervention, an opportunity is arising for special schools to become more fully involved in the identification and support of individual need within education.

One of the dangers around a rapid expansion of early intervention is that the temptation may be to focus upon high incidence learning disabilities or those with clear symptomatic indicators, at the expense of those children with learning disabilities which are less familiar, are not presenting symptoms of developmental delay or which do not become apparent until later on in life. The body of assessment expertise and experience which exists in many of our special schools is a resource which is invaluable in terms of the objective identification of developmental delays. Such is the value of this body of knowledge that it may be worth considering further developing a role for special schools in the development and delivery of portfolios of diagnostic assessment for use by colleagues in mainstream education. A role which could be coordinated and quality assured through the Teaching School initiative.

In doing this we can create an opportunity to shift away from perceiving the role of special schools as being about reactively providing education once the mainstream placement has broken down or has been identified as being inappropriate. Instead the emphasis nationally needs to shift more fully towards the identification of the most appropriate educational setting at the earliest possible stage, so that the necessary expertise can be utilised in order to address any delays in child development as soon as possible.

The impact of this approach will hopefully lead to an education which is more fully tailored to the needs of the individual from the outset and which addresses any gaps in the prerequisite skills before they can go on to impact on the child’s broader engagement with learning. It seems cruel that even now there is a tendency in some parts of the country to see mainstream education as the default and special schools are where you go to once that placement, and by association the child, has failed.

However this is not about special schools being the sole arbiter of specialist pedagogical knowledge, but rather about fostering a mutual recognition of the roles that both special and mainstream settings can play within an education system which recognises a collective responsibility for the children operating within it. We need to move away from a system of education which is inherently Procrustean towards one in which the individual is valued and the uniqueness of their needs catered for.

So, in the next generation of special schools we will see children arriving without a statement, because a well informed professional feels that there may be something which needs a closer look. We will have children being taught some aspects of their education in a special school whilst having other elements met within the mainstream, through carefully constructed dual placements. We will have children moving between special schools and mainstream settings interchangeably as and when one location can best meet their needs at any one time. For this to happen we need the next generation of special schools to be seen nationally, as being a resource to be utilised to support the wider educational community in maximising the potential of all of the pupils for whom we are collectively responsible. If this is achieved, we may just create a system of education in which no bias is required because the system itself is by its very nature more inclusive.

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