Every so often the opinion pops up in my Twitter feed that Special schools should be abolished.
Now as someone who has devoted their entire career to the education of children with severe and profound and multiple learning disabilities, both in the classroom and beyond, I try not to get too affected by this sentiment. To some extent I sympathise, in an ideal world every child should be able to get the highest quality of education in their local community school. However, currently they do not, (something which is not exclusive to those with learning disabilities), and I am not completely convinced that the abolition of Special schools is going to rectify this. Nor am I convinced that we should be advocating the denial of choice to those who wish to have it.
It seems to me a bit like trying to eradicate poverty by abolishing food banks. Whilst Special schools may be indicative of a system which is not completely inclusive, I don’t think they are the cause, they are of course also indicative of a system within which choice exists.
More importantly good Special schools don’t just accept being separate to the mainstream system. Many work hard to ensure that barriers are broken down, that presumptions and generalisations are challenged and that opportunities are open to all. The school I work in prides itself on the work it does both with and within the local community to ensure that our pupils are visible and valued members of the community in which they live. So here are some of the things we do to be more inclusive:
Class based inclusion:
Possibly the most important things we do with regard to ensuring our pupils are better included is the provision of mainstream based education for every child, irrespective of complexity of need, for a morning every week. We have direct partnerships with around eight mainstream schools across ten classes, covering academies, faith schools, comprehensives and the independent sector and our pupils join together with their mainstream peers to learn. This means that each and every week approximately 350-400 children come together to work in partnership in a reciprocal relationship which sees us visiting mainstream settings and pupils from mainstream coming to us. This has a profound impact on both sets of pupils and the staff who work with them and interestingly has also led to some of those mainstream pupils growing up and choosing to work with children with learning difficulties.
It’s also worth noting that in addition to this some pupils have further periods of time in mainstream to address specific educational and social aims, whether that be particular subjects in which mainstream input supports their broader development or whether it is to ensure they feel part of their specific local community, given we serve a mixed urban / rural area.
We have a programme of residential visit from Year 4 onwards, prior to that there are day trips, and our starting point is every child, every trip as long as this is supported by the families. That means children doing everything from an overnight in a local town to a week in Barcelona, no matter how challenging or how complex their medical needs may be. A blog I wrote a little while back gives a sense of the lengths that we go to be inclusive and enable our pupils to have the same opportunities and experiences. For us Health and Safety is not a barrier, but something which needs to be carefully considered and addressed in order to overcome the hurdles we may face with regards to universal participation.
We are very lucky having a large Hydrotherapy pool and this is hired out and made available to the public throughout the week, having prioritised our own pupils needs for both therapeutic use and swimming lessons. The benefit of this is that it brings the community onto our site, often at a time when our pupils are moving around getting to and from lunch or out playing. They get to see what a Special School looks like and how our pupils conduct themselves.
We have a series of Open Mornings where anyone can book in to see what we are all about and find out more about what we do. This can be tied in with a visit into a classroom if there is a specific area that is of interest.
Community based education:
When our pupils reach sixteen, they move up to the sixth form and the curriculum changes significantly, focusing far more on the application of what has been learned. This means that they spend a significant time working within the local community in order to ensure that their learning is transferable beyond the highly structured and supportive environment of the school. As such the students are ‘out and about’, as they describe it, a lot of the time, engaging and interacting with and within the local community, through the use of public transport, independent travel, shopping, using the local facilities and amenities, as well as going to the local restaurants for lunch. They participate in the local community and they also contribute to it. We attend local planning meetings and the disability partnership board, ensuring that our students get the opportunity to have their views heard as part of the education we offer.
Our Post-16 group run a wide range of Enterprise activities and one of these is the twice termly Coffee Mornings, attended by families, past pupils and members of the local community. Each one is open to all but they also target particular groups, such as businesses and employers, other professionals and those who live in the vicinity of the school. They also go out into the community selling their products within the local shopping centre or at the local market. All of this serves to break down barriers and raise awareness of what our pupil are capable of.
Now I know this isn’t going to change the minds of those who feel that we should be abolished, who will rightly identify that this is significantly less time being included than if our pupils were permanently in mainstream education. However this is time which is functional, purposeful and meaningful to both our pupils, their mainstream peers and the community itself, and sadly that can’t yet always be said about those placed within fully inclusive environments. So whilst there is still work to do in creating a truly inclusive education system, the abolition of Special schools might be just a little bit hasty and not necessarily in the interests of the young people who attend them.
I’d be really interested to know what other schools do to ensure that their students are an included as possible, both for those placed in mainstream settings and those in Special schools, so please leave a comment if you would like to share what you do.