Lessons in in­clu­sion for us all

Poli­cies that seek to push chil­dren with spe­cial needs out of main­stream schools are turn­ing back the clock

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - John Har­ris

Hu­man progress is slow to hap­pen and some­times hard to see. But look back, and you may see how far we have come. I grew up in a world where words such as “hand­i­capped” and “re­tarded” were part of ev­ery­day speech. A sure sign of the way so­ci­ety kept some peo­ple at arm’s length was the in­hu­man use of the def­i­nite ar­ti­cle: peo­ple knew about “the deaf”, “the blind” and “the dis­abled”, but didn’t give them much thought. Many of these at­ti­tudes linger. But mil­lions of peo­ple now know that even the word “dis­abil­ity” of­ten does lit­tle jus­tice to who peo­ple ac­tu­ally are, and how much the con­cept blurs into the sup­pos­edly “able” pop­u­la­tion. Hu­man be­ings are com­plex: as the Amer­i­can writer Steve Sil­ber­man puts it in his book Neu­roTribes, “Just be­cause a com­puter is not run­ning Win­dows doesn’t mean it’s bro­ken. Not all the fea­tures of atyp­i­cal hu­man op­er­at­ing sys­tems are bugs.”

And then you look at the English ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem – or, more specif­i­cally, the ar­range­ments and poli­cies for kids with so-called spe­cial ed­u­ca­tional needs – and wonder what hap­pened. Cuts are deep­en­ing, and there is a ris­ing sense of chil­dren who do not fit in be­ing pushed out. At the last count, 4,152 chil­dren deemed to have spe­cial needs had not been found a school place (up from 776 in 2010), and most of them were forced to stay at home with­out for­mal pro­vi­sion. Even if they are in school, thou­sands more are in­creas­ingly be­ing de­nied the sup­port they need.

As things stand, the gov­ern­ment funds the ma­jor­ity of pre-16 state ed­u­ca­tion through the ded­i­cated schools grant, one of whose el­e­ments is the so-called high-needs block, meant to cover the ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren who ei­ther need in­ten­sive sup­port in main­stream ed­u­ca­tion, or go to spe­cial schools. From 2011 up to now, the high­needs block has ef­fec­tively been frozen – and to make things worse, new gov­ern­ment rules limit coun­cils’ abil­ity to top up spe­cial–needs fund­ing from the much big­ger bud­gets in­tended for main­stream schools as a whole.

Amid an across-the-board spend­ing squeeze, dozens of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are run­ning high-needs deficits. Across Eng­land as a whole, there is reck­oned to be a £400m ($572m) gap be­tween what coun­cils say they re­quire for their high-needs pro­vi­sion and what the gov­ern­ment is pro­vid­ing. So schools are cut­ting back on teach­ing as­sis­tants, spe­cial-needs train­ing and out­side help. If you have a child with spe­cial needs, or know any­one who does, you will know what all this en­tails. One-to-one pro­vi­sion at school of­ten makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween a child pro­gress­ing or with­draw­ing. With­out such sup­port, it can feel like the sky is fall­ing in.

At the same time, sweep­ing re­forms to the spe­cial­needs sys­tem – which, among other things, ex­tend the state’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to thou­sands of peo­ple up to the age of 25 – have been botched and un­der­funded. In an ab­surd twist, peo­ple are now ex­it­ing the pub­lic sec­tor sys­tem and suc­cess­fully push­ing coun­cils to fund places at in­de­pen­dent spe­cial schools.

It would be easy to think that this is all about aus­ter­ity, but it is worse than that. In the Con­ser­va­tives’ 2010 man­i­festo, there was a pledge to “end the bias to­wards the in­clu­sion of chil­dren with spe­cial needs in main­stream schools”, and push back against “the ide­o­log­i­cally driven clo­sure of spe­cial schools”. In the con­text of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, these pledges have since taken on a more sin­is­ter as­pect.

We all know what mod­ern English ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy is all about: re­sults, league ta­bles, a fix­a­tion with “dis­ci­pline”. Where, you wonder, does spe­cial-needs ed­u­ca­tion fit in. The be­gin­nings of an an­swer, per­haps, lie in a gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ment in 2017 that under the aus­pices of the free schools pro­gramme, there are to be 19 new “spe­cial free schools”.

I have a child with spe­cial ed­u­ca­tional needs. He’s 11 – and, with a lot of sup­port, he has been taught along­side his peers in main­stream state schools since he was four. He has ben­e­fited im­mea­sur­ably, but that is only half the point. His pres­ence at his end­lessly en­cour­ag­ing, proudly di­verse school means that his peers un­der­stand what hu­man dif­fer­ence means in prac­tice. This is the ideal we are now go­ing to have to fight for – be­fore it gets snuffed out, with tragic con­se­quences.

Ben Jen­nings

Theresa May faced MPs af­ter or­der­ing strikes against Syria with­out con­sul­ta­tion with par­lia­ment

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