Lessons in inclusion for us all
Policies that seek to push children with special needs out of mainstream schools are turning back the clock
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.
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