In 2005, speaking at a Special School in Gloucestershire, David Cameron, the then education spokesman for the Conservative party called for a halt to the number of special schools being closed. Since coming to power in 1997, the Labour government had overseen the closure of around 10 percent of all Special Schools by 2005. Every teacher knows that one of the biggest buzz words in education under New Labour was "inclusion". In relentless pursuit of this ideal, schools had more and more pressure put upon them to make provision for students with any type of special educational need. Clearly there is an ideal, a deeply held philosophical belief here. Students should not become social outcasts because they have been born with challenges such as physical or mental disabilities. It is hard to not agree. It is hard to think that anything other than full inclusion is right. But, in my opinion, what stemmed from an ideal, a dream, has turned in to something altogether different. Students who were happy, successful, social and ambitious have been thrown in to mainstream schools and been poorly provided for, bullied, marginalized and lost their self-esteem.
Let me pause for a moment and state that I do not mean that this is always the case. Far from it. But I do think that Special Schools have a place in our education system and that for many, many students the personalized support and care that these small educational establishments can offer them through a dedicated and highly trained and specialized staff far outweighs any disadvantage there might be to not being able to attend the same school as their neighbours. Indeed, I am sure that many Special Schools are more socially inclusive and inspiring than their mainstream siblings.
Of course there are those in government who can clearly see this too. Ruth Kelly, former Secretary of State for Education removed her dyslexic child from a state school and enrolled him in a £15,000 per year private school. And I don't blame her, a mother should do what ever she can to ensure that her child has the best possible opportunities in life, but what a pity that she couldn't fight for the same right of other parents who wanted to be able to send their children to a local Special School with dedicated provision whilst she was in charge of the school system. Instead, she oversaw the continued push for inclusion.
There is also an elephant in the room when talking about inclusion. One, it would seem, that most teachers and those involved in education feel unable to point out or discuss. At the moment, the drive for inclusion is so strong, so unshakeable, so unquestionable that it has led to the situation in classrooms across the country where teachers are afraid to put the needs of 30 students before the mantra of inclusion. Often through no fault of the individual student, teachers are providing a poorer quality of education to an entire class of students because they are not trained and do not have the resources to adequately orchestrate a lesson in which a single student with severe special needs is a member. So 30 students are losing out for the needs of the one. And I can almost swallow this, almost see the altruism shining through but for the fact that the said individual is also getting a poorer quality of education than they could receive in a Special School.
The spectrum of students that fall under the term Special Educational Needs is so wide, so diverse, that I am clearly not talking about all situations here. But it is time that we talked about that elephant in the room. Time that we re-looked at the inclusion agenda and asked everyone involved "who is gaining what?"
I have taught many students with severe Special Educational Needs and I must say that many of them have enriched the class for all. Many of them have been studious, delightful, witty, driven, interesting and caring and they have brought a great deal to my lessons. I wouldn't change that for anything and I can see no reason why such students and their parents should not be able to choose the right school for them just like everyone else. But I have also inspected lessons where children with challenging behaviour, wearing the cloak of ADHD, have simply ensured that the lesson was a complete waste of time for the other students. I have interviewed children who have passionately argued that their education is being ruined, lesson after lesson, because the teacher has all their time, energy and focus taken up dealing with one child. I have witnessed up to 20 percent of a lesson be taken up in accommodating a blind child in a science lab experiment. Worst of all, I have seen the sheer despair on that child's face and have heard them say that they wish they were back at their special school where the teachers and facilities were specialised to their needs and their peers, the other students, understood how they felt. This was not self-pity, but he knew that back in his old school the students would get frustrated together, laugh together, succeed together with the comfort that shared experience brings.
When we have a system that allows the following scenario to arise, then we should stop and reflect upon what the heck we have done to these kids. A few years back, I was called in to a classroom at the end of the Humanities corridor to deal with an 'incident'. When I arrived the class was in chaos, children were shouting and screaming, all up out of their chairs, the teacher looked close to tears and there had not been one single second of learning. A noise at my feet startled me, I looked down and saw peering out from beneath a table the face of a little boy. He looked me up and down, as though considering a magnificent find of treasure. "what are you?" he asked. I told him to come out from under the desk, but he ignored the request, not with the disruptive desire of a naughty child, but as though my words were entirely meaningless to him. Again he asked me "what are you?" I kneeled down next to him, he retreated deeper under the desk. "I don't know what you are," he told me, "explain."
I told the boy that I was a teacher at the school and that I had come to help the class settle down. He furrowed his brow and snorted, "yes, but what are you?" I couldn't think of any words to say. "Are you a human?" he asked me. "Yes," I told him simply. "Such curious things, humans," he mused to no-one in particular.
The situation carried on for quite some time and it became increasingly apparent that the child believed himself to be an alien visitor, lost in our world. I was only able to coax him out from under the table by accepting his reality and talking to him on those terms.
Later that day, I sat with his parents and discussed the incident. They explained to me with tense tears rolling down their cheeks how hard they had tried to get their son in to a special school, but that the nearest one was now 30 miles away and was completely full.
There is something deeply wrong with the system.
David Cameron is no longer an opposition party spokesperson, he is Prime Minister. But I have seen little evidence as yet of the relentless march of inclusion ebbing away or a full and reasoned debate bearing fruit.