Getting the Right School

This morning as I dropped my grandchild off at her mainstream school, I witnessed the distressing sight of a boy refusing to go in. The lady who had brought him in the taxi was desperately trying to hold onto him and lead him into the classroom, but the child was getting more and more upset. A few minutes later, a male teacher came out and carried the child inside. Having helped out in this school, as research for my latest educational book (SENCO Survival Guide: 3rd edition, Routledge) I know this child as one of a small group who attend the special unit: for young children with ASD. For me, the incident raised the question: which school is best for particular groups of learners: mainstream or special? 

A week ago I received wonderful news that a boy I have tutored for many years has passed his exams and is now attending college this September. This young man, diagnosed with MLD and ADHD, attended mainstream school as a child, until his parents decided that special school would best meet his needs. In his case, that has turned out to be the right choice. Ironically, this boy has achieved far more than many of the young people I have recently observed in mainstream.

Years ago, special schools were regarded as the option for any child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). Post Warnock (1978), it was beginning to be recognised that not all children with SEND needed a special school. Inclusion became the main word in education – and still is because we have still not got it absolutely right for every child. By 1988, my role as an ‘outreach’ teacher, based partly in a special school but reaching out to mainstream, was to help teachers adapt their curriculum to suit the needs of some learners with SEND who, it was thought, could manage to succeed in mainstream. Many have. Yet many more are still being let down by the system.

The young man referred to above was placed in special school partly because the mainstream school he first attended could not meet his needs. Why? Were the classes too large? Did the teachers not know then how to adapt to this boy’s different learning needs and styles? The point is, that this has been a success story for this young man and his family. He is lucky to have parents who have supported him, had high expectations and aspirations, and pushed for him to receive the right education. Which brings us to a further important factor – parents. 

Parents matter! Yet, do we in education reach out to all parents, especially those who have children with SEND, as well as we might? I don’t think so. Parents are the key! And ‘co-production’ is meant to include parents in the policies and strategies for enabling every child to succeed. 

Now, as part of SEND Review outcomes and decisions for the future, it is vital that our education meets the needs of a huge range of diverse learners. Since Warnock, the wheels of inclusion have turned slowly, yet the gap between SEND and/or disadvantaged children and non-SEND learners is still unacceptable. 

Getting the right school is vital! Is a mainstream unit the right place for the child with a severe level of ASD referred to above? Could many learners currently not succeeding in mainstream, do better? How? Mainstream, special unit, or special school? Which type of establishment for which types or levels of need? As part of the SEND Review that is a key question for those about to come up with the answers. 

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