The Times today (Saturday 13 June 2009) has an article about children with special needs being excluded from school. It points to a recent survey showing that 55 percent of parents of children with autism saying their child had at some point been unofficially excluded from school.
Other figures in research by the paper show that although children with special needs make up a small proportion of children in schools, they make up a huge percentage of those excluded. The problem is worst in primary schools, largely because of a lack of resources.
I think that it is not just a lack of resources but the fact that schools are increasingly expected to cope with children with emotional and behavioural needs as well as autism, with little or no extra training. A mainstream teacher should be just that - a teacher who teaches mainstream children. He or she is not trained to be a special needs teacher and should not be expected to be one just because the government says so-called 'inclusion' is key.
The situation is made worse by the lack of specialist places for children with special needs. With the closure of many special schools and lack of places for children with conditions such as Asperger's Syndrome in the first place, these children often end up with an inadequate education because they have difficulty accessing the curriculum in the same way as their 'normal' peers. They also have problems making friendships because they are perceived by other children as 'weird' and who wants to be marked out as being friends with the weird kid? This leaves the ASD child socially isolated, sometimes bullied and learning that they have no place in 'normal' society.
There are those whom I have heard say (including the Schools Minister Sara McCarthy-Fry), 'Well, they'll have to mix with all sorts when they're grown up, so school is a good training ground for when they're adults.' This makes me incensed; so, they should get used to being friendless, excluded, shunned and bullied because it's going to happen to them as adults? Is that what they would want for their children? Secondly, it is not true that they are likely to mix with all sorts of people when they are adults. We all live in fairly small mini-societies and communities where we tend only to meet people broadly similar to ourselves, unless you are someone where it is your job to mix with all sorts of people such as those in public life or public service (note the word 'public'). This is hardly the likely career path of someone with ASD. Unless of course, they get the proper training when they are young.
If they can't get this specialist training at mainstream school because of a lack of resources and expertise, where are they going to get it? At a special school? Don't be silly, they've either been closed or are over-subscribed.
It then falls to the independent sector to fill the gap. These independent special schools usually cost a lot of money because that's what it takes to provide suitable specialist help to give these children a shot at a reasonable life. I say, if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes and the Local Education Authorities should cough up and pay unless they're willing to find capital resources to invest in their own facilities.
There are good state special schools that can provide for children with severe special needs. But it is those with higher-functioning autism who are left to cope in mainstream school with or without support because there's nowhere else in the state system for them to go.
My boys, both with Asperger's, have experienced both mainstream and independent special school. I have nothing but praise for the teachers in their mainstream school; they did their best given the resources and time they had at their disposal. But it was not enough and I am sure they would be the first to admit it. Now at their independent school, they have the vital small class sizes they need, specialist teachers, access to Speech and Language and Occupational Therapy where needed, counselling when required and mentors who keep in close touch with them.
I was told by one SENCo at a good secondary that they could cope with children with Asperger's and sometimes she didn't have a problem for 'months on end' until something kicks off and it all goes pear-shaped. At our school, this never happens. Things never get out of hand because they are not allowed to. It's a small school and teachers know what's going on with the boys so things can't kick off in the first place. That's the difference.
My boys are getting the social and key skills training they need to help them cope with the 'real world' as well as a good academic education. For them, you can't have one without the other. I had to work hard to get the LEA to pay for one son and I'm still waiting on the outcome for funding with the other. Until then we're paying £12,000 a year ourselves which is not easy to find.
The point of 'inclusion' is to be included in society when they are adults, not stuffed into a one-size-fits-all classroom in the hope that they may learn social skills through osmosis. That's politics at its worst, where dogma overcomes common sense and expert opinion.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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