Thursday, 10 March 2011

I wish I could find the letter

I once wrote to our national newspaper in defence of special schools. Yes, I defend their existence and with good reason.
I know that "mainstreaming" is "in" and I know all the arguments given in favour of the trend but I will defend the existence of special schools.
Let me explain. I have worked in four special schools, in two as a "volunteer" and in two more as a teacher. I do know something about them - from both the outside and the inside. One of them in particular was an outstanding example of what can be done when you get an excellent education.
The school in question was for children with cerebral palsy. It was not run by the government but by a charity. The children were taken in at a very early age, assessed and then given the necessary physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and specialised teaching to become as independent as possible. There were also high expectations in respect of their social skills, thought for others and an awareness of the world around them.
I have known some of those students for more than forty years. All but one of them ended up a success in their own way. That is a remarkable record.
Not all the students were an academic success. That is only to be expected given the nature of their disability. Despite that I believe that all the students achieved their potential academic ability. One of them gained a doctorate (in pure mathematics), there were three more with good degrees and a number more with TAFE (technical and further education) qualifications. Many of them have held down good jobs in the community. A few went to sheltered workshops but did well there as they were regarded as leaders, at least by example. They have married, had children, been active in the community, politics and the arts. One went into the ministry.
It was a school with a remarkable record. Many of the old scholars still get together annually and I am always invited to attend.
"Mainstreaming" has been discussed at length by the old scholars of this school. It was particularly discussed at the last reunion.
The school was taken over by the Education Department about twenty years ago. The nature of it changed almost immediately. Therapy was cut out and parents were made responsible for seeing it was provided after school hours. The children considered to be the most academically able were "mainstreamed" first. They were placed in regular classrooms with no specialist teaching support but a little extra classroom teacher aide time. Then some more of the less able children were gradually mainstreamed as well. Depending on their location they were sometimes given a little extra tuition each week. The least able children (and others with severe behavioural issues) were retained in the special school. The school was not the same sort of place that it had been but the Education Department took no responsibility for the less desirable outcomes. They simply said that "these are the sort of children they are".
Last year they closed the school altogether. It no longer exists. The highly desirable piece of real estate it sits on is to be "developed".
There are plans to close other special schools as well. There are very few left. Three I know are run by charities, one is run by the Education Department within a charity. There is pressure to close these as well, despite the fact that they handle some of the most challenging children. There are now some children who are not attending school because there is no school for them to attend. No school can cater for their very special needs. They are officially being "home-schooled."
Our "Equal Opportunity" legislation makes it impossible to provide the sort of education once given by the remarkable school I knew so well. The former students are still proud of their school. They feel no "stigma" was attached to attending it and that the education they received there was far superior to the one that many of the young people they now attempt to mentor are receiving.
One of the former students once told me, "It was a good school, a very good school. More was demanded of us. We were not special here."
I think he may have been right. Good special schooling does not allow you to be special.
So, to those of you in the UK who are worrying about the directions being taken, I say fight for your remaining special schools. If they are good then they can help a child feel quite normal.


Rachel Fenton said...

I agree with your argument here, Cat. Really well put.

Anonymous said...

Cost cutting and mainstreaming at it worst.

In my never humble opinion the carers of special needs children who have no school to attend should be paid not only as full time carers, with penalty rates for weekends and night shifts, with a teachers salary added ... along with full payment for any other duties they are expected to carry out.

Judy B

Anonymous said...

Could not agree more - one of the children in my son's class is in a wheelchair and his speech is almost impossible to understand.
He should be getting physio and speech therapy but his parents are not taking him.
The other children will not talk to him because they do not understand his replies. He gets some help to go to the toilet and one of the teacher aides is supposed to help him in the classroom but the teacher uses her for other things so he is just sitting there.
He is a nice kid. Very polite and, I think, intelligent - but he is obviously miserable. I could weep for him.

catdownunder said...

Thanks for the support. I am usually told I am wrong when I argue this way. Would it be different with a lot of funding and support? I rather doubt it would solve ALL the problems.

Katherine Langrish said...

Well argued and convincing, Cat - why oh why don't those in charge listen to the people who've experienced these things?

catdownunder said...

I suspect the bottom line is "money". It costs less.