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Last Updated: Friday, 10 June, 2005, 23:58 GMT 00:58 UK
Turning point for special needs?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
The issue of special needs is rising up the political and educational agenda in England again.

We may even be at another turning point: after almost 30 years of movement in one direction, the pendulum could be about to swing back from inclusion towards segregation.

First, we had the unusual sight of special needs education becoming an election issue. Tony Blair was tackled by a mother who felt her son's special school was under threat from a government policy, which was tilted in favour of educating children in mainstream schools.

Then the Conservatives picked up the issue of the closure of special schools and have kept pushing it since the election.

The most significant event, though, came this week with the news that Lady Warnock, the architect of the current policy of inclusion, has changed her views.

She now believes that, although it may have been right at the time, inclusion has been taken "too far", driven by political correctness rather than a judgement of what is always best for the child.

Some of the media reaction to Lady Warnock's about-turn seemed unfair
Until recently special needs was more likely to make the news if a child was being denied mainstream schooling. Now it is the other way round: the protests are more often about the threat to special provision.

Some of the media reaction to Lady Warnock's about-turn seemed unfair. The Daily Mail derided her as a "monstrous ego" who had established the principle that all children, however disabled, "should be taught in mainstream schools".

Yet she has never said all children should be taught in mainstream schools. Her Committee of Inquiry, and the subsequent legislation, said that provision should be in the mainstream "wherever possible".

That recommendation needs to be set against the situation at the time. When the Warnock Committee was considering this issue in the late 1970s, the widespread view was that some children were "uneducable'.


To see how much things have changed since then, you need look only at the language. The Warnock Committee was asked to inquire into the education of "handicapped" children.

Of course, political correctness can be a straitjacket for common-sense thinking, but the label "handicapped" did indeed limit horizons and expectations.

pupil using mouse
Campaigners for inclusion see it as a basic human rights issue
However what was a necessary corrective in the 1970s may no longer be appropriate for the early 21st Century.

Lesser people may have sat back on their laurels (or prejudices), but Lady Warnock was courageous enough to examine her own past thinking and declare it inadequate for today's circumstances.

She has also stepped into a minefield. Campaigners for inclusion see it as a basic human rights issue and are, understandably, passionate about it.

Some even believe all special schools should be closed: the 2020 Campaign, organised by the Alliance for Inclusive Education, wants the closure of all special schools by that date.

For the most part, though, a more pragmatic approach seems appropriate.

When inclusion fails it is sometimes because it is just wrong for the child. Other times it is because the mainstream school has not tried hard enough, or lacks the resources, to make it work.

Physical needs are (with the right resources) more easily met than emotional and behavioural needs.

The former need not impact negatively on other children, the latter often does.

Integration problems

Indeed a recent Ofsted report into special needs found that it was provision for pupils with social and behavioural difficulties that most tested the inclusion policy.

It identified a 25% increase in the numbers of pupils in referral units - to which children can be removed from mainstream classes - between 2001 and 2003.

Over a slightly longer period, the Audit Commission noted an increase in the numbers of pupils identified with emotional and behavioural problems, particularly in the autistic spectrum.

Perhaps now parental choice will be extended more widely to parents of children with special needs

These are children for whom inclusion often does not work because they can find social integration difficult.

So total inclusion or total segregation seems unwise. In response to Lady Warnock's criticism that inclusion has gone too far, the government insists that it is neither pro- nor anti-inclusion.

Certainly, the key legislation - the 1981 Act - gives a number of opt-outs from inclusion. These include: parental wishes, the efficient use of resources, and the effect on other children.

Nevertheless, successive governments have come down firmly on the side of inclusion.

Whatever it may say today, the government's Green Paper in 1997 explicitly stated its aim of getting "more children with special educational needs in mainstream schools'.

The Special Needs and Disability Act 2001 strengthened the right of children with special needs to attend mainstream schools.

The Conservatives now highlight the closure of special schools under Labour, but the statistics show that they also steadily closed them when they were in power.

In 1984 there were 1,548 special schools serving 118,500 pupils in England.

Since then the number of special schools has fallen by 400 (just over 90 of these have closed since 1997) and they now serve 29,600 fewer children than 20 years ago.

Fewer special schools, and fewer places, means a decline in the choices available to parents.

Parental choice has been the mantra of politicians when they talk about children without special needs.

Perhaps now parental choice will be extended more widely to parents of children with special needs, allowing them to make the choice between special or mainstream schools.

Watch a debate on special needs schools policy

'Special needs' education queried
08 Jun 05 |  Education

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