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 Friday, 21 June, 2002, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Families fight for special schools
girls in playground
Families fear bullying in mainstream schools
Parents of children with learning difficulties are fearful of a move by Gloucestershire to shut many of its special schools.

We are not against inclusion where appropriate but those who are in Dean Hall are there because they have failed in mainstream

They say the drive to have such vulnerable youngsters in mainstream education could damage them.

The council says the evidence is that the children will benefit from the change.

Other areas are making similar moves - it is government policy to have greater "inclusion", and it is the tendency across western Europe.

But Gloucestershire stands out because historically it has had a relatively high number of special schools.

Closure pending

There are four schools for children with the most severe learning difficulties and they will remain, although one is to be replaced with a new building on a new site.

Gloucestershire plan
Four schools for moderate learning difficulties to shut
Closure of one agreed already
Campaigners fighting proposals
Ofsted critical of strategy
There is also a multi-purpose centre for moderate, severe and physical difficulties, which is over-subscribed.

What the council wants to do is to shut its four centres for those with what are deemed to be moderate problems.

The closure of one has been agreed. The notice is about to be published for another, Dean Hall in Coleford, with a closure date of August 2003.

Dean Hall is attended by 61 youngsters - including Gillian Dovey's daughter, Laura.

"She has a chronological age of 15 but an age of nine or 10 academically," she said.

"Laura has moderate learning difficulties bordering on severe and has a lot of trouble with the academic side, and emotionally.

"We are not against inclusion where appropriate but those who are in Dean Hall are there because they have failed in mainstream - all have been in mainstream, my daughter included."

Too big

In her mainstream primary school, with 250 children, it became more and more apparent that they could not cope with her difficulties.

secondary school classroom
Resources will be diverted to mainstream schools
"She was in a class with children two and three years younger than herself and she was barely holding her own."

The nearest secondary school has some 800 students.

"The sheer size would overwhelm her," Mrs Dovey said.

"She is a very frightened, frustrated child and I know she wouldn't be able to cope."

In practice, because of the proposed closure timetable, Laura and others like her will not have to move during their schooling.

No fallback

"So she will see her time out but that's not the point - there will always be children like my daughter with the same anxieties.

"By closing the special schools they are taking away the choice that the parents and children have."

Research the council itself did on an earlier "integration initiative" to put youngsters into mainstream classes found that the vast majority of parents, schools and pupils were highly satisfied.

Problems remained

"Personal and social dimensions were the most important positive benefits for pupils from being with their mainstream peers, particularly in the view of parents, although all parties were also pleased with the academic progress that the pupils were making."

When concerns were expressed, the most common were about displays of aggression or frustration, and to an extent lack of academic progress.

"However, these problems ... did not necessarily disappear when the children transferred to special school," said the report.

So the council's plan is to switch the special needs funding from the area special schools to mainstream schools, increasing expertise and resources there.

No new youngsters would be taken on in the special schools and for a time, both systems would run in parallel.

'Not about money'

That is why the council's head of special education needs, Steve Huggett, says there is no suggestion its plans are about saving money.

In fact in the short term it will be spending more - nearly 2m extra next year - to run the two systems side by side.

It fails to show how its proposed changes will raise the standards of achievement of pupils with special educational needs

Ofsted report
Its development plan quotes a Newcastle University review of research about children with moderate learning difficulties.

This concluded there was "no overwhelming evidence" that either type of schooling - special school or mainstream - was better.

In so far as there was a difference, mainstream provision had the edge in terms of children's academic progress and general self-esteem.

Because of extra transport and building costs, a special school placement did not allow as much money to be spent on the actual teaching and support as in an equivalent mainstream place.

"Therefore mainstream placements were generally more cost effective, with resources directed to the child."

Small numbers

Gloucestershire adopts the principle that children should lead the most ordinary life possible.

There was no evidence that its proposals would put an unacceptable strain on mainstream schools, Dr Huggett said.

Research did not show any correlation between inclusion and poorer standards of achievement.

"The other thing is the numbers: we are talking about 270 pupils extra, out of a school population of getting on for 85,000."

The vast majority of children with special needs - 16,000 or so - were already in mainstream schools.

Fight goes on

But campaigners such as Gillian Dovey and others she is in contact with - in, for example, Dorset and Wiltshire - are not placated.

"We saw such a big difference in our daughter in the first few months she was in Dean Hall, academically and emotionally," she said.

"Other parents had told us the same thing.

"We just thought, someone has got to fight for this.

"If we hadn't stood up to the local education authority I think they would all have been closed by now.

"At least we have got the satisfaction of knowing that we have tried."

See also:

08 Jun 02 | Scotland
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