Monday 28 November 2011

Education: why it's not a matter of choice

I won’t be signing the petition by 38 degrees which calls on David Cameron to reverse his policy of ending the ‘bias towards inclusion’ in schools. Though I agree with much of the sentiment behind it, and I wouldn’t trust the Tories’ plans on education as far as I could throw Michael Gove (the precise measure of which, alas, I have yet to establish under laboratory conditions), I find it too simplistic an approach. Like the petitioners, I’m not convinced that there is a ‘bias towards inclusion’ at the moment, but I’m still less sure that there ought to be one. And the whole debate about ‘parental choice’ risks obscuring a more significant issue about how we support children who need extra help in the classroom.

During the 2010 election campaign Jonathan Bartley, whose son has spina bifida, ambushed Cameron on the issue of ‘bias’. He had spent two years and considerable sums of money going through tribunals so that his child could be educated in mainstream education. But as Bartley himself goes on to say: 'this, at the end of the day, is a question of both resourcing and culture. Either we are for inclusion or we aren't. To include children with special needs in mainstream schools takes commitment and a lot of work.' It’s not (and here I depart from Bartley’s argument) about insisting on a “bias” either one way or the other. It’s about making sure the resources are in place to make sure that children are educated in the right environment, and given enough support to ensure they thrive.

My own experience comes from putting two children into the education system in Scotland. Euan was originally sent to our local primary school, chiefly because he was diagnosed too late to be given a place in a special school. His primary school did everything they could to accommodate him; his classmates, encouraged by his teacher, were hugely supportive of him even though he must have deafened them at times with his singing. But it became clear as the year went on that mainstream primary school was the wrong place for him. On the other hand, when Adam went to school two years later we fought a bitter battle against the education department’s recommendation to send him to a different special school because we felt he could cope in a mainstream primary school if he had the right support. And, so far, he has. So I have experience of arguing the case on both sides.

The problem with insisting on ‘bias’ towards mainstream education is that it implicitly relegates special education to the second division. For this reason I vehemently reject the language that describes special schools as ‘segregation’ and marks children who attend them as ‘written off’. If this is the case, then the answer is to make the education in those schools better, not to shoe-horn children who may be contented and thriving in special education into mainstream classrooms where they may end up being confused, neglected and bullied. Someone I know who works in a mainstream school recently commented on a disruptive child: ‘autism doesn’t begin to describe it.’ Actually it’s more likely that the opposite is true: in many cases autism only begins to describe a child’s condition. The full picture can be a mosaic of subtle disabilities that may need the attention of half a dozen specialists. Some children will thrive in mainstream if they are given adequate support, but sometimes we should accept that it’s too much to ask. Euan is now in a class of four children with two specialist teachers, a level of attention that a mainstream setting cannot possibly provide. There is a sensory room where he goes when he becomes overstimulated and a constant stream of therapists coming and going – again, not services we can reasonably expect to install in every primary school.

On the other hand, where a child is able to cope with the mainstream curriculum, it should be encouraged. Inclusion does have benefits for the whole class and sends out good signals about our attitude as a society to disabled people. But that goodwill is entirely worthless unless it is backed up by practical support. Unfortunately, the Tories’ cuts agenda means that classroom assistants are being laid off and services that might help disabled children, such as specialist after-school care, are increasingly thin on the ground. So more children go into the special school system who don’t belong there, to the detriment of everybody – mainstream education, special education and, worst of all, the child themselves.

The Tories’ answer of ‘promoting choice’ is a distraction from what really matters, which is making sure that children are given the right education in the right setting. That means providing classroom assistance where children are being included in mainstream, and ensuring special schools are adequately resourced rather than tainted with the language of segregation. It means doing that unfashionable thing: investing money in public services. Instead we have the latest alarming development, being pioneered in Lincolnshire, of inviting all schools, including special schools, to become privately run academies. I can’t begin to think how, or why, anybody would run a special school for profit. In fact, if anyone can convince me that Railtrack is a good business model for the education of vulnerable children, I’ll eat a train.

The myth of parental choice is that it is empowering rather than restrictive. It lands parents with the burden of securing a good education when it should fall on the state. It implies that some schools will always be worse than others, and that if your children end up in a rotten establishment it’s your own fault for not choosing wisely. Yet it’s worthless to offer people more choice if you simultaneously impoverish the choices on offer, as the government is now doing. And the reality is that parents who want to challenge the system will have less choice, not more, because of another cost-cutting measure: the withdrawal of legal aid support for education tribunals. Families who find themselves in Jonathan Bartley’s position will no longer have the means to fight the decisions the state has made about their child’s education. The solution is not more choice, but better options. If 38 degrees draft a petition on those lines, I’ll be the first to sign.