Special needs & inclusion – WEF speech

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I was invited to speak at the Westminster Education Forum special needs seminar on 2nd November 2010, at the glorious home of the Royal Society, London, a splendid setting for a vigorous debate from the collective wisdom of many in education. 

I was asked to contribute, as one of a panel of five speakers, each giving their perspective on the state of SEN & Inclusion today.  Here is my contribution, which will later be published within the SEN seminar handbook through www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk.

WEF – SEN Provision – the next steps.

The prospect for change in our policy and direction is upon us.  Absolutely, we were sold a dream of an inclusive utopia, of an education system that was designed to meet the needs of all but a very small minority of children. That dream has become a living nightmare for many of our young people with special needs and for their families.

Localised interpretations of the inclusion agenda have constrained service professionals, many of whom, not much more than a decade before, were sending all and sundry to maintained specialist provision, according to the prevailing policies of the time.  

The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, driven by a flawed ideology that has dictated the practices and policy of many, at the expense of some of our most vulnerable young people.

We have some opportunity ahead to stem the tide of despair and frustration at the failure of our inclusion agenda, yet I fear we are in danger of becoming dazzled by the side-show of free-schools, that we forget where our attentions should lie.   

I hope we have some opportunity for change, for a new perspective that does not seek to distance itself from the past, but uses the past to inform our better understanding for the future.

Undoubtedly there were errors made in the past that condemned the lives of many young people to one, where a bleakness of outcome, a dearth of opportunity, became the norm through the move out of mainstream into specialist provision.

I recall, still, families who fled from a fear that their children’s lives would be blighted by the stigma of special school, made more unpalatable by their own experiences in the very same school not so many years before.

Ironically, now we see that a bleakness of outcome, a dearth of opportunity, exists for many young people whose needs have been marginalized in this drive to secure our inclusive utopia.  For them, opportunities to have an education and a curriculum that is fit for purpose, are few.  

I spoke of localised interpretations of inclusion that have driven an agenda to its extreme. Many young people with special needs are casualties of a hostile war of attrition in which parents’ battle on, frequently alone, against schools, local authorities and health and education professionals. There may be conflicting views on what constitutes appropriate provision between many services, but always, there is a united voice that promotes still the virtues of a mainstream education.

I am not talking about months of disrupted education, of temporary setbacks or minor defeats. I am talking about the many wasted, destructive years in the life of young people whose needs remain so poorly met and inadequately understood.

If such tight reins have been held over access to our within county, specialist provision, what chance our young people may benefit from the very great advances in specialist knowledge, treatment and education, our independent special schools, at their best, can offer?

Yet even here, at the end of the road, as it were, for our young people, there is a sense of resignation as we come to recognize that the majority of students entering 38 or 52 week residential care, will never achieve any real sense of independence or autonomy over their own lives.

Choose where we spend our finite resources, the needs of all should be our priority to address as early as possible. Where we scrape, pinch & economise, where we down-play, minimise & marginalise the needs of young people so their profile fits what may be possible to address in our mainstream schools, we do not do ourselves justice. We do not do our young people and their families’ justice.

There are many, whose needs have not been met, or have been met too late to make a difference. We see our evidence for this across a range of contexts, not least in –

  1. The increase in the number of exclusions from primary and secondary mainstream schools;
  2. The growth in our Additionally Resources Provision that could populate many a new school build;
  3. The increase in the number of tribunals over assessments and placements;
  4. The demand for places in our maintained specialist provision and
  5. The demand for 52 week residential special school places in the independent sector;
  6. The escalation of our NEET population;
  7. The pressure on our residential care services for young adults with special needs &
  8. The drive to increase capacity for life-long residential care for adults with special needs.

For young people, who may be born with an access all areas pass at birth, life presents challenges enough, without our burdening of their lives with the needs of others, in some mistaken belief that our actions will make virtuous saints of us all.  Children need their childhood.

The increase in strategies that use peer support to address special needs should alert us to the reality that many young people in our schools are placed with intolerable burdens of care for the needs of others.  

To be included, to be a part of a community, part of a society, big or small, we need to be able, as a very basic requirement, to commune with others, to have friendships. Many of our mainstream schools do not provide that community.

Perverse financial incentives drive many schools, desperate for secure funding, to hold onto young people with complex needs, long after the point at which their needs are being met.

However we dress up the language, however we parade the charade of inclusion, we do not do our best by our young people when we blindly follow an ideology that has failed a generation of our school population.      

I have chosen three policy challenges for government to address that matter to me personally:

(1)   The need to ensure that specialist services across health and education are available as a first priority, and not as a last resort, in our identification and assessment of special needs;

(2)   The need to move away from matching the most complex needs of young people with our least skilled and lowest paid members of the school workforce;

(3)   The need to take seriously the concerns of all young people, who fear for their safety and well-being in our schools, whether as a consequence of their own special needs, or as a consequence of the needs of others.

With my regards to you always

Heather M Stack

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About HMStack

Independent Education Consultant (SEND) delivering local, regional and national services to providers within the public, private and third sector. Passionate about creating the context for positive change working with and on behalf of children, young people and their families, the conference and public policy sector and training organisations. An eclectic mix of clients includes schools and other educational settings, museums and heritage, service children and British Armed Forces support organisations and providers across the public, private and third sector. Educational writer, blogger and philosopher and aspiring screenwriter, inspired by drama and literary adaptations.

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