Should Special Schools Be Shut Down? (Includes Poll)

Should all special schools – schools that specifically and exclusively cater to children with special needs – be shut down? My personal experiences, and a look at the reality of what the two types of schooling have to offer, once made me feel very strongly that these schools are an important, essential and indeed wonderful part of our schooling system. Those experiences and those realities have not changed for me – I am still extremely grateful and very pleased with what my son received through the special school he attended for two years, and I still observe much better training, skills, ratios and services available through special schools than through mainstream schools. However there are other relevant and important factors to consider that I once overlooked, and because of those other considerations I now find myself genuinely torn in my views.

Yes, the current reality is that mainstream teachers are not adequately trained or properly resourced to cope well with many of our special children – there are clearly some fantastic mainstream teachers who go this extra mile, but from what I hear they are the minority and they can face burn-out while they struggle to meet the challenges. But acknowledging this reality doesn’t mean it’s how things should be or should stay. If teachers aren’t adequately trained or resourced, then isn’t that a reason to make them so, rather than a reason to hold on to the status quo? Indeed it can be – and often is – argued that the continued existence of special schools allows mainstream schools and teachers to justify remaining woefully unprepared for the full diversity of children. Surely when you spot a serious deficit in the way things are being run, the immediate response should be to fix it, rather than to leave it as it is as if it’s inherently perfect? An education system must evolve as new challenges and new research come along – education should be, by its very nature, responsive and ever-improving.

I’ll get to the relevant research soon, first I just want to also address another point about the reality of the current education system. The reality that gets thrown in parents faces whenever they assert their right (both legally and morally) to have their disabled children attend their local school. That reality is the current dominant attitude within our society that children with special needs don’t belong in mainstream schools – that they belong in special schools (just read some of the horribly righteous responses at the bottom of this recent opinion piece). Putting aside for the moment that not all disabled children qualify for entry into special schools (so that the “option” is not really an option at all), the very existence of special schools appears to support these exclusionary views: “Your kid can go to school, just not a mainstream one, go put them where they belong.” Even though the child, the parents, and educational professionals may all be of the view that the mainstream classroom is the best option for the disabled child, the fact that they have a choice to attend a special school is frequently used as part of the argument for why they shouldn’t be mainstreamed.

On what basis might parents and professionals think mainstreaming is the better option – is it a view actually supported by research or is it just an ideological view about inclusiveness without reference to reality? I read through whatever studies and meta-studies and reviews and governmental papers I could source on the issue, and the answer here is pretty clear: Mainstreaming is either better or as good as special schools, even when those special schools offer specialized services and have better teacher ratios.

I found that a bit counter-intuitive, so I read deeper, and found that there are of course a few studies that found negative outcomes, in particular when it came to the most severely disabled children, issues around bullying, and preparing children for the real world. To elaborate a little: Parents of more severely disabled children in particular, have been found to prefer separate schools, bullying and isolation may be more likely to occur in some mainstream schools, and special schools tend to focus more on life skills (rather than purely academic skills) which can be of more benefit to disabled teens as they enter adult-hood. But those findings were not representative of the majority of studies which found social, academic and many other important benefits of mainstreaming. The weight of evidence clearly does come down in favour of mainstreaming between the two options.

Where studies found no significant difference in experience or outcomes between the two options, it is fair to say this argues in favour of integration, considering principled arguments against needless segregation of peoples and in light of the benefits that can flow to non-disabled children who are in integrated classrooms. Studies have found that those other non-disabled students’ learning is not negatively impacted by the presence of the disabled children, and indeed that there can be positive outcomes for all learners in an inclusive classroom. Win-win… right?

But wait a minute, isn’t it a bit simplistic to talk of special schools versus mainstream schools – aren’t the quality of teachers and the programs being used with the children more important? This is a point that is picked up in research too, and yes those things matter, of course they do. But quality of teachers and programs is not automatically better just because it’s a special school – I think that is a point worth emphasizing here. Just because you have more teachers in a room – for example – doesn’t mean your child is getting a higher quality education.

My own experience with my own child was that the special school did have better training, better resourcing, more and better services. When my son was at his most severe, these were exactly what he needed, and he benefited hugely. However as he became less severely impacted by his autism, the special school wasn’t able to meet some of his new needs and was starting to have a somewhat detrimental impact on his behaviours in some ways because of poor modelling (and lack of modelling).

By the way, at this point I would like to address the argument I hear far too often: that special schools don’t encourage their students to be mainstreamed because they are trying to hold on to funding and numbers. I call hogwash on that. These schools are well-funded and they know it (and are grateful for it), a few students here or there are not going to ruin them. Furthermore – again, as I understand it – they have no shortage of families who would like to be able to send their kids to the special school but who unfortunately don’t qualify to attend. I know my son’s old special school would sometimes extend its existing funding to take on those children where they felt the child would benefit from what they have to offer. Indeed, it was my son’s special school teacher who told me that she believed he was ready for mainstreaming, having discussed the matter first with the principal who believed it was now in my son’s best interests too. Is that the behaviour of an institution that is more interested in its continued existence than what is in the best interests of each child? Hardly – it’s the exact opposite.

This, and pretty much every single other experience with my son’s special school, had utterly convinced me of the huge benefit of the continued existence of such schools. They are places full of people who actively want to work with our high needs kids, people who genuinely care about our children as individuals, closely tracking their development and trying to cater to their entire well-being – physical, mental, academic. Every person I interacted with at that school – from the principal to the head teacher to the aides to the therapists – were passionate people who I trusted with my son, and that trust was well-placed. But that was my single experience, at a single school; however wonderful it was, I recognise that there are others who did not like the school, and there are – without doubt – other special schools which will not be serving their students as well as that school served my own son. I am so grateful I had the option to send my son to the exact place he needed to be, and I have never regretted that schooling decision, as a general rule I believe having such choices is itself in the best interest of our kids and our families. But that brings me back to where I started: Mainstream schools are evidently – on the whole – better for our kids, and the public uses the existence of special schools to argue against our inclusion.

So, you see, I am a bit torn. And it turns out the New Zealand education sector is all a bit confused here too – at once pushing for full inclusion, but not pushing for the closure of special schools, where some see the continued of special schools as the opposite of inclusion. Some argue the very existence of special schools is itself a form of unjustified discrimination, and point out that these schools come from a history of institutionalism and segregation (for example, see pages 2 and 3 of this leaflet (pdf) distributed by the local charity IEAG). But the modern special school here uses out-reach services, and shares their expertise in mainstream schools, and creates satellite units in mainstream schools – I find it so hard to reconcile the attacks on the existence of special schools with the actual practices and people involved in modern special schools.

I want to hear what you think – indeed, what you want. Do you think special schools should always exist, will always exist? Should they be shut down, reduced, increased in number? Let me know in the poll, and in the comments, and feel free to try to persuade me to your own views – this is an interesting topic that I am very open to and would love to hear more about.

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A few helpful links about the research in this area:

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