I am told that my son has not only the right to a free education, but the right to an inclusive education: I am told that I may – and should – insist that he be educated within the mainstream framework, and not be “segregated” off into a special needs school. That this would be best for him, for other students, and for society as a whole. Indeed certain lobby groups for special needs individuals, go so far as to say special needs schools should be shut down entirely. But before we all sit around the camp-fire and link hands to sing kumbaya, there is an important question to be asked.
Is inclusive mainstream education really the best option going, or would I just be insisting on a right to the wrong education?
The modern reality is that mainstream schools are not equipped to deal with special needs children. Their grounds are often not made with these students in mind, their staff are not trained to cope with these children, and the funding is insufficient to provide the extra support they need. The argument that these short-falls should be addressed so that children with special needs can be included in mainstream schooling, is superficially attractive, but does not bypass the fact that in the meantime these children will not be receiving a quality education.
It’s still common to encounter the out-dated notion that the main alternative for these children – special needs schools – are places where difficult students are put to be forgotten and ignored. But I suggest that the reality is the opposite – that it is the mainstream schools where the special needs children are often treated as too difficult and unwanted.
The perception that special needs schools are filled with children left to rock or drool in corners, unchallenged and untaught, in no way matches the modern reality of a bustling institution of teachers and therapists trained and dedicated to improving the lives of very challenging children. Their aim is to teach these children what would in fact have been left untaught in a mainstream school – such as the most basic social and life skills, the things required for independent living which are largely taken for granted (and justifiably so) at mainstream schools. Because of the impressive teacher-child ratios at the special needs schools, no one is forgotten about or left to quietly drool away – ratios which are unseen in mainstream schools. It is at the mainstream schools that these children are far more likely to be swept under the carpet as too hard to deal with, or even worse – punished for behaviours outside of their control.
It is not then surprising that figures show that high-needs children who start at mainstream schools, often end up later at special needs schools as the reality kicks in – both for the mainstream school which had been trying to cope with them, and for the parents who want the best for their child.
And that is what this comes down to: What is best for that child? It is a wonderful thing to want an inclusive society where disabilities are treated as a normal part of the human mosaic. But I suggest that inclusiveness is often better served by giving these special needs children the high level of care and tailored attention that they need when they are children within the education system, which will give them the skills and knowledge to integrate as best they can as adults.
There is too much of a modern emphasis on the idea that children are best served by being around many other children, who are of their same age. The focus needs to shift to one of developmental stage and quality (rather than quantity) of interactions. Various educational systems (which are not mainstream) already recognise the importance of this approach – such as Montessori, homeschooling, and of course special education where children can vary widely in age but are grouped according to actual ability. “Age is just a number” is more than just a platitude for defensive middle-aged women.
The best approach is to give to each child, what is best for that child. Whether that be the intensive care at a special needs school, the intermediate stage of a satellite class in a mainstream setting, or a mix of classes at each level as suits the specific child’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes homeschooling will be best, which is another under-appreciated and largely misunderstood education option.
Sometimes what is best for a special needs child is a mainstream education. But grouping together all children in an educational institution, based on their age and not their developmental stage or actual needs, is not the best approach – for the special needs child, for children without special needs, nor for society.
The right to choose what education is best for your child, is a better approach, than the right to mainstream your special needs child. For now at least this is somewhat recognised at a governmental level. It’s a shame that some charitable organisations set up to advocate for these vulnerable people, don’t think that the parents should have that right to choose.
A couple of very good articles which deal with a variety of the issues discussed above:
“Every right to special help” NZ Herald
“Special Needs Special Children” Father & Child