A Right to the Wrong Education?

Students of Nan Hua High School gathering in t...

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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

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6 Responses to A Right to the Wrong Education?

  1. mamafog says:

    I think your points are so valid, this is something I’m really thinking about.

    My daughter is in a special ed preschool class, and it has been amazing. The teacher is so skilled at getting each of the kids to participate at the best of their abilities.

    Most of the kids seem to have relationships with each other and genuinely enjoy each others company. I can’t think of a single negative behavior she has picked up, but I could go on and on about all the things she learned and how she has improved.

    • That sounds great mamafog! I’d say trust your instincts, they sound like they’re doing you well so far.

      My son attended a mainstream kindy, and I never felt he really belonged there, even though he had a support worker with him (she was fantastic, but there’s only so much she could do). I would have loved the option of sending him to a special needs kindy. I’m particularly impressed with the special needs school he attends, and am looking forward to the first IEP this Thursday, to discuss with them how far he’s come and the best way forward.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi guys! So I am just a third party observer here. I am not a parent of a child with special needs. In fact, I am only 18 years old and have been volunteering with special needs kids for a few years now, so please know I am not at all trying to criticize here because I have no idea what is best for your kid!

        But I do have one question. How can a parent expect his or her disabled children to grow up as independent adults in a real world setting if they spent their entire childhood education in a segregated environment? I understand that the inclusion schools are not sufficient at the moment for giving your child the best possible education, but shouldn’t parents of special needs kids, especially those whose children have social and not educational disabilities, be working towards bettering that system rather than going to special needs schools? I promise you that I am asking this respectfully and out of pure curiosity. I just don’t see segregated schools as a long-term solution from my perspective, and I would love to hear the opinion of an adult looking out for his or her child’s best interest. Thank you.

        • You’ve presupposed a lot in the way you’ve worded your question.

          For starters, special schools are not a “segregated environment,” they are usually very diverse and rich tailored learning environments. I hope you get to visit these schools one day to see that your preconceptions are flawed; the reality is far from what I suspect you’re imagining. Special school students are also often interacting with “normal” kids, both in everyday life and in various school educational settings and programs.

          Furthermore, your distinction between a social and an educational disability is largely a false one, especially in autism; think about how much of the learning experience requires social interactions and understanding.

          My son spent two years at a special school which gave him the skills to later attend a mainstream school where he now goes; without all the intensive support of a special school, it is highly unlikely he’d have ever reached this point.

          Just keep in mind every child is unique, even when they have the same diagnosis as another child. Educational needs to be responded to from a viewpoint of reality, not pure idealism distinct from what the child actually can do and needs.

          Thanks for your question, I hope my answer helped in some way.

  2. Jim says:

    On of my biggest complaints during the ‘fight’ to get services for my daughter was the School Districts policy (as directed by the State/Federal government) of “least restrictive environment”. Because I agree (I can’t imagine what parent wouldn’t) with the idea, “And that is what this comes down to: What is best for that child?”

    School administrators with budgets in mind will always default to least restrictive, but after about the third time an official told me, “our policies require that we place your child in the least restrictive environment,” my responses automatically became, “with all due respect, I’m not concerned about the restrictions your policies place on you, only with what’s in the best interest of my child’s continuing education and development. If that means placing her in the ‘least restrictive environment’ then I agree. But I’m not establishing her educational goals and placement in order to fall in line with some arbitrary budget policy.”

    I wish I KNEW what the best placement strategy for her. I think i’ve made my peace with the idea that we’ll put her where we THINK she’ll do the best and hope that was the right choice, since we don’t get a “redo” ten years from now when we determine that she’s not making the progress we hoped she might.

    I’m really enjoying your blogs and your writing. I don’t know how much common ground the laws/insurance/education is between NZ and US, but I’ll follow along just the same.

    • Thanks Jim. And yes, there will be many (and some important) differences between NZ and the US in such areas, but much of the underlying rhetoric, ideas and challenges are in-common. I’m always interested to hear how institutions and experiences differ (or are the same) across the world; always feel welcome to share your own thoughts and experiences here too 🙂

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