What doesn’t matter to every child.
“The Rabbits are doing inclusion this afternoon!” Angie Wellman, the deputy head of Downs View Special School, Brighton explains, smiling. The class inside is not of course, full of bunnies of the long eared fluffy variety, but the six Rabbit’s’ in the class are equally as full of life. One child is signing to another who is chasing a small toy car across the carpet laughing; another girl with glasses is dancing alone under the watchful eye of Viv, one of the four TA’s in The Rabbits’ class.
In the last eleven years around 9000 places at special schools have been lost and statements of SEN (special educational needs) have fallen by over a third. Yet the government maintain that there are “no immediate plans to review SEN policy”. They also advise local authorities that: “the proportion of children in special schools should fall” and that there should be a “reduced reliance on statements”.
Five mainstream children, three boys and two girls taking part in today’s inclusion lesson have scuttled in, seemingly unannounced. A little girl with a tail of brown hair and pale blue eyes that momentarily rest on one of the adults shakes the teacher’s hand. “I am Becca. I haven’t been before.” She asserts before taking her seat round the circle next to Ashley the dancing girl, who is now rocking excitedly and breathing loudly. “Don’t worry Becca this is happy’ Ashley” and the child holds Ashley’s hand confidently.
At Downs view, one of the surviving schools for children with special needs, inclusion is a weekly social event. “It is really good for the children from the link school to come over and be introduced to our guys. I mean, many live in the same neighbourhood and it’s good that they become children with names and personalities as opposed to something a little scary, a little different, to the mainstream children”. Aurey Chandler, an experienced special needs teacher at Downs view explains, whilst feeding a cup of orange juice through a straw to Callum an 8 year old boy confined to a wheel chair and attempting to quiet the circle of seated children.
Inclusion here is a positive word and a positive if slightly challenging time for both teachers and pupils. Throughout the group story-time James, a visiting child from the mainstream link school and two academic school years below The Rabbits, fidgets announcing “this is boring it’s a baby story”.
The National Curriculum suggests that one of the three main aims of inclusion is: “Responding to pupils’ diverse learning needs” and nowhere have
I seen this aim more fulfilled than on this Monday afternoon when five children from the Woodingdean Primary School (the local mainstream school situated right next door) meet five children from Downs View. Viv holds Ashley’s hand and whispers softly as the teacher explains the next task: “Inclusion works for some children but I can’t see how it would for our guys. It is worrying I don’t know where they could turn to after special schools”?
In recent research written by The Bow Group it was found that as special schools have been closing, more parents are forking out for independent education. Since 1997 The Bow Group found that children with SEN make up 83% of the increase in independent schools. This huge increase of parents following Ruth Kelly, the former Education Sectary who sent her Special Needs son to a 15,000-a-year independent school, seem to have no faith that the inclusive mainstream system will help their child.
Audrey Chandler tells the worrying story of a ex-pupil’s experience of inclusion: “He has Down Syndrome – but it was not as severe as many of the children here and his parents wanted full inclusion in the local mainstream. We arranged for him to go to the link school three days a week to try and get him ready for the change. One his first day I went with him to ensure he was ok. I will never forget his face” Audrey is a warm woman who seems to care very deeply about the Rabbits that can inhabit her class for up to three years. “The first class was Art. All the boys and girls were drawing their family. So he went at it, colouring away and seemed really happy. But then he looked around at the standard of work from the other children. He screwed his picture up and cried. I watched all the self esteem we had worked on crumble in front of my eyes. It was so sad”.
For most of the children at Downs View it seems inclusion into a mainstream school would surely mean educational exclusion. Viv the TA explains: “It must be impossible to teach those children! It is hard enough with one adult per pupil here and only 6 kids in our class. I cannot imagine how it would work in a school with 2-3 adults attempting to teach 30 odd children in each class. It couldn’t help these children learn. If anything it would just show up their failing and draw out the differences, making it harder for them to interact”.
In 1978 Baroness Warnock wrote a report which focused on the marginisation of children with special educational needs. The government, in 2001 converted this into a strong legislation which stated: “The starting point is always that children who have statements will receive mainstream education”. Mary Warnock clarified her position on the governments’ interpretation of the report in her 2005 pamphlet revealing inclusion of children with SEN into mainstream schools as “possibly the most disastrous effect of the 1978 report”.
Diner time at Downs view is a carefully monitored exercise, planned like a military attack. Every child’s individual needs are met by a teaching assistant or diner lady assigned to watch over them individually, and no more than two classes are out at each time. A TA with dreadlocks dashes past me: “I’ve lost Johnny?” She puffs at an assembled group of staff who, like a well organised pack of wolves soon hunt out Johnny; who has hidden in a bush. Viv, the full time Rabbits TA smiles: “Socially I think it is paramount for our children to be able to interact with other children but full inclusion must be so hard to implement successfully. The kids here are lovely but they do need full supervision at all times. Hazel Court has it right. Within a learning environment inclusion causes problems for both the kids as well as the teachers, but it is so important socially they get a chance to mix”.
Hazel Court is another extant local special school and was deemed “a visionary and pioneering school” by Ofstead during the most recent inspection. Comprising of two purpose-built special schools (one secondary and one Further Education), the Hazel Court schools are co-located with the equivalent mainstream schools (Causeway school and Sussex Downs College). This idea seems to make more sense enabling play times’ and other more social events such as school plays and ftes to be inclusive, yet maintaining differentiation through individual purpose built learning environments. Hazel Court “recognises the benefits to our pupils of purposeful social inclusion activities that take us into the community. This is reflected in the wide range of activities undertaken”. “In The Causeway School and the other local mainstream schools, our pupils are accepted for who they are. They join in with many activities, and the mainstream pupils react very well. While there is always very close supervision from our staff, often there is good spontaneous interaction without any prompting required from us”.
After The Rabbits’ have packed away they are treated to some chocolate. Sam, a little Down Syndrome boy chooses to share his with Ashley and luckily Viv is there to over see the act of kindness, while the other TA’s pay similar care attention to the other children. Ashley has decided to pack all her chocolate in her lunch box and class teacher Audrey checks that she has eaten some. Social integration was enjoyed by all ten of the children at Downs View today but with such a huge range of needs it is hard to imagine the 6 special needs children in a class of 30 mainstream children learning French, reading Harry Potter or writing up science experiments. Debbie Haffenden, senior lecture in Education at the University of Brighton agrees: “The government needs to make exception as well as inclusion possible. It’s as much about what does matter as what doesn’t matter for every child when it comes to learning and children with special educational needs often have a very different set of requirements.”
After circle-time, a routine 5 minute where each child goes over what they enjoyed about the day speaking confidently or signing excitedly, the Rabbit’s are then steadily taken to the hall where they are identified by mums, dads or carers keen to take them back to their warrens.
Audrey hives off to clear the classroom up: “I mean they will never be the same as the other children but that shouldn’t mean they are penalised. Their differences should be celebrated socially and taken into account educationally”.