Is there still a place for special needs schools in the age of inclusion?

Miriam Gwynne by Miriam Gwynne Additional Needs

Miriam Gwynne

Miriam Gwynne

Full time mum and carer for two truly wonderful autistic twins. I love reading, writing, walking, swimming and encouraging others. Don’t struggle a...

My heart beat faster than it should, my palms were sweating and my head was spinning.

Finally I had in my hand that small brown envelope with the return address of my local authority on it. I knew what was in it but I could hardly dare breathe as I opened it up and read the first paragraph: I fell onto my couch and cried.

My son had a place in a special needs high school for the coming academic year.

In my whole area there are now only two such high schools and two primary schools that exclusively take children with complex needs.

The vast majority of children with any disability (or additional support needs as my authority call it) are now educated within mainstream schools, albeit in some cases smaller classes often referred to as ‘units’. It’s part of a bigger picture of ‘presumption of mainstream’ which is about inclusion for all.

I must admit I love the idea and principle of inclusion, I just know it isn’t (yet) right for my son.

Had he been offered a ‘unit’ or a mainstream High school I would have appealed to the highest level possible.

My son isn’t mainstream-able and to place him in such a setting would be detrimental to him and every other child.

Yet that goes against all current thinking and policy.

So let me explain: my daughter is disabled. She’s autistic, has an eating disorder, diagnosed with generalised anxiety and selective mute.

Yet she is thriving in an inclusive mainstream setting where her needs are met and staffing is manageable.

Small adaptions such as earlier lunch, communication cards, allowed to eat whatever she’s comfortable with and classroom assistance when required are enough to keep her safe, healthy and learning.

But no amount of extra staffing, small accommodations or adaptions in mainstream would be sufficient to meet the complex needs of my son.

He isn’t just ‘a little delayed’ or in need of ‘extra time to go over something again’ or with support is able to access the curriculum with small adaptions’.

My son is YEARS behind, in fact he’s working at age 2 in some areas and age 1 in others while his chronological age is almost 11.

He’s non verbal, doubly incontinent, with severe learning disability and severe autism.

Even with a one on one support worker he can’t write his name himself let alone access the standard curriculum for his age.

Then there’s his significant medical issues: should a class of mainstream children have to have lessons disturbed while he has an epileptic seizure?

Would there be an on site nurse to keep a close eye on his alertness, muscle strength, and pupils to adequately and safely monitor him after major brain surgery for a brain tumour last summer?

Even the smaller classes of a ‘unit’ for children with additional support needs or autism wouldn’t quite be able to fully meet his needs.

It wouldn’t be safe for my son to be in a busy playground with minimum supervision as he is blind in one eye and has a tumour on the other plus he has no awareness of danger or other people.

He wouldn’t cope with the noise or the sudden movement when the bell rang or the volume of transitions needed in a mainstream high school. He couldn’t ever cope in a dinner hall full of noise and bustle with minimal supervision.

It wouldn’t be safe for him or anyone else.

I whole heartedly agree that for far too many years too many children were excluded from mainstream and sent miles from home to schools for ‘special children’ and excluded from their own communities.

For thousands this needlessly limited their future prospects and isolated them from the communities they lived in, which in turn perpetuated the feeling that anyone with any sort of disability was to be shunned.

I don’t in any way wish for us to return to such things.

But we need to also balance that with the absolute fact that in this current age of inclusion there will always be some children whose needs are so complex that for their benefit, and the benefit of everyone else, specialist provision like a school specifically for additional support needs IS the right setting.

There is a level of need that mainstream, with all the best will in the world, is unable to ‘include’ enough that it is of benefit to the disabled child and the rest of the community.

This isn’t about having wheelchair accessible toilets or a classroom assistant signing the lesson, this is children with complex health and development needs that need major adaptions to the curriculum and structure to the day just to make it into school at all.

As my son starts transition to high school, totally unaware of the day of the week let alone that he will leave his school next year, I am so grateful that even in an age of inclusion that special needs schools still exist and that my son has a place in one.


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