Who’s Afraid of the Special School?

When Sam was a baby I vividly remember sitting in the car one afternoon and having a little weep.  It was a cold, autumn afternoon, I’d popped into town and, as you do, tuned into the radio on the way and an article, probably on something like World at One, caught my interest.   I sat, after I had parked, for some time, listening.  Even now, fourteen years later, I can remember that moment as if it was yesterday. The greyness around me, from the gravel of the car park, through the leaden sky, to the colour of the car even; an ordinary day, an ordinary mother and an extraordinary baby.  He sat beside me, wrapped up in his too large snow suit, sleeping soundly as I wept, for his lost future, for my lost career, my lost world, and my new one.

It was all about school inclusion.  The old (new) SEN Code of Practice had just been enacted and I was listening to a report of a now grown adult, whose parents were determined for her to attend a mainstream school despite her difficulties, and what a success she had made of it.  I cried.  Not because I had any doubt that Sam wouldn’t go to the local school.  After all, I was on maternity leave from a lovely school who had accepted a little lad with Down’s syndrome into our learning community just as I was leaving.  My mum, an infant teacher before my sister and I came along, often told me of a boy she had taught in the ‘60s, whose parents had searched long and hard for a school where the teacher was prepared to change his nappy and make a place for him in her class.  No, I cried because the Code of Practice, for me, signalled an official end to hiding children with disabilities away like shameful secrets.

I admit it.  I am a fully paid up member of the Edu Fan Club.  I joined it years ago, when I saw in teaching a way to make a contribution to the world in which I live, a way to make it a bit better, one child at a time.  The facts that I enjoy aspects of it hugely (I love working with children, I like long and medium term planning, I like running my own show, that sort of thing) were fringe benefits as far as I was concerned.  Early job application letters that still exist somewhere on the hard drive of this computer are testament to the idea I fully bought into: that teachers, and schools, the Whole Education Fandango, were responsible for, and the saviours of the universe.

I suppose I, and my fellow edu-addicts, could be forgiven for thinking that our little jargon infested, acronym dominated part of the world is the b-all and end-all of everything; it’s an all consuming job, after all.  But it’s only us, only those of us who went from school to college and back to school again, and especially us who have children going through our own little part of the edu-jungle, who have our lives dominated by it to the same extent.  It’s easy to get it a bit out of proportion.

And somewhere along the line, sometime when I wasn’t really thinking, just absorbing and feeling, I got myself confused.  Somewhere in my mind I got the idea of an institution where inconvenient people were locked away, out of sight, out of mind, muddled up with special schools.  I was afraid.  What would Sam learn there?  Who would his friends be?  Who would be mine?  Would I ever meet anyone ever again?  What kind of world would I find myself unwillingly participating in?  I was afraid that it was one full of stares and pity.

It took a while for the penny to drop.

It took a while for me to realise that having my special child attend a mainstream school wasn’t going to insulate him from the stares or the pity.  It took a while for me to discover that there are lots of ways that a child can be included – or excluded in a mainstream environment. It took a while for me to discover that the special school is a place of hope and joy and celebration of who we are, warts and all.  It took me some time to notice that the special school is out there, at the events, the local markets, getting involved, inviting people in; being a valued part of the community.

It took a good long while, until I had children of my own and I realised where responsibility properly lies, for me to see that schools and teachers are not, and neither should they be, the panacea for everyone and everything.  Inclusion as a concept, a taking of a public and proper place in society for all people is bigger than schools.  It’s football, and Brownies, and drama club and swimming.  It’s doctors and midwives and health visitors, and the way they tell you the news.  It’s church and workplaces and walks out in the country and camping.  It’s neighbours and community; society not individuals.

And edu-world?  We have a part to play, but it’s only a part.

It's a jigsaw.
It’s a jigsaw.

For more posts that add to the discussion please see:





If you know of any more, please add them to the comments.  This discussion is shaping up really well and is, I hope, informative.


10 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Special School?

  1. Thank you so much for linking to these additional blog posts on “non-inclusive” education (or whatever this discussion would be okay with calling itself). I have to say, it has challenged me (and my educational philosophy) profoundly.

    Generally, I advocate for personalized learning, a movement where the right technology, curriculum and support meet a learner’s Strengths, Needs, Interests, and Constraints. However, this approach is usually in an effort to make the learning experience accessible to ALL LEARNERS in a similar space. It oversimplifies just how profoundly diverse learners can really be.

    Just as you did in your car, I think I might need to occasionally weep for my lack of imagination for just how deep the need for a child might be or just how great an accommodation is required to meet a constraint. It is this lack of imagination that has us thinking that any one single thing could be a silver bullet for “all kids.”

    I believe in “least restrictive environments”, but we shouldn’t be afraid to imagine those environments differently. We shouldn’t let the ideal (inclusion) get in the way of supporting kids as if they were our own and making imaginative decisions on their behalf.

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