‘Inclusion’ has been a buzz word in education and other fields for a good few years now, and I’m all for it. I love the fact that my son is welcome – and, indeed, has a right – to attend our local mainstream school. I love the fact that CBeebies has a presenter with a disability, and that children with profound and multiple learning disabilities often feature on their programmes. Inclusive policies and practices in education, books and on TV undoubtedly help Toby to feel he is a valued member of the community and that there is a place for him in the world.
So what happens when the inclusive model of education stops working for a child? Is it a betrayal of all the people who have worked so hard to send out such positive, welcoming messages to opt out of the mainstream model of inclusion and send a child to a special school instead?
This is what we did and I must admit that I felt somewhat guilty about it. So many kind, positive parents, whose non-disabled children attended mainstream school, told me how much they valued having children with disabilities at school, because it made their children understand difference. I believed in the inclusive model, too, and felt that surrounding Toby with children who could talk and play and interact would give Toby some positive examples of how to communicate. And yet it was a model that wasn’t working for Toby. At mainstream nursery, Toby was surrounded by children talking, yet he wasn’t learning how to communicate; it was hard to learn anything when he was standing by the exit with his hands over his ears. The nursery was full of children playing and interacting, but Toby stood at the edge, fearful of the noise and unsure how to join in. Toby was attending the same nursery as these other children, yet he was on his own and he wasn’t learning a thing.
We were lucky enough to be offered a place at a nursery attached to a special school, so Toby began attending the special school nursery half the week, and the mainstream nursery the other half. Within a day or so at the special school nursery, we saw Toby relax. His hands came away from his ears, so he could hear. He stood close to the other children, so he could see. His senses slowly came back to life and Toby began to learn.
It quickly became clear that if we wanted Toby to learn anything, he would need to attend this special school full time. This is what our educational psychologist and other professionals had gently been trying to tell us for a long time, and we grudgingly began to accept that they were right. We made the difficult decision to opt out of the inclusive model of education. It was a sad day when I received the email telling me Toby had a place at our local mainstream primary school, where his brother was already a pupil. I had always assumed that our boys would go to school together, and be part of a lovely, local community, but we were going to turn down that school place and way of life, and send Toby to a school thirty minutes’ drive away instead.
We have no doubt that we did the right thing for Toby. He loves his school and is learning, albeit at his own pace. And when I shed tears for the school community Toby wouldn’t be joining, I forgot that there may be a different but equally lovely community at the new school. The children, parents and staff at his school are wonderful. It has been a massive relief for Toby and for us to join a large body of people who understand Toby and can help him. And it’s a relief to be in a place where Toby isn’t considered different. He’s just Toby – our lovely, smiley, happy Toby.
Some parents, particularly those without children with special needs, look at us as if we have let our son down by sending him to a special school – as if we have stopped fighting for him and given up on any chance of his living an independent life as an adult. I have heard many people say that if they had a child with special needs, they would want them to go to a mainstream school and learn from other children there. I totally understand that; we would have kept Toby in the mainstream system if there was any chance he could have coped and learnt there. And a special school is always a last resort – who would choose to send their child to a special school if they didn’t have to?
I would love to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences about how their children with learning difficulties have coped in mainstream and special schools. Has your child thrived in either setting? Or have you had problems with a mainstream school or a special school? Are special schools even available where you live – I know that provision is patchy in different areas of the country? We have been on our own personal journey, trying to decide what is right for Toby; please do get in touch and let me know about what you have decided for your child, and why.