Monday, March 4, 2013

In favour of Special Schools

Here in Ireland, the government's policy on children with special needs is "mainstreaming". They go to their local school, and have supports in place to meet their special needs. They are close to their home, their family and their friends. They are "integrated" in their local school and local community.

Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

Except that, it doesn't work for some children. And because it's policy, these children are getting a bad deal.
For some, they are the child who is "DIFFERENT", who has no friends, who stands out, who can't fit in, who constantly has an assistant with them, who can't relate to the other kids, who wonders "why am I different?", who gets called names, made fun of, pointed at, who doesn't understand the classwork, who can't do the homework, who falls behind in their work.

None of this is made up, it's stuff that children in my school told me has been their experience of mainstream education. Not all children experience this, but many do, and many stay quiet. It's only when it reaches crisis point that a special school is considered.

I've seen so many children come to our school, looking so stressed and anxious on arrival, you want to reach out, hug them, and tell them that now they're here, everything is going to be ok. They will not be that "different" kid any more, they can relax and know that they are in the right place.

Within a week you would barely recognise their faces. They settle in unbelievably quickly, relax, enjoy their schooldays, begin to understand schoolwork again, make friends. Again, I'm quoting what they have told me, a few months on.

The myth that they will be "close" to their family and friends is often that..a myth. They often don't have friends. They often feel completely isolated.

It breaks my heart that so many children experience this, and that often it is left too late to move them to a special school. Today, I spoke with a mother, and she told me how she didn't want her child to be different, didn't want to send her to a special school, but that she had to put her daughter's needs first. Her daughter has now been in our school for 8 years, and she couldn't be happier. She knows she made the right decision, and she wishes for other parents that they knew how good it can be.

I'm not insinuating that a special school is for all children, or that it solves all problems. But nor do I think that mainstream schools are suitable for all children with special needs. And in these recessionary times, when cutbacks mean that supports are being withdrawn, children are increasingly falling through the net and suffering.

In some cases, a special school is the right place for a child. Sometimes, a child just needs to be where there is expert help, where their peers also have special needs, and where they're not the "different" one. We all deserve the chance to shine.

18 comments:

  1. It's really a shame that kids that are deemed "different" are considered "special"!...:)JP

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  2. I don't know what I'd do without my daughter's special needs school. Instead of traditional curriculum, the focus of her education is one of performing activities of daily living. That's something a mainstream school could never give her. Quite simply, removing her from "normal" schools changed our lives in a good way.

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    1. That mirrors the experience of a lot of our parents too Rudee. Glad it worked out well for you.

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  3. Our schools mainstream here, too. While it can work well for some kids, I'm not convinced that there isn't merit in having schools which allow resources to be used more efficiently. In these days of dwindling funds and sky-rocketing costs for treatment and trained personnel, it would seem like a good business decision. But, it's not about business, is it? It's all emotion and sentiment. I wish that more of those parents who insist that the school system include their children in an inappropriate school setting could read your post. Is is not segregation to place your child in a setting that will not help them thrive? Does anyone ever ask the kids? It doesn't have to be like the 'old days' of shoving all kids who are different into a warehouse and not educating them.

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    1. Hear hear Stephanie. I'm fed up of seeing children suffer, and I agree that the child has rights too, and should be consulted. If they're happy, whatever the setting, surely they will thrive?

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  4. I read this with interest.
    Being at the top range of Autism, my eldest grandson settled into his secondary school with not too much of a problem. He had a special helper and most people were kind to him.
    The problem began when he started college and he is refusing to go now. He was told that he would be quite OK there and that he was capable of the work.
    However, he is at home most of the time, cannot cope with the work or any of the other students or tutors and doesn't seem to fit in at all. I think he will be losing his place. My daughter is really upset.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

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    1. Maggie, that is just awful for him. Surely the college's disability office can help?

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  5. When I left teaching five years ago the school I was at was a title one school (low income) and the special needs children had classes of their own but were mainstreamed into the arts classes -art, PE, music, and computer (my class).
    On one hand I know that was supposed to make them feel like they belonged but on the other hand I had 17-20 kids who needed attention as well. Most cases an assistant was not provided. In my case, the child suffered because they needed one on one I couldn't always give. There is so much talk about not singling children out but this often paves the way for frustration on their part when they aren't leaning at the same pace as those students they are put with. From experience I'd vote for special schools. The biggest problem is everyone needing to be acceptive of one another no matter our differences.

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    1. Carletta, at first I thought your school sounded great, until I got to the part where it wasn't working, and where supports were not provided.
      I totally agree that everyone needs to accept each other, including our differences and special needs.

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  6. I love this post, Mimi and have shared it with a few of my friends. I can relate to it so well. As you know, Amy went to mainstream and we were hitting our heads against a brick wall. All they were interested in was having an extra member of staff there who was actually only paid to work 28 hours with Amy, but who worked at the school full time and beyond to help other kids who were falling behind. Amy therefore, wasn't getting enough help. She was at that mainstream school for 18 months until her support worker pointed out it wasn't the right place for her. As this woman had been working with Amy since she was at nursery, I knew we had to take her comment seriously and so set the ball rolling to move her to a special school. Within 2 weeks (TWO weeks!!) we had Amy enrolled in a special school - that was how much it was needed and the mainstream school had let us believe things were going okay, when all along they were far from it.

    Within a matter of weeks of Amy being in special school (where she's now been for 2 years) she made good friends and was given endless opportunties to thrive. The difference in her since going to special school has been phenomenal. I kick myself for allowing her to go to a mainstream school at all because she was never given opportunties and other kids treated her as 'different'. She's 13 now and loves school. All the children at her school are disabled in some way, autistic, ADHD, Aspergers, Epilepsy, and many other complex conditions. But the best thing about it is the fact she is treated with respect there; the other kids love her to bits because she isn't 'different' to them. She is Amy.

    CJ x

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    1. CJ, I ache to read this, cos I've seen first hand the damage that is done to childrens' confidence by this "mainstreaming experiment". (I know it works for many children). It is wrong of a school to keep a child who is clearly not thriving, and many schools do to hold onto staff.
      I'm so glad the special school is working so well for Amy. Thank you for sharing my post: people need to realise what's going on, and put pressure on politicians, while we still have expertise available in special schools.
      I really appreciate your comment, especially the level of honesty in it.

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  7. Your words 'mainstreaming experiment' sum up exactly what was happening at Amy's previous school where I had to take her away from. When I first enrolled her in that school, it was because it was the feeder school to her first school and so most of her friends were going. It felt wrong somehow to put her in a different school where she wouldn't know anyone and I honestly thought the school would be okay. But I will never forget the headmistresses words when I had the first meeting to discuss statement issues and support workers, she said, "we are willing to take Amy, it will teach us something new" that should have rung alarm bells there and then but I'm afraid it didn't and I continued with the enrollment.

    Amy was a guinea pig and was 'used' to improve their OFSTED report in the Special Needs bit. It all came to light when she'd left and we had a lengthy discussion with her support worker (who we've stayed friendly with). But what upset me tremendously was when I went to see the head of the mainstream school to tell her Amy was leaving and we were putting her in special school - I was very polite, didn't say it was their fault or anything (though wish now I had) - and the head had the audacity to say to me "you are putting us a very difficult position now because we are going to lose a valued member of staff." That valued member of staff was Amy's support worker whom they had 'used' for 18 months to help other kids as well. The support worker was fed up and knew she was being used and I think would have left anyway, so when we moved Amy, she left at the same time.

    Since Amy left that school, the amount of children that have been taken out of it is shocking - and a lot of them aren't special needs. I did beat myself up for a while about not putting Amy in special school when she was 9 and left first school, but I soon got over that when I realised how quickly she settled into special school and saw how much she needed the special school. x

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    1. CJ, thank you for your honest comment here. It is shocking that children (and support workers) are being neglected and used in this way. That is one of the reasons why I wrote this post: I feel very strongly about it.
      I'm glad you're not beating yourself up any more about not sending Amy to special school sooner; the fault for this lies with the "professionals", not with you.
      Again, I'm so glad that Amy is happy and thriving. That is what all children should be enabled to achieve.

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  8. I don’t know anything about children who have special needs (is it still called that or is that non-pc?) or special schools but from the way you write here it sounds as if you understand them and love them and that they flourish with you.

    Thank you for visiting my blog and becoming a follower.

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    1. Hi Friko, nice of you to call in! Yes, I do love them, and I hope that they flourish in my class. I enjoy my job a lot!

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  9. Interesting post, Mimi. I know that when my kids went to school, theirs was the one school in a "family" of 8 neighbouring schools where spec. ed. kids were mainstreamed. That enabled the board to pool all required resources into the one school rather than trying to smooth it among the 8 of them. So it was a high percentage of special needs kids in this one school but also a much higher than usual ratio of assistant teachers, psychologists, social workers.. etc. than there would ordinarily be in mainstreamed schools. It worked for many but of course, not all. Sadly, some kids will fall through the cracks no matter the system.. and that's a crying shame. And in reading what Maggie May said above, I of course have no idea how these kids did as they moved through the system. What I do know, is that my kids along with other students had a good understanding of special needs students. They learned empathy, cooperation and patience for others. I hope that the special needs kids came out on the winning end also.

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  10. Dear Mimi, I guess it is not easy to be a kid. I often recall my own childhood and the stress I went through much worse than ever later in adulthood. I had no special needs, but my parents moved a lot and I was often the kid that came to a new school, in distress.
    Hope you will have a nice weekend,
    xoxo

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  11. I can't believe my luck in finding you and this post! I am special ed teacher in the U.S., and my district is committed to mainstreaming, although we now call it "full inclusion." I wish we had special schools. You are so right about the damage that full inclusion does to some kids. I spend a lot of my time buffering my students from the environment -- time that could be spent learning! It's so interesting that these issues cross the globe!

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