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Article published 6th June 2008

Bridging the divide?

A greater understanding of special needs and improved resources means that, for many children, it is no longer a straight choice of being educated either in a special school or a mainstream school. Boundaries have blurred with a continuum of provision is available.

What is right for your child?

 For some children with severe and complex needs choice may be restricted, possibly to a handful of options nationwide. However for most children some degree of choice and provision flex may be available, though it is still something of a postcode lottery.

Some authorities will look elsewhere if they are unable to meet your wishes, others will stubbornly cling on to the view that they can adequately provide for your child and will seek to counter whatever argument you put forward.

Doubtless finance is the major stumbling block and for this reason it is essential you are wary of reputation -  often those with a good reputation for special needs may actually prove the biggest disappointment simply because their resources, schools and units are at full stretch with budgets spent. On the other hand, an authority that has recently had its knuckles rapped may, if you are lucky, act like a knight in shining armour.

The Options

There is a range of potential schooling options open to children with SEN who fall within the moderate to severe range:

  • A generic special school - accepts children with a wide range of SEN. 
  • A specialised special school - accepts children with specific SEN such as autism or communication disorders. 
  • Dual registration - attending two schools perhaps mainstream and special or generic and specialised special.
  • Unit provision - these are usually attached to a mainstream school and tend to specialise in a particular SEN, perhaps in autism, or hearing impaired provision. A sort of halfway house units, which are deemed to provide the best of both worlds, are increasingly popular options.
  • Resourced provision - education takes place mainly in the classroom, but pupils are either withdrawn to a resource for specialist input or teachers from the resource deliver specialist help to the child, within the classroom.

Unit or Resource? 

Units and resourced provision often describe the same thing, though in some areas a unit operates as a mini-special school within a mainstream school. Specialised facilities and specialists are attached to the unit, with help from teachers, therapists and others whose expertise is needed. Children will be based in the resource/unit, but may spend time in the mainstream classroom, and/or children from the mainstream may spend time in the unit. 

It isn’t only resourced provision that works in this way; many special schools actively encourage their children to spend as much time as possible in a mainstream environment (dual registration). Visits have to be carefully planned to suit the needs of the child and indeed the other members of the class the child will be integrated into. Admittedly some inclusion into mainstream simply pays lip service and the benefits to the child are neither tangible nor overt.

At the other end of the spectrum some children have benefited hugely from spending time in both special and mainstream schools. We’ve even visited schools where children in special schools are included for part of their time in other more specialised settings. What is evident is that forays into either setting need to be carefully planned with motivations identified.

Attending resourced unit provision - Peter's story

Unit and resourced provision are increasingly cited as desirable half-way houses, offering specialised input but with the benefits of accessible inclusion. We have had a lot of positive feedback on unit and resourced provision and had the privilege of visiting a number of centres of excellence. However, things don’t always work out - as illustrated by Mary and Peter’s story (names changed to protect identity) .

‘I have been battling with the school system for 8 years. My son Peter has Asperger’s syndrome, a bad temper and low motivation. He has been permanently excluded once and had lots and lots of fixed term and also illegal 'stay at homes'. I am appalled that special needs kids can be excluded at all, THEY HAVE SPECIAL NEEDS.

He is now in an autistic specific unit within a mainstream school which I had to fight for. I, perhaps foolishly, thought that my troubles with schools would be over when he got in, silly me. Peter is now on the verge of another permanent exclusion and I am at my wits end. He is 13 and doesn't have too long left. I have lost all faith in the school system, there seems to be no real help, support or understanding.

I can only hope that after the fiasco, that is school, finishes he will be able to relax enough to learn something that actually engages him. I am sick to death of meeting after meeting where 'so called professionals’, when they do turn up, can offer no practical advice. The things I think my son needs, either do not exist, cost too much, or he is the wrong age for help. I asked an LA worker once, where can I send my child if this placement fails? What I got in return was a blank look and a shrug. How helpful. The whole thing is a shambles and I for one will be glad when it is over.

Peter knows he’s different, he doesn’t want to be and it makes him angry that he’s not just ‘one of the crowd’. His needs aren’t being fully met throughout the school. Mary told us,

‘The unit staff are great; I can’t fault them. Unfortunately their hands are tied and they can only do so much’

That her son looks ‘normal’ and is quite bright too, doesn’t help. Mary said some staff simply didn’t understand autism, labelling him naughty and suggesting he should manage his behaviours better adding,

‘The children have to adhere to rules and regulations of the whole school; rules that don’t take account of autistic spectrum difficulties.’.

Peter doesn’t really have any friends. He attends a unit that is part of a mainstream school, but it isn’t his local school. Acquaintances from school all live a distance away, and neighbouring children go to a different school. Peter has no self-esteem, blames himself for everything and hates being in the unit. Mary has tried everything and is desperate to get counselling for him, yet has been told there is no such thing as autism specific counselling. We investigated and the NAS told us this is not the case, so if you need help do contact their helpline 0845 070 4004 they may be able to put you in touch with counsellors who can help.

Unofficial exclusions, the times when Mary is asked to keep Peter at home to ‘give him a rest’ are also a bone of contention. Mary is adamant this is more for the benefit of the staff than her son. Indeed we wonder how many other youngsters with special needs are unofficially excluded, how often and for how long.

Peter isn’t unique, The Government has indicated a commitment to improve things, let’s hope they do.


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