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Is Mainstream Education Doing the Best for Disabled Pupils?

RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
edited June 2019 in Guest blogs

I suspect that most people would consider me to be a bit of a poster girl for disabled people being educated in mainstream schools. They might think that it must have been a positive, enjoyable time, or why else would I have chosen to spend an extra twenty-five years there? I am intensely grateful for my schooling, believe passionately that disabled children should never have to compromise on the quality of their education and can, without hesitation, say that I love teaching, but my experience also tells me that things could, undoubtedly, be improved.

I reckon that most disabled adults, if disabled as children, will have a list of bad education-related stories (many of which the ‘system’ would say should ‘never happen’). Mine include (in no particular order) careless teacher comments: ‘I have a bad leg too and I can carry a desk down some stairs, why can’t you?’, ‘You can’t be a journalist; how would you push your way to the front of a crowd?’, poor decisions: having to spend primary playtimes on my own in a classroom and secondary PE lessons writing essays in the changing room because of ‘health and safety’ and the downright dangerous: being expected to negotiate the school site in ice and snow and finishing my finals covered in grazes and bruises from falls because the time spent sitting, temporarily, stole my coordination and balance.

I’d like to think that things are very different in 2019 and it does seem that, in theory at least, more support exists. I was educated in an era before teaching assistants, individual educational plans, extra time in exams or differentiated learning, but I don’t feel confident that these things work as they should, they are definitely increasingly poorly-funded and they don’t get to the real crux of the issue, which is that the lives of disabled people are so poorly understood by society.

A young man in a wheelchair throwing a ball along the ground while other children watch

When a non-disabled person thinks about ‘reasonable adjustments’ it is usually equipment that comes to mind, maybe, at a pinch, changes to the built environment and, of course, these are important. They often arrive in school in a flurry of excitement ‘Well done us, we’ve installed the lift, painted lines on the edges of steps, got your special seat/laptop/software’. What often isn’t considered is how essential it is that they are always working and available for the individual to access, that it is as easy as possible for them to do so and that they should have been consulted at every stage of the planning process because how somebody feels about their adjustments is every bit as important as the things themselves. There is also hardly any time given to understanding how life as a disabled person differs from that of a non-disabled one. For a start, if there were, rewards for 100% attendance and complicated rules about toilet use would vanish overnight. I happen to think that they aren’t good for anyone but they disproportionately impact negatively on disabled pupils.

If you are a non-disabled pupil you can, fairly confidently, rely on your education to prepare you for adulthood. It may do it a little clumsily, a week of slightly dull work experience, embarrassing PSHCE lessons or bits of subjects that you are certain that you will never need in the future, but it at least tries and does so from a position of knowledge. Disabled pupils rarely have this luxury.

If I were to list what I think they will need it would go something like this:

1.    Communication skills (in all their forms) that are as good as they can possibly be (they will have to constantly explain their situation, justify their needs, fight their corner. I should, perhaps, also add here that the current English Language GCSE has sidelined spoken skills)

2.    Resilience so they can cope with being misunderstood, the many barriers there will be, the inevitable disappointments and the physical changes they may face as time passes

3.    Self-confidence so that they won’t listen to people who know less than they do about their life and how they should live it

4.    An understanding that they are a member of a discriminated against minority and how the law tries to protect them

5.    And they need to learn these things in a place that doesn’t focus on what they can’t do but which also doesn’t peddle the popular lie that ‘Anything is possible if you try hard enough’

What I want to say to teachers is that their disabled pupils need their education even more than their non-disabled ones. Jobs will be harder to get, homes tougher to find, life will be more expensive. I want them to understand that, unlike other minorities, disabled children are often not part of a community that can support them and give them strategies for negotiating everyday challenges. A mainstream setting will never be the best choice for every child but, if schools are serious about inclusion, they need to listen more, be prepared to learn, and do better.

What would you change about the education system to better prepare disabled children for the wider world? As a disabled child, or parent/carer of a disabled child, what are some of your experiences of education?


  • April2018momApril2018mom Posts: 2,869 Member
    I want to promote inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools whenever possible. I believe my son can (with some adjustments) can attend a mainstream school safely. Kids with dyslexia and dyscalculia should definitely be attending mainstream schools. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. But it all depends on the diagnosis and disability. I would not recommend a mainstream school for someone with down syndrome or autism however. 
  • KareninWalesKareninWales Member Posts: 16 Connected
    This is also a topic near to my heart as we have experience of both mainstream (primary) and sn unit education (secondary). The absolute ideal is that mainstream is funded and trained and equipped to be as inclusive as possible. My son benefited from mainstream enormously, from being with his peer group, and they benefited from having him in their class for six years as well--they are lovely kind gracious patient people and I am quite sure that a large part of this was making adjustments for my son. BUT. My  son is severely autistic, nonverbal, uncommunicative, sociable in very odd ways, and given to challenging behaviour. And when he transitioned from mainstream primary to SN unit secondary, it was at least a few years overdue. The mainstream school was quite well equipped, did everything in their power to make adjustments, had lots and lots of goodwill and energy and patience. But as he got older, it was not the right place for him. What we desperately need is flexibility and options. I agree with the writer of the blog entirely that adjustments aren't just equipment and ramps--it is far more complicated. And ideally it ought to be done for the very large majority of people who will benefit. But in these discussions, the voice (absent as it is) of the severely disabled needs to be heard as well. I l love the principle of inclusion. But it isn't for everyone and I'm pleased that the blog writer makes this important distinction.
  • LindaButler1970LindaButler1970 Member Posts: 40 Courageous
    I would like to add that as a disabled student I intend to take an A Level in Psychology next June 2020, I was quite nervous in signing up to this because I know that I cannot hand write for very long. I have now been informed of special assistance when it comes to the exam which I shall have to pay for, for someone to either typing my answer or writing it. We shall see how this goes and hopefully it will work out okay. shame I have to pay for this however, its a positive start.
  • KareninWalesKareninWales Member Posts: 16 Connected
    Why do you have to pay for this? I'm surprised to hear that.
  • RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
    I agree, I would talk to them again about being charged. Would you be able to use a laptop? It's important that they listen to what suits you best.
  • LindaButler1970LindaButler1970 Member Posts: 40 Courageous
    No same issues with long term use on laptop - get too tired
     will ask about payment I assume its because I'm doing this privately not as a young adult
  • AilsAils Member Posts: 2,268 Disability Gamechanger
    I attended 2 mainstream primary schools and one special needs secondary school.  My experience of mainstream education was great on the whole, although I did have to leave my first primary school along with another disabled boy because we were due to move upstairs to the more senior classes and there was no lift in the school.  We were actually told at the time by the head teacher that we would be "a fire hazard" if we went upstairs so were recommended to go to a new school, which I didn't enjoy as much, but again had no long term problems with it.  This was over 40 years ago (I am 50) so in those days I think this kind of thing was allowed to happen, but doubt it could now.  I remember being devastated when my parents told me that I would have to attend a different secondary school from my friends as schools in my area at that time had lots of stairs with no lift.  Special needs education was good from the point of view that it was smaller classes to be taught in and so you got more individual attention, but I do feel that I would have also benefited a lot from going to a mainstream secondary with my friends.  I feel very much that if a child with a disability is able to attend mainstream education and has things put in place for them then that can only be a good thing.  However, I do realise that with some children's disabilities it will be easier for them to enter a special needs school.
    Winner of the Scope New Volunteer Award 2019.   :)
  • RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
    I was fortunate that I could still manage some stairs, until a few years ago, and it definitely gave me more choices during my education. I was also lucky that the school I taught in already had a lift.
  • RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
    I was fortunate that I could still manage some stairs, until a few years ago, and it definitely gave me more choices during my education. I was also lucky that the school I taught in already had a lift.
  • zakbloodzakblood Member Posts: 419 Pioneering
    as a ex 20 plus years school governor who is or was at the time disabled, not now as the DWP says so, no, as they have continued there slow closing down of all the special needs schools in our area, more and more came to mainstream schools, will varied success, while some schools and pupils coped, some didn't, the primary school which i was at spent the whole years IT budget to build one purpose built sluice room for one disabled child, and then in the end went elsewhere without even one full day at the school, so inclusion meant that everyone else in the school missed out on a IT suite because of the money was not ring fence to be spent on it, and was used elsewhere, but now that room is a store room, so caretakers have at least got more room, so inclusion on the whole doesn't work without the money to pay for the changes which are needed and as the budgets grow less, the amount which is altered to suit a few given children is taken away from the whole, which leads in the end to resentment tbh
  • RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
    I agree about budgets being squeezed and I think it is increasingly difficult for disabled pupils to access the education that they need, and deserve. 
  • zakbloodzakblood Member Posts: 419 Pioneering
    agreed, it's just a shame that in some cases like mine above shown, it causes quite a lot of resentment when the whole suffers because of the inclusion of the one, or few, while the motto is, every child matters, this phrase got through back at the staff and governors 2 fold with lots of negative comments resenting the facts that everyone shouldn't miss out on the inclusions of one, while for me, every child does matter, without the funding in place, most of the time, it doesn't go well, or was so when i was there, it may have improved, but from parents i still talk to and live near as the school is only a stone throw away, it's a long way off from being anything other than a mess still for most atm in Nottinghamshire anyway
  • RamRam Member Posts: 40 Pioneering
    In my experience, some of the resentment  stems, as I said in the blog, from a deep-seated lack of knowledge of disabled people's lives and needs. I have certainly seen it lead to poor decisions about funding and inappropriate equipment being bought.

    We shouldn't forget that disabled people face discrimination every day and are often thought to be getting preferential treatment when the reality is that they have to fight to get anywhere near equality. 
  • ScoliFibroGirlScoliFibroGirl Member Posts: 46 Courageous
    Things weren't great in mainstream education, I felt that I had too much support that I didn't need and felt that I was babied too long and couldn't be a typical teenage girl. I didn't get to do drama/music at school which I loved in Year 9.  So I was pretty angry with my parents when they chose my options for me. I feel that when you've been in special education it sends the message that this person is disabled and needs more help and actually doesn't prepare them for real life and when I was at secondary the same thing happened. 

  • GeoffBosworth195661GeoffBosworth195661 Member Posts: 163 Pioneering
    I am always positive in any situation as my moto it can turn into positive if it is tackled to be put right. After years of many challenges in the issues that arise of education it as been an uphill struggle in certain parts of the country. Education is vital and no matter what subject it may be and the child/ adult are happy in what they do you are half way to succeeding. I know of hundreds of disabled people that where work is the doors shut on a very high percentage of disability. I will not beat about the bush on this but fairness is a strategy that disabled vacancies are not in the real world put first. How can the companies say we are not against disabled but when asked how much-disabled works here it becomes quiet. How can disabled be overqualified and the same vacancy they say they are under qualified with the qualifications that they asked and had. yet the company employed a non-educated. In court, they said they wanted to train the application to the standards they want. In this case, they lost the case under disability discrimination with 14 other accounts against them and they were fined heavily. This is one of many insulting goings on in this country which case after cade is in on a daily bases. Disabled in most cases have to work really harder to earn a credit of achievement which without a doubt deserves to be equal in any qualified vacant work.       
  • DeriDeri Member Posts: 1 Listener
    I am definitely in favour of specialist education in certain circumstances, and it makes financial sense as well. Can mainstream schools afford physio therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, therapy pools. Can they organise disabled sports if they only have a handful of disabled people, all with very different disabilities? Can the curriculum include classes to prepare the child for life after school?

    I was very lucky to attend a special school for 10 years (7-17) which concentrated on preparing us for life after school, rather than academic achievement. The ethos was to instill confidence so that after school we would have the tools to reach our potential. This school was very outward looking, it is important not to have an insular attitude, we were encouraged to do voluntary work at weekends, the school was part of Sevenoaks Voluntary Service Unit. This meant we mixed a lot with the non-disabled as well.

    I also spent two years at another special school (17-19), run by Scope (the Spastics Society then), which had a very different atmosphere. It was essentially a grammar school for people with cerebral palsy, and although I'm grateful for the academic qualifications I gained there, it was a very insular atmosphere. Virtually the only external activities were a visit to church on Sundays. All the students at this school were very intelligent, but conversations tended to be about what society owes to us rather than what's the best way I can integrate into society.

    It must be really tough for parents to let their kids go away to boarding schools at such a young age, after being used to being the primary carers, but sometimes it is the best thing, because life starts properly after school and it is important to be taught the mental strategies to cope.

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