SEN schools have been described as discriminatory and segregatory, especially under the political and academic context of education (Qu, 2015; Farrell, 2010; Riddell, 2007). Prior to the debate I stood alongside many others stating that special educational needs schools (SEN) were inappropriate, allowing for an issue of innovation, inclusion and ethics (Avraamidis et al, 2000). Inclusive education refers to an education that is non-discriminatory in terms of disability, culture, gender, or any other aspect that is assigned significance by society (Ballard, 1997). Inclusion emphasises diversity over assimilation and integration, striving to avoid the colonisation of minority experiences by dominant modes of thought and action (Dyson & Millward). As a result, at face value, an educational experience that reflects society’s values of an internationally inclusive educational system appears to be the solution.
Firstly, SEN can be defined as “a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for them” (Department for Education, 2001), including communication and interaction difficulties, cognition and learning difficulties, emotional, social and behavioural difficulties, and sensory and/or physical disabilities (Department for Education, 2014). However, SEN is on a spectrum and each individual may require different levels of support (Cheminais, 2013). Also, the segregation of SEN children raises many issues for concern such as the detrimental effects of labelling which reinforces discrimination against those with disabilities (Department for International Development; Perrenoud, 1997 in Zoniou-Sideri, 2000)
Additionally, the main aim of education is for developmental purposes (Kohlberg & Mayer 1972), including but not limited to social and emotional; communication and language, and cognitive development. However, by isolating SEN children to SEN schools we are limiting their understanding of the real world and limiting their opportunities for social development with other children, depriving them of socialisation opportunities. Mainstream schools may benefit SEN children by offering an ideal context to use typical peers as social models, encouraging the maintenance and generalisation of skills that are often not achieved by adult intervention (Carr & Darcy, 1990; Roeyers, 1996; Shearer et al, 1996; Kasari et al, 2011). This social interaction is effective in equipping SEN children into better self-supportive independent adults in the future (Jenkinson, 1997; Hanline, 1993).
On the other hand, despite aiming to achieve an all-inclusive society through the abolition of special schools, evidence suggests that students often remain isolated within a mainstream setting (Department for Education and Employment, 1999; Peterson& Haralick, 1977; Peterson, 1982), this can be because they can struggle to build relationships with their peers within a mainstream setting (Pijl, 2008; Kasari et al, 2011).
Furthermore, mainstream schools may not necessarily be equipped to deal with SEN children and mainstream schooling may actually deprive them of the expert care that is required. Financial restraints result in the correct care being unprovided and SEN children being allocated to inexperienced teaching assistants (TA’s) (MacBeath et al; Blatchford et al). Children who received the most support from TA’s have demonstrated significantly less progress (Blatchford, Russell and Webster, 2012) Ultimately, mainstream schooling inherently fails to accommodate for differences and as a result children with SEN are often unable to benefit from learning activities designed for the majority of students within a mainstream setting.
Children have the right to be informed and listened to on all matters regarding them (Clelland and Sutherland, 1996; United Nations, 1989). Following this statement, I ultimately believe that the choice of a SEN school or mainstream school should be offered dependant on personal preferences of the child and their guardian. Education is not ‘one shoe fits all’ and each child has unique characteristics, interests, abilities and learning needs (Gibson, 2004), and with this in mind we cannot conclude that SEN schools may be abolished as every child has their own personal preferences.
To conclude, integrating SEN children to mainstream schools is not without its challenges including potential isolation and bullying. Also, the financial cost of expert help within mainstream schools seems unachievable and SEN children may not receive the necessary support -that they would in a SEN setting- to promote the best outcomes. However, such inclusion is important for developing an empathetic, understanding and well-rounded society. Additionally, mainstream schools may offer SEN students further opportunities for development, including opportunities for social, emotional and academic development, that they may not have received otherwise. I believe that whilst some SEN children may thrive in a mainstream classroom, others will be negatively affected and further isolated. As a result of this, I believe that each child should be considered an individual and inclusive policy cannot be implemented to benefit everyone – children and their parents should be able to decide whether to attend a SEN school or mainstream, dependant on their needs and outcomes.