Lots of parents weigh up the pros and cons of whether to send their disabled child to a mainstream school or otherwise, to what we’ll refer to in this article, as a ‘special school’ where more specialist education can be provided for pupils. Education unquestionably has a huge influence on who and what a child grows up to become and achieve – so there’s also a discussion to have as to where the best educational solutions lie a little later on as they consider college and university.
It’s clear that because school and education are such important components in life that they should somehow reflect how we want to live as fully as possible. A school is a communal and social environment, for example, and some might say that starting in a special school only teaches people how to be ‘disabled people’ and that the brutal truth is that one day those pupils will need to make the transition to what is a mainstream world.
Having said that, there are advantages to the way special schools operate. Smaller groups, with more specialised equipment, means a more personalised learning environment. Isn’t that what all parents (and teachers) strive for?
Perhaps the best starting point is to visit schools that sound as though they’ll be able to supply the education and environment you want for your child. As Glyn Harding, Principal Lecturer in Sports Coaching Science and Disability at the University of Worcester mentioned, when we spoke with him for an overview of a person’s educational journey: “Each kid’s an individual and they’ve all got their own story to kind of tell. I think the jury’s out on it. This is why we challenge our able-bodied students (at Worcester) to look at the models. You’ve got the old classics: medical and social models that we tend to put people into. It’s kind of lazy really but if you look at that as a way of measuring it, socially whether you’re a young man, young woman, disabled person or whatever, just going to a mainstream school, you’re probably going to get more exposure to a social kind of interaction.”
Glyn went on to outline what he describes as the ‘big challenge’ of properly inclusive, yet differentiated education, saying: “In physical education, can they (teachers) include the range of learners in their mixed class? So, you might have a kid who can play a bit of football and a bit of basketball; they don’t seem to get a bad experience. We also need to talk about gifted and talented, pupils, like a young Wayne Rooney. At fourteen that same teaching wouldn’t be much good to him because he’s so much better than everybody else. So you’ve got a PE teacher with a Wayne Rooney and a wheelchair user kid in the group. How do you put a learning experience on to satisfy all of them?”
The fact is, no one size fits all learners – in childhood or as students later on. However, mainstream education providers can get the balance right. Mark Stevens is a graduate of the University of Worcester and one of Glyn’s former students. He says: “I met Glyn for the first time in my interview (for Worcester) and he basically said, yeah, we really want you to be here. He made me feel welcomed with the small things, like we did a practical sports session and they made it inclusive for me as a wheelchair user. So they clearly thought about that.”
Mainstream but inclusive
We also spoke with Perth College, another institution with a ‘mainstream’ tradition but one that is succeeding with inclusion who told us: “We provide a safe, inclusive and friendly environment for all of our students and have dedicated support teams on hand to help those students with disabilities come to college and succeed at their chosen course”. ‘Mainstream’ doesn’t therefore, have to mean without some element of specialist support as the spokesperson from Perth added: “Our dedicated Additional Support Team are on hand to support you right from day one. At Perth College UHI we work hard to support all of our students. We recognise that each student is different and do our best to provide appropriate and effective support to reflect this. A wide range of courses are available to meet the needs and aspirations of our students.
Alongside this comprehensive additional support service we also have a Student Support Team who offer advice, guidance and support if you are struggling while at college. We are aware that coming to college is a big decision and that it can be difficult to balance life, work and study so the Student Support Team are here to provide support and guidance.” In other words, this reflects the ideal holistic approach mentioned earlier.
Whilst Mark clearly values his experiences of university, he admits that, just as in all aspects of life, there are difficult moments, saying: “There were some hard times. That first week or two was obviously really hard: not having your parents there or not having that support group so close to you but I made friends with the guys in the opposite flat and I lived with them for the next two or three years after that. Yes, it’s hard to start with but it works out in the end.”
Mark was also good enough to give his view, as a disabled person who went to mainstream school, about the choices facing parents in selecting a school for their child. “The amount of support that maybe specialist schools get (is useful) but then again being in a mainstream school and being in a mainstream college afterwards, I just think that builds character. If you feel like your son or daughter can cope with it, shall we say, at a mainstream school, I’d always pick that. I just think, I hate the word ‘normal’, but I didn’t want to be treated any differently” he concludes.
Glyn in his work at Worcester, is also trying to model the next generation of teachers from able-bodied and disabled students alike and sums up, saying: “We’re trying to get our PE teachers of the future to not view 36 kids as 36 kids, but as 36 different individuals – all with talent and ambition”.
Mark is clearly pleased with the way his individual journey has gone, saying: “I’d definitely put Worcester up there as one of the best (universities) I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think they thought, ‘OK we want to be specialists in the field of disability support’, I don’t think they’d ever want to be a specialist education institute.” Mark is currently enjoying a successful start to his career as a project assistant lead for the Health and Wellbeing in Sport Programme with Truro & Penwith College.
University of Worcester
Perth College UHI