There is a wide variety of physical and mental conditions which have an effect upon the educational performance of different students. Some of these special educational needs (SEN – a legal term) pupils are very capable of achieving good grades, provided they are given the appropriate support. Others are unable to make the same intellectual progress as their peers.

For the purposes of this article I will concentrate purely on mental, or neurological, disabilities.

My sister has Down’s Syndrome and although, perhaps ironically, she is 10 years my senior, I have always been aware of her educational needs and those of her contemporaries with mental impairments. In a developed society I believe it’s essential not to ‘compartmentalise’ SEN children but to invest appropriate time and resources to understanding the level of support needed for individual circumstances and the best interests of their peers and school communities.

A recent history of SEN

There has been a great change in the perception and level of provision for SEN pupils in recent history. Prior to World War 1 educational staff were required to identify pupils with mental deficiencies and send them to ‘special’ institutions. The 1944 Education Act stipulated that SEN children should be sent to one of eleven types of special school. However, attitudes began to change in accordance with the development of psychology in the second half of the 20th century.

In 1966 Paul Hunt combined with Peter Wade to publish a key report highlighting the various ways disabled people were mistreated and oppressed. There was a definite need for change, as signalled by the emergence of the disability movement in 1972. The campaign against discrimination gathered substantial support and the world’s leaders gathered for the Conference on Special Needs in 1994. It was deemed necessary for all schools to practice a policy of inclusion and guarantee places for children, despite intellectual, social and emotional difficulties.

Further steps towards the inclusion of SEN pupils have been taken in recent years. Discrimination on grounds of disability became an illegal offence in 1995. Strict rules regarding the just treatment of disabled individuals were extended to schools, colleges and universities under the Special Needs Act of 2001. Educational workers have become increasingly aware of their responsibility to arrange support and ensure the welfare of variously disabled students. However, there is still a great deal of potential for positive change.

It is worth pointing out that teaching assistants are often relied upon to support SEN pupils. However, they aren’t given the necessary training to cope with specific disabilities. Safeguarding and health and safety training should be balanced with lessons on effective teaching methods. There should be an assurance of continual professional development for educators working with SEN children.

What is right for all?

There are understandable concerns regarding the inclusion of SEN pupils in mainstream settings and I would be the first to put my hand up to this, despite – or perhaps because of – what I have seen through my experiences with my sister’s special needs.

Parents and carers of ‘mainstream’ students worry about the level of attention and allocation of teaching time to pupils with SEN. They fear pupils, for example, with ADHD/autism will distract their peers and prevent the ultimate success of lessons. Fair comment. A minority welcome the true integration of SEN children with their children, believing this offers a rounded experience of other children.

On the other hand, many parents of disabled children want their children to have the same experiences and opportunities as their more able contemporaries. Again, fair comment. Many, however, do not support the policy of total inclusion. They worry that the disabled pupils will be bullied and ridiculed by their relatively able peers in situations in which they simply cannot compete. There are concerns regarding the level of confidence and esteem of SEN pupils in mainstream educational settings.

‘Special schools’ are seen as the ideal alternative by a significant proportion of parents and professional educators.

Attempts to integrate SEN pupils are often deemed impractical and ineffective. The SEN pupils are singled out and taken to one side, thus reinforcing the sense of separation. Leading academic Professor Blatchford has revealed that pupils with special needs only spend half their time in contact with students of a higher ability. He said, “[there is] little evidence of an effective and theoretically grounded pedagogy for statemented pupils” and that “mainstream schools are unable to effectively consider approaches for pupils with pronounced learning difficulties.”

Personally, I believe it’s all about each individual child and their needs and of course, how others react is important and must be carefully monitored. Common sense and compassion must prevail when considering the effective level of support and, practically, how well the child will flourish in a ‘mainstream’ environment.

To me, it should not be a polar argument: it’s not a question of ‘in or out’. Some SEN children are able, for example, to compete well in particular areas of education and benefit all by their inclusion in ‘mainstream’ educational environments. For the autistic this may be a talent for logic-based subjects such as maths or engineering or some aspects of design. For others it may be an artistic ability such as painting or cookery.

In other areas of education it is probably best to let ‘birds of a feather’… and let them be educated among peers. My sister is always – and has always been – happiest when with people with a mental disability. Why?  I don’t know. But I know it as fact. Don’t we all gravitate to ‘people like us’?

There will always, inevitably, be disagreements regarding the treatment of pupils with special educational needs. This is a very contentious subject which will run on and on, probably ad infinitum. What do you think?




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.