Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education

supporting inclusion, challenging exclusion

frequently asked questions on education for disabled children and young people


Which children do you call disabled?

The Equality Act 2010 states that a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The Act also provides clarifications and exclusions to this definition. Medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes, mental health conditions such as bipolar or depression, learning difficulties such as dyslexia and other conditions such as autism or Down Syndrome, are all covered by this definition.

There are various ways in which disability can be understood; CSIE’s understanding is in line with the social model of disability and the views expressed by UK disabled people’s organisations. Some people have physical, sensory or mental impairments; they become disabled if no adjustment is made in response to their impairments. In this sense disability is an experience arising from the interaction between a) people’s impairments and b) inflexibility in society and its institutions. For example, a wheelchair user can access the space at the top or bottom of a ramp, but would be dis-abled in front of a flight of steps.

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Special schools have been specifically set up to cater for the needs of disabled children. Why deprive these children of such tailor-made provision?

Separate “special” schools were first set up in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at a time when people with unusual bodies or minds were not part of mainstream society and institutions. Today social values have transformed and disability equality is firmly established in national and international legislation. Long-standing convention and familiarity, however, can mask the discriminatory aspects of an educational system which has been set up to exclude disabled children from ordinary local schools. CSIE suggests that with creative use of resources, including human resources, this question can be turned on its head: why deprive disabled children of the opportunity to grow up, learn and develop with their peers?

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Well-resourced inclusion is very expensive. Doesn’t it make financial sense to have all relevant resources in one location and educate disabled children there?

We need to look at the full picture: as well as running costs of maintaining separate settings with concentrated resources, disabled children need to get to them every day. Millions of pounds are spent each year to transport disabled children long distances twice a day, often by taxi with an escort, in order to educate them away from their non-disabled peers. This makes neither financial nor social or educational sense.

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Mainstream schools do not have the specialist staff or equipment needed to cater for the needs of disabled children. How are we supposed to educate them?

There is no doubt that resources and training are valuable and that accessing them often requires money, time and will. (And we all know what happens “when there is a will”.) Principles underpinning “special education”, however, are exactly the same as those underpinning “education”: setting meaningful and relevant learning objectives, building on a child’s knowledge and skills, one step at a time, utilising their strengths. Many teachers have been pleasantly surprised to find that creative ways to respond to the diversity of learners often emerge from their own resourceful thinking, sometimes in consultation with external agencies, always in consultation with young people and their families. This is not to say that including disabled children in ordinary schools is easy, but that it is possible. There is no type or degree of impairment which hasn’t been accommodated in an ordinary school.

If we want to prepare our pupils for life in an inclusive society, it seems pointless to work with some children in one type of setting and with others in separate institutions. All children and young people benefit from growing up, learning and developing with each other. In the words of Micheline Mason, founder and former director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education: “Appropriate resources are vital for the learning and development of disabled children. The most essential resource is free and abundant in mainstream schools: non-disabled children.”

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Disabled children would be teased and bullied in mainstream schools. Why subject them to harsh treatment?

Research has shown that children with statements of special educational needs for moderate learning difficulties are bullied as much in mainstream as they are in special schools. The same research also found that pupils attending special schools experienced far more bullying outside of school, by other children in their own neighbourhood.

Many schools that have included disabled pupils have found that children are far more accommodating than adults had anticipated. In any case, harassment of any student is far less likely to occur in a school which fosters inclusive values. If disabled children are at risk of being bullied, it makes more sense to address the bullying and minimise the risk, rather than deciding to exclude disabled children as a way of protecting them.

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A disabled pupil would take up too much of the teacher’s time. Why should other children’s learning suffer?

The vision of an inclusive education for all learners does not equate to admitting all children in schools as we know them. Much more than this, it is about rethinking how teaching and learning are organised, so that schools can value, respect and support the learning & development of all children from the local community, whatever their background or perceived ability. At a time when schools are increasingly expected to support personalised learning, there is no reason why tailor-made provision has to be offered in separate institutions. Careful attention to differentiation and resourcefulness in teaching methods and materials, even if prompted by the presence of one pupil, have been shown to benefit all.

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Why does CSIE say that special schools have no place in the 21st century?

There was never a moment in time when policy makers considered how best to educate disabled children and decided in favour of separate schools. This didn’t happen ever, anywhere. Separate schools began appearing in the 19th century, mostly as isolated attempts to provide education for children whom the then education system was leaving behind. That education system was based on social values of its time and, therefore, saw no point in educating disabled children and even considered some of them incapable of learning.

Nowadays social values have transformed and disability equality is firmly established in national and international legislation, which clearly state every child’s right to mainstream education. Disability equality is understood in multiple and contrasting ways, however, to the extent that what is seen as good educational provision by some is considered anachronistic and discriminatory by others. What is education’s answer to the claim that established systems act as disabling barriers for some children and young people? CSIE sees this as a human rights question, to which education is urgently called upon to find an answer.

Disabled adults tell us that segregated education is inappropriate because it perpetuates stereotypes, disempowers disabled people and keeps them at the margins of society. The issue of mainstream or segregated schooling for disabled children is often seen as a polarised argument that remains unresolved. Supporters of a mainstream education for all advocate this in the name of disability equality and the understanding that, if some children are excluded from ordinary schools, prejudice and discrimination will persist. Supporters of special schools, on the other hand, argue that these are needed because they offer provision that is not regularly available in mainstream schools. The two positions do not contradict one another. The first represents a human rights position, the second a partial reflection on existing practice.

Children learn from one another, as well as from adults, and establish friendships in school that can last a lifetime. No matter how excellent the facilities or how committed and experienced the staff may be, the fact remains that separate special schools are segregating institutions. They deprive disabled learners of the opportunity to grow up, learn and develop with their peers.

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Inclusion is all right for some, but there will always be children for whom inclusion cannot work. Why insist that all means all?

Including disabled children in ordinary schools, when well-resourced and managed, has been shown to be of benefit to all children. It might be worth exploring what assumptions lie behind this question. What is it that is believed to make inclusion impossible for some children? If it is the type or degree of their impairment, why does this pose a challenge for education? If it is the culture and organisation of mainstream schools as we know them, are these fixed and rigid, beyond the possibility of change?

It sometimes helps to consider the same issues in a different context. If you, the reader of this text, were to become disabled (and many of us will, possibly in later life) how would it feel if you were denied access to your regular place of work or leisure? How would it be if you were told that, instead, you should attend an alternative place, which is tailor-made for your needs and full of other people like you? You may well value some contact with others who are, for example, wheelchair-users or partially sighted, but would you be happy to have this instead of your regular contact with existing friends and colleagues?

Let us now return to the issue of schooling for disabled learners. If it is thought that a pupil “cannot access the curriculum” is it, in principle, better to turn the pupil away or to make every effort to make the curriculum relevant and accessible to this pupil?

After all, seeing disabled people as significantly different from non-disabled people is only one way of meaning-making; it focuses more on differences than on similarities. When considering children’s “needs” some people may focus on a perceived need for physiotherapy or speech & language therapy, while others may prioritise needs shared by all children, such as to belong to your local community, to make friends or to learn about collaboration and negotiation. After all, we are all good at some things and need help with others. And we probably all find it frustrating if other people define us by what we need help with.

What is expected of schools has changed considerably over a short period of time. Until the 1960s children and young people categorised as “educationally subnormal (severe)” were thought to be “ineducable”. Provision for them was made by health authorities, often in Junior Training Centres. The Education Act of 1970 transferred responsibility for these children to local education authorities and many Junior Training Centres got renamed as “special schools”. A decade later, the 1981 Education Act abolished all previous categories of “handicap”, introduced in legislation the concept of “special educational need” and stated that every child has a legal right to be educated in a mainstream school, as long as certain conditions are met. Subsequent laws have amended the specific conditions, but the basic entitlement has been reiterated in all education laws, including in the Children and Families Act 2014. How has education changed in response?

Recent evidence confirms that in some areas schools have transformed and are successfully educating children with any type or degree of impairment. In other areas long-established views about how schools should organise teaching and learning have remained fixed and there continues to be an underlying assumption, shared by many professionals, that some disabled children cannot be included in their local school. There is little support or incentive for this to change and this generates a vicious circle of not admitting disabled pupils because disabled pupils had not been admitted before.

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Page last updated: Tuesday 27 January 2015

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