In defence of the presumption of mainstream

Our trustee Mike Lambert spoke to Radio 4’s In Touch programme about his experience of special school and why he believes inclusion is the way forward, prompted by the news that Scottish Conservatives are challenging the legal presumption that disabled children should be in mainstream education.

4th March 2019

Mike LambertYou can listen to the piece online at 11 minutes 30 seconds into the programme, or read the text below:

When I was 16, I lost my sight in an accident. Back in 1972, the idea that, with support, I could continue at my local school wasn’t even considered. Part of the problem was I already attended a segregated school: where all the pupils were non-disabled. None of us had a clue about disability or what it might take to include someone with sight loss. My teachers and parents were relieved and grateful to receive the glossy brochure from the special school. Thank god, such centres of expertise even existed where I could carry on my education. And so, without further ado, I was dispatched to a school for the blind, far from my home in London.

But what happened over the next 3 years set me wondering about the desirability of educating disabled and non-disabled children in separate institutions. Admittedly, my special school gave me the grades I needed for university. But it was academic success at a very high price in terms of my social and emotional well-being. For one thing, losing my sight then immediately being sent away to a boarding school created a painful sense of isolation. Just when I needed them most I was separated from my family and community and slowly but surely lost touch with my old friends.

Meanwhile, what I was finding out about my new school did nothing to help me adjust to the social and emotional consequences of sight loss. Back then, the level of institutionalisation was alarming. Many of its 90 boys had attended the same special schools since kindergarten. No wonder they’d developed a shared culture, which I found impenetrable and cut off from teenage life as I knew it. When my parents came to visit, I hoped they wouldn’t notice the boys aimlessly rocking from side to side, or the shocking standards of hygiene demonstrated by some of my new classmates. And, at a time when I was struggling to work out what it meant to be blind in a sighted world, these were some of the role models that surrounded me.

Following university, I trained as a teacher and spent most of my career coordinating support for disabled youngsters studying at their local mainstream college. I saw how, given the right resources, visually impaired students can succeed on vocational and academic courses across the curriculum. So I know there’s no overwhelming, practical reason why blind and partially-sighted children need to attend special schools.

Hardly a day goes by when I’m not confronted by strangers made anxious or uncomfortable by my disability. It’s nobody’s fault. Most likely, I’m the first blind person they’ve ever had dealings with.

Almost as surprising are those people I encounter who aren’t the least bit phased by my situation. And often this turns out to be because they had some early, positive experience of disability or difference: either within their family or a school that had an inclusive ethos.

How could it be otherwise? You can’t separate people throughout their formative years, then expect them to just get along and negotiate their differences as adults.

And, if I’m right, then mustn’t there be a connection between the special school system and our society’s failure to adequately include disabled people in the workplace and other adult settings?

Inclusive education is a human right. That’s the view of the United Nations, in its Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Unfortunately, although the UK’s a signatory of this UN convention, our government maintains a legal reservation on inclusive education. The best we have is a “presumption of mainstream”. And, in practice, this “presumption” is so shot through with caveats and legal loopholes that parents find it extremely difficult to insist on a mainstream placement.

The Scottish Parliament has approved Liz Smith’s motion and there’ll now be an official review into how this “presumption” is being implemented. Hopefully, those conducting this review will see the advantages of a system where disabled and non-disabled children learn about the world and one another in the same, properly resourced classrooms.

Mike Lambert






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