“Inclusive education is the only way forward”
Mike Lambert talks to Marsha de Cordova MP, about her schooling as a visually impaired young person, her views on inclusive education & ambitions as Shadow Minister for Disabled People.
In summer 2017 Marsha de Cordova was elected to Parliament: overturning a large Conservative majority to become Labour’s new MP for Battersea, South London. She’s already shown herself a powerful advocate for disability rights and last October was appointed Shadow Minister for Disabled People.
I began by recalling Marsha’s maiden speech to Parliament in which she expressed her opinion that she’d never have been elected an MP if it hadn’t been for her mother, who’d “fought tooth and nail” to keep her in mainstream education.
Mike: “What happened to you at school?”
Marsha: “At my primary school, the headteacher – possibly through lack of knowledge – felt it would be better that I was educated in a special school. But my mother was having none of that. I was externally assessed, and the report back said that, with support, I could remain in my mainstream school.”
Mike: “What additional support did you receive in school and in your higher education?”
Marsha: “At primary school, I started getting some one-to-one help from a support worker. Then, I went to a mainstream comprehensive school that had a unit for disabled children. They enlarged written materials to A3 and for certain subjects – like home economics, technology and the sciences – I had someone with me in those lessons. And later, South Bank University was fantastic. They provided all the reasonable adjustments I needed and, when I had exams, I had additional time, a separate room and use of a computer.”
Mike: “How important was it for you and your development that you were able to live at home amongst a supportive family?”
Marsha: “I was grateful that my Mum didn’t want me to go to a special school because, as I said in my maiden speech, if I had, then I don’t think I’d be the person I am today. I think that children who go to special schools often face even greater barriers, like institutionalisation.
“I grew up in quite a close family, where I was the only disabled person. So I was the clumsy one, who was always falling down and walking into things. My Mum didn’t try to shelter me or keep me away from playing or riding a bike – or doing the things my sister and cousins were doing. She tried to make sure I had the most normal upbringing possible; whilst recognising that I did sometimes need additional help and support – which she’d provide.
“One of the lessons she drummed into my head from an early age was that I was always going to have to work much harder than everybody else. So that, even now, today, as a member of Parliament, I just have to prepare more and work harder. Sometimes I don’t want to – but it’s just the nature of my life that I’ve got to do it.”
Mike: “What are your views on inclusive education?”
Marsha: “First of all, I’d say there’s no rational reason why a visually impaired person should be sent to a special school. I have very strong views on education and believe in inclusive education for everybody. The default should always be mainstream and only if circumstances are such that mainstream absolutely isn’t viable should any alternative form of education be considered. But, the default should always be mainstream.
“If you have schools that are just for disabled children, then that’s all those children will see and know. So, their experience in the real world will be very limited.
“And actually, non-disabled children benefit from being educated with disabled children. It opens up their minds, teaches them about difference and how to be caring and compassionate.”
Mike: “It sounds like you went to a good comprehensive school, with an inclusive ethos. I wonder what you think about recent changes to our education system that have made it harder for such schools to be inclusive?”
Marsha: “The academisation of our schools hasn’t been the most positive approach to education. I think the model of having a proper comprehensive school, with the right support services as an integral part of that, is essential. Every school, college and university should be able to offer support for disabled students – and we should be able to fund that. Children should never be assessed and then the outcome of that assessment is, ‘well, you don’t have any support needs’ or ‘we can’t afford to meet all your needs’. That should never be an option: because every child deserves a good education.”
Mike: “Do you think performance targets and league tables have worked against the inclusion of disabled children?”
Marsha: “That’s the absolute problem with the current system. Because targets and so forth shouldn’t be the driving force for the kind of educational system you become. If the actual starting point is that every child deserves a good education – then, actually, if you want to set targets, then a good target will be, has every child received the support they require to enable them to have a good education. Unfortunately, our education system has failed so many young people, because it’s all driven by a tick-box set of standard targets and outcomes: and I would hope that a Labour government would seek to redress that.
Mike: “Following this summer’s UN report, which was so critical of the UK’s record on disability rights, what do you think we should be doing to maintain the pressure?”
Marsha: “We know that the last seven years of austerity has disproportionately hit disabled people. We’ve experienced over £28bn of cuts since 2013 because the government have targeted disabled people as the ones they believe will make the least noise. So, it’s down to us as politicians, DPOs, charities and disabled people to keep the pressure on this government: constantly lobbying and raising issues in Parliament. I think the government’s pretty much trying to ignore it, but it’s important that people aren’t afraid to keep fighting, because together we’ll be victorious – we’ll win!”
Mike: “My final question has to do with Labour’s manifesto, which promised to embrace the principles of inclusive education. I wonder how this commitment can be turned into a reality? And also, would you consider working with ALLFIE to pursue this goal – especially given that one of ALLFIE’s aims for 2018 is to develop a private member’s bill in support of inclusive education?”
Marsha: “My belief is that inclusive education is the only way forward. It’s fundamental that – whatever policies the Labour party develops and wants to introduce – they have to support that. In my capacity as Shadow Minister for Disabled People, I’d be more than happy to work with ALLFIE, and I think this idea of a private member’s bill sounds like a very good one.”