For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!
But are they fit for purpose?
In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.
However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:
For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?
The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.
Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore. This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.
Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation. How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?
In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.
Could there be another way?
I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?
…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.
So, are special schools fit for purpose?
Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.