The Times

December 10 2000

Children who give schools a vested interest in failure

Melanie Phillips
The Sunday Times

For once, the teaching barons are on the side of the angels. Union leaders such as Nigel de Gruchy and David Hart have long claimed that the policy of school inclusion, which seeks to educate in mainstream schools virtually all children who may be disruptive or disturbed, has had a catastrophic effect.

The barons' temper is unlikely to be improved by the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Bill which the government published two days ago. This strengthens the "right" of SEN children (those with special educational needs) to be educated in mainstream schools.

True, it adds that the education of other children must be safeguarded and that special schools are vital because there will always be cases where "severely challenging behaviour" means that mainstream education is inappropriate. But the fear is that this definition masks the real intention: to educate as many children in mainstream schools as possible, restricting special school provision for the tiny number with the most extreme emotional disorders while leaving teachers to flounder with pupils whose very disruptive behaviour still spells chaos in the classroom.

Classroom "inclusion" is a shibboleth for many educationists, for whom separate schooling of any kind is an ideological anathema. The irony is that it leads directly to a high number of school exclusions. And since inclusion is the policy aim, there is very little provision for such ousted pupils.

Although some special schools exist, many were forced to close because local authorities stopped sending children there. The result has been an increasing number of angry, uneducated and emotionally disturbed youngsters left to roam the streets, inevitably generating crime and disorder. So what should the policy be?

Some educationists say that well-run schools should take everyone and exclude nobody. Vanessa Wiseman, head of Langdon school in Newham, east London, says she has reduced exclusions to zero and yet her GCSE results have soared.

Schools in Oxfordshire and Nottingham have seen their exclusion rates tumble as a result of stationing police officers in the schools who preside over "restorative justice", informal forums of teachers, parents, pupils and others that speedily confront violent children with the effects of their behaviour and get them to apologise or make restitution.

These are real successes but they are only part of the picture. They may mean that a good head has generally improved standards and discipline, but still tell us little about whether the needs of the most disturbed pupils are being met. Exceptional heads may display a magic touch that solves all conceivable problems. But for the majority of heads and teachers, the problems of incorporating severely disruptive children are overwhelming.

This is because a significant and growing minority of children have very serious needs, caused mainly by their shattered backgrounds, which require the kind of specialist help that cannot generally be provided in ordinary schools. It's not just a question of very small classes or therapeutic back-up. It's also important that such children attend a school with a coherent identity and ethos, with which they can closely identify, have pride in and feel protected by.

In Balsall Heath, Birmingham, the remarkable St Paul's community school provides exactly this. It takes children who would shun or be shunned by mainstream schools and manages to equip them with exam passes and college places. Pupils' pride in the school provides the essential context for its tailored teaching approach.

Providing special units within mainstream schools does not make children feel included. Separated from their peers, it is these children who feel stigmatised. Pupils refer to one such unit as "the H-block" and provide behaviour to suit.

To make matters worse, the whole operation of special needs provision is a corrupt shambles. There has been an enormous growth in SEN children; their numbers more than doubled during the 1990s and they now take up a staggering one third of the total education budget. Yet much of this growth is a racket.

At a meeting last week held by the Centre for British Teaching, an independent education provider, Professor Mel Ainscow, a supporter of mainstream inclusion, was nevertheless withering in his attack on the special needs scam. Children were being labelled SEN to excuse poor league table performance, he said, or excluded from school during Ofsted inspections to distort the true picture, while SEN-funded support teachers were often useless.

Above all, perverse incentives mean that the more SEN children a school can claim, the more money it receives. So schools have a vested interest in failure. The education researcher John Marks has also analysed this racket. He found that nobody knows how SEN money is spent, with what results or, indeed, what the needs of these children actually are.

Marks thinks many SEN-labelled children are simply the victims of poor teaching in the one-size-fits-all school system. The problem is, though, that it's impossible to separate these children from those who really do have intense psychological problems. Meanwhile, the fact that SEN children are expected to reach national curriculum standards has produced pressure to lower expectations of what the curriculum requires.

Yet despite all this, David Blunkett announced last week that the SEN budget was to be increased by half as much again. What is the point of pouring money into such a giant fiddle when the real causes of exclusion lie elsewhere?

The crucial point about St Paul's community school is that its young people feel it is theirs. The key thing missing from the government's crime strategy is the reconnection of young men to the community. Proposals for extending non-existent curfews or introducing fixed-penalty fines for thuggery, even if workable, are almost irrelevant. They don't tackle the underlying causes of crime, the collapse of social controls caused by the loss of any feeling of belonging to family or community.

It's only if they feel the community belongs to them that young men will stop trashing it. But that means radical decentralisation of services: schools, hospitals, social services, youth centres. Clusters of head teachers would buy into schools run by the kind of specialist providers that one finds in America and which can exist only if schools and welfare provision are set free from central control. It means giving schools a stake in specialist services and giving children a stake in schools.

It is the lack of such a stake that has resulted in the corruption of the special needs system. The danger is that the new measures will merely deepen that corruption and lock disaffected youths ever more into the spiral of crime and disorder.

The bill will line up parents and their human rights lawyers, demanding that their desperately needy children are educated in mainstream schools, while the government uses the measure's weaselly and ambiguous wording to wash its hands of the real problem: that children's needs are once again being sacrificed on the altar of an ideology.

Melanie Phillips

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.