“Miss, they all hate me. They would never accept me.” Two sentences so simple, but so powerful. Two sentences filled with sadness and helplessness. These are two sentences Gabriela Hristova, a teaching assistant from Salford, hears on a regular basis.
Since graduating from the University of Salford with a BSc degree in Psychology in 2015, miss Hristova has been working in different nurseries and primary schools across Greater Manchester, helping children with special learning needs (SEN) integrate into a mainstream school, making sure their studies go smoothly.
But how well are they actually integrating? Do other pupils accept them, or do they get labeled and are avoided simply because they are different?
“People’s perception of children with special educational needs is that they are different in some kind of way, because they have extraordinary social and learning needs.
“Back in time, the popular opinion was that they needed to be in a special environment, outside the mainstream school.
“Today, however, there’s a great emphasis on creating an inclusive learning environment that upholds pupil diversities”, miss Hristova says.
However, this approach can be quite controversial.
Noel Fagan, a learning disability nursing lecturer at the University of Salford, agrees there are both important advantages and disadvantages of this integrated system.
“Most kids with mental disabilities would also have some physical disabilities and it’s hard to imagine that mainstream schools would have the time, the technology, the knowledge, the expertise to meet those kinds of needs.
“Having worked with lots of parents over the years, most of them want their child to go to that kind of specialized environment rather than mainstream schools” Mr Fagan says.
He goes on to explain that what tends to happen, is that a child with Down syndrome, for example, who is less physically disabled, often goes to a primary school with their brothers and sisters, but when it comes to high school at the age of 11, that’s when they go back to the special school provision. Mr Fagan believes that this has to do with the idea that they might be bullied and get picked on by older children.
And that actually tends to be the case in some classrooms.
There are some strong arguments against bringing children with different needs together, but there are different patterns around the world. For instance, in the Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, they have a totally integrated education systems and there are no special schools.
“Research evidence indicates that actually more able and less able children both benefit from that integration, that more able children can help less able children to learn, they can be role models, they can motivate them”, Mr Fagan says.
He disagrees with how children are constantly being tested and evaluated in schools and believe this is a big part of why integration seems to be so difficult:
“I just think it’s the wrong approach – the idea that you could judge someone at six, or seven, or eight, and know what they are going to be able to do for the rest of their lives. I believe it’s a flawed ideology and yet, schools are becoming more and more selective on who they take in.
“If schools are competing with each other that militates against integration. We need to keep a more open mind about what children can achieve.”
Miss Hristova also believes an integrated educational system would be more beneficial, compared to separating pupils in mainstream and special schools.
“The problem with special needs schools is that they don’t prepare the rest of society for the fact that there are children with disabilities.
“So children without disabilities are unlikely to ever meet someone with special needs and therefore are not aware of what their needs might be; they might feel fear about it, might feel antagonistic towards them and not accept them because that is not something they have experienced”, she says.
Mr Fagan argues that there need to be a significant change in UK’s educational system as far as children with SEN are concerned:
“Idealistically, kids with all kinds of needs and talents should be educated together, so they can all benefit from each other. And research shows that this method works brilliantly.
“Unfortunately, this takes a lot of resources, invested in technology and training. And that is what the government should be focusing on, rather than converting schools to academies and education into business. Education is not a business. Neither are children.”