This article has been published in Enabling Education 12
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Title: Debating the Role of Special Schools in Inclusive Education
Author: Taylor, D
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2008

Debating the role of special schools in inclusive education

Dimity Taylor on behalf of the Eastern Africa e-group

There is still much disagreement around the role of special schools in the move towards inclusive education. This topic was recently debated by EENET Eastern Africa’s email discussion group (see page 29 for more information). Here, Dimity Taylor, the first co-ordinator of the e-group, highlights key points raised by debate participants.

The discussion highlighted reasons for promoting an inclusive approach to education, including: the social and education benefits for children with and without disabilities; and the support that inclusive education gives to the development of an inclusive society. It acknowledged the need to not simply ignore special schools in this process, but to find creative ways of uniting special and inclusive education systems.

Using special education to build skills
Some contributors discussed the idea of using special schools or classes for several years to build learners’ specific skills, such as Braille, Sign Language and other language skills, before including them in mainstream classes. One contributor illustrated how the ‘inclusive school’ she had attended – which she felt provided her with ‘academic inclusion’ but not the skills and confidence necessary for ‘social inclusion’ – could have been supported by special education. This example is from the USA but nevertheless offers important lessons for our activities in Eastern Africa:

“I am deaf…I did have sign language interpreters for…classroom lectures, but never for social interactions in the cafeteria or on the playground… I had very little social interaction with most of my hearing peers for most of my education…perhaps I would have stronger social skills…if I had had the opportunity to attend a ‘deaf school’ for at least a few years of my early childhood.”

Contributors felt that this transitional approach could draw on the positive characteristics of special schools – such as ensuring children with disabilities can interact with and support each other – as well as on those of inclusive education. This approach can be particularly useful if the special classes are located within mainstream schools, and all children share break times, recreation and other activities. Such a process can help prepare the mainstream school for the inclusion of children with disabilities. However, effective planning for this transition is essential, to ensure that inclusion, and not merely integration, takes place.

Developing ‘specialised’ inclusive schools
The idea of developing mainstream schools that specialise in the inclusion of children with a particular impairment has been debated (e.g. a mainstream school that specialises in including children with visual impairments). This would not exclude children with other (or without) impairments from attending the school, nor prevent children with that particular impairment attending other schools.

This approach could build on a positive aspect of special schools; the fact that some (though not all) are centres of excellence in a particular area of education. However, every child has the right to attend school close to their home, and specialisation can be expensive. So, ‘specialised’ inclusive schools need also to be resource centres that support ‘non-specialised’ inclusive schools to educate children with specific impairments in their community school.

Creative, flexible solutions
The discussions demonstrated the need for constant creativity and flexibility in developing education systems that cater for the needs of all learners. Every approach developed in a particular situation must be constantly re-evaluated and altered to ensure it really addresses every learners’ needs – and it may not work the same in another situation.

The debate reminded us that if inclusion is not done well it can cause more problems for the children we are trying to assist. Participants suggested there is no need to draw a hard line between special schools and inclusive approaches to education. Both systems have benefits, and drawbacks. Some felt that inclusive education is not about ‘inclusion at all costs’ (i.e. putting children into a situation where they are not able to learn). Inclusive education is about ensuring the best education, both socially and academically, for all children, including, but not limited to those with disabilities.

The discussion reinforced the need to develop a system that uses the best elements of all approaches to education; blended in a way that addresses the needs of, and upholds the rights of, every learner.

This is a controversial issue. What role, if any, do you think special schools can, should or have played in the development of inclusive education? EENET wants to hear from you!