First let me declare an interest: Tania Tirraoro the award-finalist writer who hosts this blog is a good friend and a professional contact. She and I trained together as journalists on the South Cornish coast way back in 1988. Back then, Tania was vivacious, tenacious and keen to get on. More than two decades later, absolutely nothing has changed. Or has it?
Bringing up two boys with Asperger’s has directed her considerable energies into the field of special needs education. As someone who spent most of his childhood at special boarding schools, she has asked me to share a few thoughts about my experiences and about the current debate about special schools vs. inclusive education.
I was born half a century ago with disabilities caused by the morning sickness drug, thalidomide. The drug left me with extremely short arms, flipper-like hands and very limited vision in the one eye that I have – the other is completely absent.
Back then, children with physical disabilities were destined for special schools – mainstream either wasn’t geared up or wasn’t prepared to gear up to support us. My parents were told in no uncertain terms that my safety couldn’t be guaranteed if I attended the same local schools that had served my two sisters and my brother perfectly well.
So, aged five, I was packed off to Penhurst school in Oxfordshire which was run by NCH – now NCH, Action for Children. I recently revisited the place and found it transformed. It no longer supports children with the sort of disabilities I have. All of the students have profound and multiple learning disabilities or PMLD. The 26 children require intensive support from the 150 or so staff. The cost of a place there can only be guessed at.
And this has set me thinking about the current debate about special needs vs. inclusive education. It seems to me entirely ridiculous that anyone should assume that one approach should be adopted exclusively. If we are, in the words of a former Secretary of State for Education to “respond to the needs of the child” there is surely room for a mixed economy. Plenty of children – myself included – would probably manage perfectly well in mainstream education with a few minor adjustments. Others would be left in the margins and need the specialist support of staff who know how to encourage children with different needs to achieve their potential.
This is not simply about physical compared with learning disabilities: two children with, superficially, the same level of impairment could well require different responses from the system. My nephew, for example, has Asperger’s and managed quite well in mainstream education. But he has the benefit of supportive parents who have equipped him with the knowledge to know how to regulate his behaviour and manage his condition. He’s also a big strapping lad who has no shortage of confidence. Another child with the same level of Asperger’s may well struggle in the same environment.
Is there life after special education? You bet! I out-grew Penhurst quite quickly and was sent to another boarding school aged eight. This establishment had an approach that – at the time – was quite revolutionary: that disabled children (the majority were vision impaired though some had physical disabilities as well) should be encouraged to acquire certificated qualifications. I left the place after nine years with eight O-Levels and went on to study for A-Levels at an FE college and then on to university.
So how have mine and Tania Tirraoro’s paths crossed again? Tania is now an expert in the use of social media. After 22 years working as a BBC journalist, I am now Chairman of a European organisation that represents people with limb difference. We have an ambitious project to create a global network of those affected by dysmelia (as limb difference is officially known) and to link this network with a knowledge base and another network of dysmelia experts. Spreading the word using social media is a no-brainer. And our choice of Tania to establish our social media networks to help us achieve our goal was equally simple.
On Monday May 21, Tania is helping us to launch DysNet – an online community that will help people to conduct conversations in five languages. We’ll have a knowledge-sharing website and a secure community forum on RareConnect, run by EURORDIS & NORD, the world’s leading rare disease organisations.
I wonder whether, when my distraught mother left me at Penhurst for the first time, she had any idea that her son would get so much from his special education.
First published as a blog post by Tania Tirraoro on Special Needs Jungle 21.5.2012