We are currently awaiting a decision by our local authority as to which school we can send our daughter. At the moment, she is attending a mainstream school nursery. She should have started reception class last autumn, but a decision was made collectively between school, the professionals involved with her and ourselves to defer the start of her formal education as she simply was not ready. There is absolutely no way she would have coped with the demands put upon our four and five year olds in their first year of proper schooling (even though they are still technically in the Early Years Foundation Stage and learning should mostly be play-based and informal, but that's another post altogether...).
The simple fact is that, although her current school are doing everything they can to support her learning and development, it just isn't enough, and she's not making the progress we feel she is capable of. It is in no way a reflection of any failing on the part of the school; it simply comes down to funding. Money. Politics.
In an ideal world, all children with special educational needs (SEN) are entitled to be educated in a mainstream setting if that is what the parents desire. Of course, for some children, it clearly isn't an option; they may need highly specialist equipment, therapies and physical and mental support. It isn't realistic for mainstream settings to accommodate these adaptations.
However, there are thousands of children, like our daughter, who fall into something of a grey area: she would most likely cope just fine and make great progress in mainstream school if she had the right support, access to the necessary resources to aid her learning, and an environment which doesn't overwhelm her too much. But, this is not the case. The funding simply isn't there. The school she attends is three-form entry - that's 90 children in each year. It's busy. We have considered smaller mainstream primary schools locally, but didn't feel their SEN provision matched up.
So, at the end of last year, we asked the local authority to consider a move to specialist education, and they agreed that it would be in her best interest. But this got me thinking: how can we all learn more about people with disabilities and accept their value to society if we shut them away in special schools?
It's all well and good to read books, make posters and watch videos describing how those with (in our daughter's case) autism think differently, see the world differently and can struggle to cope socially. But, unless you actually know someone who is autistic, it's too easy to forget and to not apply that knowledge when you do happen to come across an autistic person. If all but the most capable autistic children are in specialist schools (which they're not, but again, another post for another day!) then can we ever expect general society to accept autism across the spectrum in the way that we are striving for?
So I am currently having a battle with my conscience. My daughter needs more than the mainstream education (in a very good, very accommodating school) can offer her, but if she goes to special school I am responsible for denying her mainstream peers a fantastic opportunity to learn more about her and her condition, which, eventually, I would hope would lead to greater acceptance as she grows up and tries to make her own way in the world.
Of course, we will do whatever we feel is best for her in the shorter-term. But, in doing that, are we affecting her future as she tries to fit back into a world that has little understanding?