Making kids ‘special’

'Special needs' is not a medical reality, but an administrative device that harms children, argues a professor of childhood studies.

Priscilla Alderson

Topics Politics

‘Special needs’ is not a medical or psychological reality – it is an administrative device. It simply means children who have extra needs from those provided for in the average classroom. And that all depends on what education authorities determine is ‘average’, which varies hugely in time and place.

Over the centuries, schools have prepared children to be classical scholars and soldiers, housemaids and carpenters, athletes and mechanics. There will always be children who do not fit this mould, who have other needs and interests. The ‘special needs’ device neatly transfers responsibility from schools for being sometimes inflexible, inefficient and unable to cater for everyone, on to the children, who fail to fit the current prescribed norm.

There is concern that ‘numbers of children with special need are rising’; in other words that more children are classified as falling outside the norm expected today. The numbers have nearly doubled, up to 1.4million children and young people. There are many reasons for this. Rather than enquiring into individual children’s supposed failings it is more practical to consider social reasons that make it harder for many pupils to fit into their local schools. These reasons include the following:

  • There is the growing rigidity in the market economy of schools competing for funds and having to meet strict targets, regardless of the diverse needs and abilities of their pupils.

  • Formal education in Britain starts before many children are ready. An Ofsted report in July 2003 admitted this; it showed that children in Nordic countries start to read and write at school from seven years, and have better scores in their mid-teens than British children do.

  • There are growing constrictions on space and freedom to play, run, swim and climb. Children are trapped at home because of traffic and stranger-danger fears. Numerous playgrounds, playgroups, school playing fields and youth clubs having been closed down in recent years.

  • Restless children come to be seen as abnormally ‘hyperactive’ instead of normally active.

  • Strong vested interests campaign to keep the one to two percent of special school places open. As fast as physically disabled pupils and some with learning difficulties join mainstream schooling, their special school places are filled with ‘EBD’ children. There are some good special schools, but many have very poor resources, teaching and outcomes, despite being very expensive. Many children leave with no qualifications.

  • Disturbed behaviour is now the major concern for special education.

  • Very high numbers of black boys are said to have ADHD and other ‘special needs’, which suggests a racist aspect to the growth.
  • Psychological reviews of special needs tend to ignore social realities. In inner London, 47 percent of children live in poverty. In a school of 1000 pupils, 50 of them are likely to have serious mental health problems. Yet schools tend to punish and exclude them, instead of accepting these groups as part of the spectrum of average diverse needs. The intolerance of picking out certain children as ‘special’ – different – harms them, and everyone else, by setting powerful examples of hostile intolerance.

    Things will only improve when special schools are closed, and the resources and huge amounts of extra funding per child transfer into mainstream schools, to raise standards and opportunities for all. We researched a borough of inclusive schools that had done this, and contrasted it with a borough full of special, segregated and selective schools; we were astonished at the waste of resources and opportunities that was tolerated in the special schools.

    Instead of asking ‘which children have special needs?’, let’s start asking ‘which schools are not yet able to serve all their local children and young people, and why?’. Instead of running schools as if everyone is obedient and docile, or has to be excluded, let’s put learning to live together at the centre of school life. All teachers are supposed to base their work on the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to listen, and respect the worth and dignity of everyone in the school, and to help all their students to do so too.

    Priscilla Alderson is professor of childhood studies in the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education in London.


    Enabling education: experiences in special and ordinary schools, by P Alderson and C Goodey, E Tufnell Press, 1998

    UN 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child

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    Topics Politics


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