Special schools could be forgiven for thinking the department is ableist given that they are routinely treated as less important than their mainstream peers, writes Dr Lauran Doak
Amid the widespread frustration of families and teachers struggling with the Department for Education’s rapidly changing COVID-19 education contingency plans, none can be more justified than those who care for disabled children. This cohort is consistently a post-hoc afterthought in COVID-19 briefings which contain provision for mainstream primaries, mainstream secondaries, and colleges only.
For the 147,329 children in England who are currently educated in non-mainstream settings including special(ist) schools, alternative provision (AP), and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), families, teachers and school leaders alike are left speculating on social media about the government’s likely plans for them. This is not good enough.
On 30 December the Education Secretary provided an update on the re-opening of schools. Primary schools (with a few exceptions) would return on 4 January while secondary schools would have a staggered return. Non-mainstream settings were eventually remembered in an update released at 5:50pm on New Year’s Eve, requiring them to open the following Monday, leaving them no time to plan for the asymptomatic testing despite the government’s own acknowledgement of the ‘additional operational and logistical challenges’ involved in testing students with learning disabilities. By this point, some special schools had already taken a unilateral decision to close and announced it to parents.
In any case, this advice was then superseded in the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Monday evening. ‘All’ schools (that is, mainstream primaries, mainstream secondaries and colleges only) were now to be closed. Once again, there was no mention of specialist settings.
It should be a government priority, not an afterthought
Williamson and Johnson both reiterated that ‘vulnerable children and children of key workers’ should have access to a school place. According to the latest government definition of ‘vulnerable’, the category encompasses children who hold Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). These are typically issued to children with the most significant level of disability, currently 3.3% of children in England. Offering places to such a small minority may sound feasible (even with compromised staffing levels) until you consider that in special schools 97.9 per cent of children have EHCPs. Effectively, special schools are asked to stay open at near-full capacity, a situation the government does not appear to have fully considered.
Regrettably, the same situation unfolded in Lockdown 1.0 and lessons have not been learned. In May 2020 a group of colleagues from Nottingham Trent University together with local stakeholder organisations submitted a report to the Commons Education Select Committee on the impact of Covid on education and children’s services. We noted that despite the government requirement that children with EHCPs should be in school during the March lockdown, special schools did not feel able to provide this for 97.9 per cent of their school population. As a result, many admitted only children of key workers or those deemed ‘vulnerable’ for child protection reasons, and/or offered only part-time hours.
This repeated tendency to overlook non-mainstream settings in policy can be linked to wider theoretical debates around ‘special education’. The very existence of the term ‘Special Educational Needs’ may involve a process of ‘othering’ certain children who are perceived to fall outside of the remit of general legislation, policy and practice. It could also be attributed to ‘ableism’, where value is placed primarily on children who are perceived as belonging on a trajectory leading to economically active citizenship. Some may balk, but what other conclusions should be drawn from ten months of persistent governmental neglect?
It’s time we began to mean what we say. ‘All schools’ needs to mean all schools. It should be routine practice for education contingency frameworks to account for all settings where education is delivered. Providing clarity and feasible planning for the settings which educate those with the most significant disabilities, working in close consultation with special school leaders, should be a government priority rather than an afterthought. Families of disabled children are placed under immense strain during lockdown and school places should be available to them, but special schools need well-planned support from government in order to deliver this. This will not happen while they remain a casual afterthought.