How normal do you have to be for mainstream?


@tombennett recently criticised OFSTED for scrutinising schools on exclusion and @jarlathobrien has defended the segregation of children with SEND in Special schools in this excellent blog;

There are some children who disturb the education of others and need to be educated elsewhere and for some children with SEND, a Special School is more inclusive than being taught in the corridor with a TA. So, we’re all in agreement then?

Actually no, because nationally there are increasing numbers sent to Special Schools and alternative provision such as PRUs. Inclusion figures have gone down for the first time in 30 years. ( Is it becoming a mindset that ‘these kids just don’t belong in mainstream’? The first thought rather than the last resort?

When Jarlath says he is teaching a student of level 5 ability I want to ask why? Should they really be in a Special School? Maybe but my first question is are they with their typically developing peers?

I know parents who went to a tribunal to get their child with Downs Syndrome into a mainstream school and in contrast, parents who fought for a statement of educational needs to secure a place at a Special School.

Choice is vital but when it is no longer an option I worry – you have autism therefore you must go here. You’re a wheelchair user we can’t accommodate you. You have ADHD we can’t meet your needs.

These children are our collective responsibility, they are part of our community not someone else’s problem. I see much discussion on Twitter about closing the gap, the top 10%, the bright, poor kids – there’s an almost evangelical zeal to help this section of society (I am always suspicious of evangelistic help – I read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) but actually our biggest problem is the growing numbers being sent to PRUs and at a younger age – how can we be excluding 6 year olds? Exclusion usually condemns children to a life of academic failure which can ultimately lead to prison.

Are we, as mainstream schools, becoming less tolerant? All students have an entitlement to be included in the right setting not the most convenient one.

And what message are we sending the other students? If we say we can’t cope, if we give up without even trying – they will see this as normal behaviour – I can’t help, you are too different, I will ignore you when you’re suffering as someone else will pick up the pieces.

I worry that we are becoming a divided society – creating gated communities and this (see below) preventing the vulnerable from sheltering.  (I wonder if this architect went to an inclusive comprehensive).


I think this person did though.


The current narrative is to blame the people rather than the poverty (see Teach First advert), blame the vulnerable rather than those who make the rules.

So Jarlath and Tom, I do agree, of course I do – you’re the good guys but I wonder if the boundaries of ‘normal’ seem to be narrowing with increased exclusion rates and a reversed trend for the first time in 30 years in inclusion – how typical does a child have to be to stay in mainstream these days?





  1. OK, I’ll bite. I’m a parent of 2 kids with sensory impairments and language disorders, but no other learning difficulties. They spent their primary school lives in a mainstream / resource base environment, and have since moved to special school.

    The special school is giving them their only shot at genuine, long-term inclusion within society. By that, I mean the chance to acquire functional literacy and numeracy, get GCSEs and possibly Level 3 qualifications, hold down a job independently, go to the pub and ask for a pint without support, and have a sense of self-worth and the skills to form relationships with people from many backgrounds. If we had stayed with the mainstream route, a small number of these things would have been possible. But probably only few of them, and potentially none of them. What sort of inclusion would that have been, in the long-term?

    You wanted to ask “When Jarlath says he is teaching a student of level 5 ability I want to ask why?” Obviously I can’t speak for him, but my kids are attaining at a similar level. The only reason they can achieve like this is because they get a type of highly specialised teaching and therapy at special school that allows them to realise their potential. Take it away, and their progress would melt away within days.

    The tune that my kids’ teachers were marching to in primary mainstream – which at the time was “demonstrate progress in 20 minutes or die trying” – simply could not deliver. No fault of the individual teacher, just the environment they were forced to work in. In primary mainstream, my kids were square pegs, relentlessly hammered into round holes by a hammer with an Ofsted kitemark on it.

    We were committed, passionate inclusionist for many years. But the social inclusion problems we had finally tipped us over to special schools. We lived in a multicultural suburb – but unfortunately, at a micro level the cultures that we shared our community with were revolted by disability. What this meant in practice was that our kids were unable to form any meaningful friendships in the community. The kids themselves were lovely – but they were not allowed any contact with our kids outside of the school gate.

    Every year, we held birthday parties for our kids in a local community sports centre. Every year, we invited the entire class of 30. Most years, no more than two children from their class turned up. And in the final year, none turned up at all.

    The thing that finally tipped us over the edge was a girl who came up to our youngest the day after the party. She was in tears, saying she was so sorry that she wasn’t at his party, but her dad had shouted that “you will not be friends with a child like that.” At that point, we realised that there was simply nothing more we could do, and something needed to change fast.

    The primary was lovely – it went above and beyond what most schools do to include children with SEN. But it couldn’t provide a chance for my kids to make meaningful friendships. The school did its level best – but its efforts were undermined by the deep-seated bigotry of the community it sat in.

    After starting special school, my kids had been to more birthday parties in the space of three months than they’d been to in the previous seven years. They now have genuine, meaningful friendships with peers. They are now better equipped to go out into the non-disabled world with confidence – stuff like Scouts, which would have been impossible a couple of years ago, is now something they can comfortably do.

    Sorry, this was way longer than I meant it to be, and I don’t think it’s representative of much beyond our own experiences. But I thought it was a side of the story that needed telling.

    • It’s definitely a story which needs telling and one which, I know will resonate with many parents who have decided to send their child to Special School. These schools are the unsung heroes in the inclusion debate.

      There is nothing in your comment I disagree with and much to be celebrated. I would still question why our communities are so scared of SEND and whether more inclusive schools can be part of this. I recognise your points however and, in your situation, would have done the same. I’m so glad it’s worked out for you and your family and thanks for commenting.

  2. “I would still question why our communities are so scared of SEND and whether more inclusive schools can be part of this.”

    That’s the fundamental question, isn’t it? And we need to keep asking it, over and over again. I can’t help wondering though whether the right answer is going to differ from place to place, and culture to culture.

    We moved a fair distance to be near the special school our kids go to. Not to the ends of the earth, but an hour’s drive away from where we used to live. Out of the city, into a small town – gunsmiths, agricultural shows, country sports, proper back-slapping, red-cheeked, Telegraph-reading Tory shire stuff. I was expecting attitudes to be very narrow-minded. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    The special school is a respected and accepted part of the community. It’s been there for two generations. Although much of what it does is specialist, it’s reached out – joint lessons with some mainstream schools, joint drama productions, sharing arts facilities, taking part in inter-school competitions. Businesses are more than happy to offer pupils meaningful work experience.

    Go to the pub, and people in the town talk about the special school with pride – no resentment at the opportunity cost, no patronising “at least people like that have somewhere to go” crap. They genuinely see the school as an asset to the town. Even though it caters for one of the most isolating of all disabilities, this school is very, very far from being a ghetto.

    It works well. But I don’t think that the things that make it work well in a smallish market town would necessarily translate well to an inner city school, or a far-flung deprived coastal town. So much depends on cultural norms that are sometimes very deep-seated and always hard to shift. And ultimately, we just weren’t prepared to grind our kids into dust to defend a principle of inclusion that so many were refusing to uphold in practice.

    • Such astute comments – you should have written my blog – far better. Yes i work with students in mainstream with SEND and sometimes see our excellent special schools in the area as the answer for them. I keep coming back to the idea of special bases attached to mainstream to allow for flexible inclusion which you touch on. The expertise in special schools must not be diluted however more having an influence on the mainstream part of the school.

      You’re right though – culture is part of it isn’t it?

  3. No way! I don’t have the breadth of experience or expertise to blog like this – I know what works for my kids, and the kids of my friends. Everything else? Not so much.

    Bases are one way of doing it. Robust, durable links between mainstream and special school practitioners are another, and people have put some great examples out on Twitter on how it’s done well.

    But it’s nothing without a healthy culture of inclusion and high expectations. My kids’ current special school is life-changingly good. On the other hand, my eldest’s first special school was buttock-clenchingly awful. On paper, it had everything: it was situated in the grounds of a good mainstream comprehensive: it had specialist teachers for areas of critical need, with pupils supported in mainstream for non-core subjects, and was rated outstanding by the big O for its ‘innovative teaching practice.’

    In practice, nothing worked well. The special school did not exchange good practice with the comprehensive, and felt that it had nothing to learn from other external professionals. One of the special school teachers fought valiantly against this tide, but failed. This complacent attitude was bad – but when combined with a culture of very low expectations, the impact was deadly.

    Outside of lesson contact time, the special school pupils did not spend any time at all with their mainstream peers, or the wider community. Separate break times, no after-school clubs, taxi-pickups on the dot of 3.15, no chance to develop friendships or foster inclusion – a ghetto in everything but name. Oh, and the ‘innovative teaching practice’ rated so highly by Ofsted turned out to be the Six Thinking Hats.

    We’ll get there – I’ve worked in and with a fair few professions, and I’ve never seen a profession with so many talented, altruistic and capable people as education. But I suspect it’ll be a multi-generational slog still…

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