Primary education

Primary education is a common experience for most children living in the UK. Education remains at the forefront of the political agenda, holding a range of expectations for the child and the state (Topic 11, p6). However, although most are expected to receive education through a common system, the subjective experience of children and families actually varies enormously. In this essay, I will examine how physical disability can impact on the way that education and welfare are received.

I will identify the implications that the medical model and the social model of disability have on school provision whilst discussing the influence this has on the lives of children. I will also suggest ways to improve practice and acknowledge some of the barriers which may be encountered. Whether disabled children should be educated alongside non disabled children in mainstream provision will always be a contentious issue. The debate has been influenced by concerns about social exclusion (Topic 11, p26). Historically, the “education” of disabled children took place in institutional settings, segregated from the rest of “normal” society.

This was characteristic of the hegemonic medical model of disability, in which impairment signifies a lack of ability and a need for specialist care (Topic 11, p21). The disabled child, in this context, is represented in a negative form without value; able-bodiedness is the desirable and normative standard to aspire to. This construction of disability was enshrined in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 that identified those with disabilities as “less than whole”, mentally subnormal and “in-educable” (Hughes, 1998, p71) (Topic 12, p15).

Philippa Russell’s account maintains that this perspective was only changed in recent history (Audio cassette 3, band 4). This legislation subjected disabled children to segregation and exclusion in institutional settings, some spatial distance away from mainstream society. The decision to accommodate children in these settings had little to do with educational need (as it had been determined that they lacked the ability) but, instead, it was built around concern for the treatment, management and containment of subjects constructed and feared as a social problem based solely on a perceived difference (Hughes, 1998, pp68-72).

However, with the advent of the social model of disability, developed by the Disabled People’s self- help movement during the 1980’s, there came a direct challenge to this perception. This movement argued that locating the problem within the individual, constructing a desirable norm, using unquestioned language, adult behaviour and organising the structure of society to serve its non disabled members actually disables others as a consequence by oppression and exclusion (Topic 12, pp23-25). Advocates of the social model would suggest that we should examine the barriers a disabled child may encounter when accessing education.

They argue that it is, in fact, the physical environment of the school, limited communication system, lack of “aids” and discriminatory views that together prohibit the disabled child from learning, rather than the physical impairment itself. Educational policies and practice of the past were contested by the new social movement, and welfare reform shifted from old ideas of institutional care to care in the community, epitomised by the Community Care Act (1990). Although it remained commonplace for disabled children to be educated within pecialist provision, old labels of “subnormal” and “in-educable” were replaced by a new language and philosophy of “special needs” and “learning difficulties”.

The Warnock Report (1978) and the Education Act (1980) were keen to promote integration but failed to fully endorse the social model, remaining focussed on difference, needs and deficits (Hughes, 1998, p75). Philippa Russell highlights that the Children’s Act (1989) has made steps to advocate the rights of all children and the UNCRC requires all children to have the right to provision that achieves the “greatest ….. ocial integration possible” (Topic 11, p28). Since 1997, the labour government has continued the promotion of integration and have endeavoured to make the education system a more inclusive and unified service for all children (Topic 11, p27). The case for an inclusive education system is a compelling one.

Government policy argues that a good education “enables ….. achieve to the full and provides a firm foundation for adult life, we want all pupils to have regular opportunities to learn, play and develop alongside each other” (DfES, 2004b, p. in Topic 12, p27). Rieser and Mason (1990) strengthen this policy statement suggesting that “disabled children who have been educated in mainstream schools…… do better educationally and socially, as long as the schools responded in a positive way to their special needs” (Topic 12, p37). Disabled children have the same basic needs as their non-disabled peers. Ruth Marchant argues that in addition to these, there will be additional needs and that they have a right to expect these to be met ((in Reader, p219).

If it was proposed that this could be done within mainstream provision then there would have to be a commitment to employment training and adaptation of the school environment. Inclusive education is seen as a way of breaking down the ideas embedded within the individual medical construction of disability. It is suggested that the value that society attaches to a disabled child can be detrimental to their self-esteem. Society continues its attempts to anticipate and possibly prevent the birth of a disabled child and their arrival is often perceived to be a tragedy (Topic12, p33).

After birth disabled children may experience periods of separation from their family, either as medicine seeks to remedy or rehabilitate or because of periods of respite care and residential education (Topic12, p36). This separation has the potential to damage important attachments and can negatively impact upon a child’s identity, self-worth and emotional well-being. By increasing the visibility of disability in society, individual difference can be recognised and celebrated as a positive sense of diversity, rather than simply ascribing value based upon prejudices and assumptions of desirable/undesirable.

Inclusive education enables the child to build a positive self-perception and to maintain close bonds with families and peers. If delivered effectively, good professional practice allows the child a chance to access role models, encourages aspirations and avoids care that stigmatises disability (Audio cassette 3, 3, band 6). However, it may be argued that specialist provision for disabled children is more likely to be able to meet individual need. The staff should have received in-depth training and there should be a greater availability of targeted resources.

The physically safe, protective and enabling design of the school environment would be able to meet the child’s requirements, in turn benefiting their individual sense of security and level of confidence. In addition to being physically safe, as issues of difference are not highlighted by the dichotomy of normal/abnormal but instead a continuum of individual need, a child’s emotional well-being and self-esteem would also be protected (Topic11, p26).

The ultimate aim of the social model and nclusive, rather than integrated, education would be to provide professional practice that targets and responds to individual need in the same way (Aspis, Topic 12 Learning Resources, p). There is a danger that in segregating disabled children solely on identified disability we are also assuming that impairment is the only defining aspect to the disabled child’s identity (Topic 12, pp30-32). Ruth Marchant argues that there is also a gendered, cultural and sexual dimension to every child’s identity; disability does not carry immunity to these influences (in Reader, p221).

Inclusive education has the potential to challenge such simple constructions and validate additional subjective experience with a more individualised and tailored approach. A black, deaf pupil may experience different forms of prejudice and have a variety of needs. Practitioners need to be aware of how these issues can compound each other and acknowledge them, working in an open, non-discriminatory, non-oppressive and responsive way. Peter’s case study in the course material illustrates the sexual and cultural aspects of identity that influenced his educational experience in this way (Topic12, p32).

Effective inclusive primary education would need to be attentive and responsive to the difficulties and experiences faced by all children on an individual basis, in order to promote self-worth and well-being. A major pitfall of the medical model and subsequent segregated educational practice is that there tends to be a focus on condition, rehabilitation and cure. In doing so, the voice of personal and expert experience is often ignored (Topic 12, p22). If we move away from discussion surrounding impairments and deficits, and instead emphasise and utilise a capabilities approach, a disabled child will have a greater opportunity to participate.

Using Sen’s Capabilities model professionals would more effectively recognise the disabled child’s ability to communicate their views, needs and wishes (Roche, in Reader, p81). Although methods of communication may need to be adapted within mainstream provision, as it can be difficult for some children to express their views, a disabled child can still be consulted at an appropriate level. Marchant suggests, in her article, that someone who is a good communicator with non-disabled children can also, with training and skill development, communicate effectively with disabled children (in Reader, p222,223).

A commitment to enabling the child’s direct involvement and autonomy would be able to improve their Quality of Life (in Reader, p86). It has been documented that disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse. Their vulnerability is increased because they tend to be more isolated, in the care of many more adults than disabled children, in institutional care, and in potentially stressful parent/child relationships (Reader, p222). They can also be subject to many more personal intrusions as a result of their need for personal assistance.

There is a strong traditional perception that children are dependent on adults and having a disability compounds this notion of dependence (Reader, pp96-97). By facilitating a child’s contribution, listening to and respecting their views and acknowledging that adults do not always know best, a disabled child can become the expert of their experience, take responsibility and gain confidence to develop their contributions further and challenge any abuse of their rights (Reader, p95). Good educational practice needs to recognise the potential risks faced by disabled children and work in a protective manner.