I’ve often heard that you can judge a whole society on how it treats its most vulnerable.
And I’m not going to reinforce that sentence with anything. You’re all bright enough to draw your own conclusions from it. Just keep it in mind while you read the rest of this article.
Funding in special schools is a sore point for many people. Personally I once lost a job in special education because the school, built to help severely disabled children, literally could not afford to pay its own staff.
So I guess you could say my personal views on this are well-informed.
I’m talking about Ash Lea Special School in Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire. It has 79 students ages 4-19, all with a wide variety of special needs (seriously, the range is so wide that it’s incredible how well they manage to meet every student’s individual needs). It is also one of the best places I’ve ever had the pleasure of working in.
I know that this article about government funding couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. But since this blog is about autism and not politics, I’m going to try my best to avoid talking about the incoming Conservative government. (To any non-Brits out there, I’m simply going to say that 11,334,520 British people voted for this party, and every one of them has taken a massive gamble that they won’t become poor and/or disabled in the next five years.)
What I am going to talk about is the underestimated importance of special schools, and how we simply can’t afford not to give them proper funding.
The unheralded brilliance of special education
My first experience with Ash Lea was as a kid at secondary school. Once per week, a group of their students would spend an afternoon at our school, coming here to study subjects such as textiles since our school actually had the resources.
I had never met disabled youngsters before, other than one sighting of a boy with Down’s Syndrome when I was a child. I barely knew such people existed. Looking back, this leads me to some important conclusions:
1. A generation of us (myself included) grew up thinking that disabled children were extremely rare. We were extremely wrong.
2. This is largely because back then, disabled children were kept out of the public eye. It was easier that way, because of the lack of awareness. (In a similar way, ten years ago nobody talked about having mental health issues either. It may have been an important topic, but lack of public understanding meant it was easier to just be silent about it.)
4. Therefore, Ash Lea Special School were at the forefront of doing something extremely important. They were not just taking their students to do textiles. They were allowing their students to see the world outside of their own school (a practice they were still extremely good at when I grew up and trained there), and allowing the world to see their students too.
These days, there is more awareness of disability in children. It only happened because (again, like mental health issues), people started talking about it. Special schools don’t tend to get much credit for that, but they played an important part.
2. Life skills
Everyone in Britain knows about our exam-obsessed culture, which began a few governments ago and has been made worse with each government since.
So it was a huge breath of fresh air when I walked into Ash Lea as an adult, and the first thing I saw was students learning how to cook.
Back when Ash Lea had cooking facilities, there was a lot of cooking. And doing the dishes. And a huge load of other minor life skills that most of us don’t realise are life skills.
One of the teachers summed up their reasons brilliantly.
“Let’s say we spend the next five years teaching James [a student with severe Down’s Syndrome] how to count to five. Brilliant- he can go shopping with 5p! He’ll starve, but at least he can count. Or instead, we can spend five years teaching him to take care of himself. Then the odds will be more in his favour when he leaves this school at 19.”
(The lad’s name was not really James, of course.)
Special schools are not exempt from pressure to hit attainment targets. (I seem to remember, in a different special school far away from Ash Lea, their students being expected under government standards to take GCSE English exams… despite several of them having huge anxiety issues, most of them reeling in fear at the word ‘test’, and some of them being unable to talk.)
I don’t know how Ash Lea managed it, but they struck the perfect balance between personalised academic achievement and helping their students to be independent.
I completed my placement at Ash Lea. Then I went back to volunteer one day per week, during the unemployment that followed once I completed the teaching course.
Most people would assume that I went back to keep myself busy, and that played a part. But the real reason I went back was because I loved what they were doing, and I wanted to be a part of it.
I wanted to watch barely-verbal autistic kids become better at expressing themselves.
I wanted to hear the lad with severe epilepsy telling me jokes.
I wanted to watch mute teenagers with learning difficulties grab a jug and measure out exactly 100 grams of flour.
And even if James could not count to five, I wanted to watch him do the washing up perfectly.
Special schools change vulnerable lives. You know that already, but I can’t stress it enough.
So maybe that’s why 143 of them closed down during the Blair years.
Wait… what did you just say?
Yes- with apologies for another political reference (even though politics has a lot to do with the issues raised here)- it may feel natural to blame the Conservatives and their gratuitous cuts, but it was actually Labour that started the ritualistic slaughter of special schools.
It started with a policy called “inclusion”: the theory that took Ash Lea’s philosophy of integrating disabled students into mainstream settings, and went a little too far with it.
Anyone with any experience in special education can tell you that for some students, a mainstream education can do wonders for them. And for some students, they are much better off in an environment that is specially built to meet their needs. It really is better assessed on a child-by-child basis, but governments don’t think like that. Under Blair, it was hopelessly one-size-fits-all.
Of course, I am all for inclusion under the right circumstances. But when it costs you 143 valuable special schools, you’re doing something wrong.
It must have saved them a bundle, though. Special schools are inconveniently expensive. Which leads me back to the main point of this article.
So if Ash Lea does so much good, why does it need its own fundraising page?
It shouldn’t. That’s the point.
Nonetheless, Ash Lea Special School is now in the position where, in order to meet the needs of its students, the building itself needs to change.
Yep, the building. This is not merely getting more text books and Pritt Sticks: they need their school to be built with more than their current prefabs that are ten years beyond their use-by date.
Now, to express my thoughts about this, take a look at this guy on the left. Everyone in Britain knows who this is.
This is Pudsey Bear, the mascot for the annual BBC fundraising event Children In Need. The event does so much good for so many people, and each year millions of us tune in, watching the mix of entertainment and appeals (e.g. “£200 can help Jen, a 10-year-old young carer for her mum, have a weekend break from her duties”), and our reactions are usually ones of sympathy and occasionally picking up the phone.
In addition to these, one of my reactions is “shouldn’t there be people in authority paying for these things already?”
That was my reaction a few weeks ago when I went to Ash Lea’s fundraiser event. It was nice to be back, walking from tent to tent in the traditional April rain, buying tombola tickets and flapjacks, and resisting the temptation to try out the bouncy castle.
It raised a good £500 or so, and while I was there I saw a lovely bunch of familiar faces- children with learning difficulties who I know, and those I knew who have now turned into teenagers. And the same thought went through my head again.
“This event may be wonderful, but shouldn’t the money just be there for these disabled kids?”
Idealistic, I know. Naïve, maybe. But I struggle to believe I’m asking too much for a school for disabled children to not have asbestos in its ceiling.
A short interview with Mrs Wigley
I’ve known Mrs Wigley, Ash Lea’s headteacher, since I first walked through its doors. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for Autistic Not Weird.
Chris Bonnello: How would you describe your schools’ main purpose?
Mrs Wigley: Our main purpose is to meet the range of severe and complex needs of children who live in the Rushcliffe area. Their needs really are wide-ranging, and increasingly complex. All of our students are very individual, and among them there is a huge mix of physical, emotional, learning and medical needs.
CB: What is the impact of low funding on your school’s ability to achieve this purpose?
DW: Because the needs of our students are becoming more complex, the building needs to reflect these needs. Currently, the building does not. We increasingly need more space and more specialist provision, including sensory rooms, soft play, safe outside areas, chillout rooms… and that’s without even thinking about rooms you’d expect to see in most schools: cookery, art and music rooms, for example [which Ash Lea also does not have].
CB: How are special schools generally treated in terms of funding?
DW: Currently, under the government’s Priority School Building programme, the only route to getting a new build is based on the condition of the building.
Ash Lea, like many special schools, have worked hard with the Local Authority to keep their buildings in good order, but the funding for new builds does not reflect the changing needs of their students.
CB: In my own teaching experience, teachers are expected to deliver good quality teaching regardless of the school’s financial status. In reality of course, it is not that simple. Can you describe the difference good funding makes to good teaching?
DW: The main difference [between funding in special schools and funding in mainstream] is the high proportion of the schools’ budgets on staffing*. So the majority of our funding focuses on the students getting the best provision they can through the hiring and training of good staff. But once the staffing money has been spent, there’s very little left for other resources. Certainly not for building works.
* To put this into perspective, most mainstream classes have roughly thirty children, taught by a class teacher and (if you’re lucky) a teaching assistant. A ‘typical’ class in a special school would have roughly nine students, a class teacher, and three or four teaching assistants.
Then of course there’s the non-teaching staff: on-site nurses, speech therapists, and so on.
So can’t we just cut the staff?
Speaking as a man who lost a job (at a separate special school) because someone thought very fast teenagers with no sense of danger would be just fine with less adults around, my opinions may be considered biased. But they come from life experience. High staff numbers are more important to the students than any money you can throw at them.
Before the financial crash, teaching assistants were the best thing since sliced bread. (I had three TAs in one of my classes, and they were lifesavers.) Then the country started running out of money, and suddenly (and conveniently) a report came out questioning the value of TAs in the classroom. This report, of course, was written by those government officials who tend to avoid classrooms as if they smell of poor people, and have little understanding of the data points (oops, sorry- “children”) who attend them.
I’m really hoping that this cost-saving idea died when Michael Gove left office, but others in the profession are less optimistic.
All I will say is this: my last class in a special school had three students, one class teacher, and four support staff including me. With those particular students and their particular needs- as much as I loved them- we could not have coped with less staff than we had.
With one teacher and one TA per class, special schools would literally not be able to function.
So as Mrs Wigley quite rightly says, there’s very little money left in the pot once you’ve paid for enough adults to provide for the kids.
And, just like Children in Need, it’s down to people like us to fund the vulnerable.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook