Educating our children: are things slipping?

By Carol Boys, Chief Executive

As the start of our 50th anniversary grows ever closer, I have been spending quite a bit of time in the last few weeks reflecting on past achievements for people with Down’s syndrome.

One of the major milestones of the last fifty years was the 1981 Education Act. It introduced the concept that local authorities were responsible for providing a suitable education for children with ‘special needs’ as well as paving the way for their integration into mainstream educational settings. Before this piece of legislation, the educational options for children with Down’s syndrome were extremely limited: education at home, local training centres (of wildly varying quality), private schools or tutors (for those who were able to afford it) or the very, very basics taught in children’s homes or long stay hospitals.

As one parent member wrote in 1999:

“Jeremy was born in 1970 before there were any schools, only junior training centres where the children were ‘cared for’…It will no doubt seem amazing to younger parents that there was so little knowledge and support generally. I would have given a lot for Portage and a teacher to help one put it into practice. I was even told by one teacher at a special school that as Jeremy had been taught to recognise some words I hadn’t accepted his disability!” (Valerie Scarr)

While mainstream school may not be the choice of every family for their child with Down’s syndrome, the affect that inclusive education for children with Down’s syndrome and other learning disabilities has had on wider social inclusion cannot be underestimated…or under-valued.

While our system, including mainstream and SEN schools, is not perfect, with the right support and in the right environment, thousands of individual children with Down’s syndrome have had the chance to learn, make friends, gain confidence and skills and become part of their communities in ways unimagined before the 1981 Education Act.

We are increasingly concerned that this vital pillar of social inclusion is slowly being eroded. A decade of austerity; a problematic funding structure for schools that creates division; and ever-increasing pressures on schools and teachers seem all to be chipping away at the idea of a totally inclusive education system.

We are receiving increasing numbers of calls to our Helpline from parents who are experiencing real difficulties and challenges from the mainstream schools they want their child to attend. Transition points – from pre-school to Year 1, from Primary to Secondary, from Year 11 to Year 12 and 13 for example – seem to be causing major problems.

On 14 October The Times published two articles on the “crisis in school special needs funding” that had the appalling headlines Pupils lose out as £400m schools funding diverted to special needs and Propping up special needs with ‘golden ticket’ school cash.

Every child deserves an education that will help them reach their potential…every child in education is a “pupil”. The divisive language of these headlines is a not-so-faint echo of the presumption displayed in the 1950s when a Medical Officer called to see Betty Belcher’s son David and declared “Mongol. Ineducable. Good afternoon!”

Looking forward, the Down’s Syndrome Association will continue to work with other organisations in the Special Education Consortium to represent the needs of children and young adults who have Down’s syndrome. We will continue to provide specialist advice to individual parents experiencing difficulties getting the right support for their child in school of their choice, and we will continue to develop training and resources to help schools to provide the right support to children with Down’s syndrome.

Are you concerned about these issues?

Why not join the DSA? The more members we have, the stronger our voice on this issue will be.

You can find out more about our membership here.