Good theory too expensive in practice

When our son, who had cerebral palsy which left him profoundly disabled, was approaching his fifth birthday his paediatrician discussed the options for schooling with us.

He said he thought Dan was incapable of learning but he was willing to be proved wrong and even if Dan didn’t gain intellectually from school access to physiotherapy may help him physically.

Legally Dan could have gone to the local school but it had only three teachers and none of them was trained to work with severely handicapped children. Nor did it have the equipment or facilities which might have helped him. We enrolled him at a school in town instead. It had a unit for children with a range of disabilities which was staffed by teachers who specialised in high needs children.

We’ll never know whether it might have helped Dan because he died a few days after his fifth birthday but I was reminded of the options we had for Dan when I read that half our schools are failing high needs students.

The ERO report, released today, pins the failings on poor leadership and training in schools, as well as prejudice.

That may be true of some schools but I doubt it’s fair for them all. It won’t be the will but the means and the money which prevents many schools giving high-needs pupils the help and attention they require.

Wellington High School principal Prue Kelly said resources were the bigger issue. “It’s grossly under-funded. It’s all very well to say personalised programmes, and get a plan around the kids, but actually it takes a huge commitment by the school to do that.”

Quite. This is what happens when a good theory – the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream schools – meets the expensive reality.

These children require specially trained staff working one to one. Few schools have those staff and the money for the equipment and facilities they need.

Mainstreaming may be the ideal, but fewer schools offering specialised help may be the better option with the staff and resources available.

This doesn’t mean ghettoising disabled children.  At the school Dan would have gone to the disabled children mixed with the other pupils who were encouraged to play with and help them which had mutual benefits. But the special unit allowed dedicated staffing to ensure the high-needs children got the skilled help they required.

In a perfect world high needs children would be able to get everything they require through mainstreaming, but in the imperfect world we have it’s not always practical or affordable.

The ideology which drove mainstreaming without the resources to make it work is similar to that which led to the closure of This  sheltered workshops. Karl du Fresne wrote on this in wanted: work not walls  in the Listener and on politicising the disabled on his blog.

In both education and work some people with disabilities are victims of the best of intentions to help them because we can’t afford the resources to make the theory work in practice.

4 Responses to Good theory too expensive in practice

  1. Raymond A Francis says:

    It is good to hear from someone who had to think these things through
    I think you are right, not all schools can afford to be able deliver (on demand) for any pupil


  2. Deborah says:

    But it becomes an excuse for not providing assistance at all. The classic example is kids with autism, who often need a teacher aid. Providing that teacher aid means the kid gets a chance to learn, a chance to develop skills, a chance to learn how to manage in a confusing worlds, which in the longer term, gives her or him a much greater capacity to live independently, instead of being dependent on the state for their living.

    Sure, mainstreaming is not the answer for all kids with disabilities. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the answer for many kids, perhaps even most kids with disabilities.


  3. homepaddock says:

    Deborah – I agree. Disability has a spectrum. Those at one end will do well, with the right help, if they’re mainstreamed.It also helps those without disabilities accept people as people regardless of what they can and can’t do. Those at the other, like Dan, would gain little or nothing. In the middle it’s more difficult to judge but all require trained teachers and extra resources.

    Giving some schools more so they can mainstream chidlren with disabilities might be the answer. It would mean not all schools would be expected to cater for high-needs pupils but those which did would get the funding they need to do it properly.

    The book “A Friend Like Henry” by Nuala Gardner, is a very good account of one family’s experiences with a child with autism and how important it is to get the right help.


  4. In my early years as a teacher (primary)I was offered the opportunity to have a child in my class, on the occasions she was well enough to come in, a child who was severely disabled, wheel chair bound, unable to speak, feed herself or move at all. I regard the time she was in the class as very valuable for all concerned and would invite any child like her in again. Sadly, she has now died.
    Mainstream classrooms can accomodate a far greater range of opportunities than most would imagine.


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