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Mainstream Education vs Special Schools

Special School vs Mainstream Blog

As another new school year approaches, it’s a question that can weigh heavily on the minds of parents of children with disability … to mainstream or not to mainstream. 

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t give it a second thought. You’d rock up to your local or chosen school, enroll your child, buy them a couple of uniforms and be on your way. But what do you do if you’re met with accessibility issues, confused faces, a whole lot of resistance or just flat out rudeness as I was at one school where I told very matter of factly that “we don’t cater for ‘those’ type of children.”? 

The truth is that we don’t live in a perfect world and while some mainstream schools manage to pull off inclusive education well. It’s sadly not the case everywhere you go.

So where do you go from there? Cue all the questions …

“Do we push our local school and MAKE them inclusive?” (side note: I personally don’t believe that this is the best option. If the school shows initial resistance, you are likely in for a looooong battle, and this may end up being counter-productive for the child involved. I’ll explain more further on.)

“Do we try a different school?”

“If we try a different school, can I co-ordinate getting all the kids to two or three different schools on time?”

“What if we try a different school and get the same resistance? Do we just keep trying different schools?”

“Do I home school?”

“If we opt for a special school, which one do we choose?”

“Are all special schools the same?”

“Will I be ‘judged’ for choosing a special school for my child?”

“Is attending a special school going to limit opportunities for my child later in life?”

But every experience and family situation is different and requires its own assessment. As I mentioned earlier, thankfully in many cases it IS as simple as enrolling in your local school. Necessary adjustments are made, meetings with principals, teachers, teacher aides and AVT’s are held. An ICP (Individual Curriculum Plan) is created and agreed upon and your child goes happily to school in an inclusive setting and can remain there for their entire education.

I love to hear stories of kids with disability going to inclusive mainstream schools, attending formals and graduating year 12 with their peers. Some move on to work, some to tertiary study and some pursue other post-school options. These stories are so encouraging for families, but the truth is, because of the current state of our education system, it can sometimes become unworkable for other kids to stay in mainstream education. They may be struggling emotionally, mentally, physically. Maybe they were unlucky enough to get a rubbish teacher who doesn’t understand inclusive education. There is no failing on yours or your childs part. One of my favourite sayings: “It is what it is”. There are lots of reasons. There are lots of stories.

This is our story …

Lachie (now 16) has Down Syndrome. He attended a mainstream state school (prep – grade 3). Being our eldest child, it was our first interaction with the education system and looking back, we were totally clueless. We didn’t choose our catchment school but another local state school based on the excellent reviews we had heard from others with kids either at the school or who attended there in the past (neurotypical kids, mind you). We didn’t do our ‘due diligence’ and I should have paid attention to my tingling spidey senses when I was told that the school had not had anyone with Down Syndrome attend there in over 10 years. Then, there was a change of principal. For me, that’s where the real issue was. A shitty principal leads to shitty decisions and shitty decisions lead to a highly non-inclusive educational setting.

Socially, for Lachie and the other students in his class (when he was actually allowed to be in the classroom), it was great. When it came to education, that was a whole different story. He was excluded in a ‘special ed unit’ where I was constantly reminded of the fact that he could not keep up with his peers. Report cards were devastating to read and I rarely received any positive feedback.

He became so disengaged and was almost never in the classroom with his peers (aside from marking the roll in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon). The school claimed this was because there were not enough teacher aide hours available for him to be supported in the classroom but no decision making member of the staff there gave a shit about rectifying it. One of the teacher aides he accessed while he was there was AMAZING. The rest? Useless and that includes the teachers, HOSES (Head of Special Education Services), Deputy Principal and the Principal. 

We persisted and complained and still nothing changed. All the while Lachie withdrew into himself. He regressed verbally and socially and lost that ‘spark’ he once had in his eye. At about age 7, he even walked himself out of school one lunchtime and no one noticed until they went back to class (don’t even get me started on that story!). It was heartbreaking. At the end of grade 3, we were all but pushed out the door of this mainstream school and made the decision to move Lachie to a special school. Since then, we haven’t looked back. He’s happy, which makes us happy and the only thing I regret is not moving him sooner.

He has a great bunch of friends and is receiving a highly individualised education and is achieving really great results. Now that he’s in senior school, he’s also accessing work sampling programs on and off-site to help his preparation for post-schooling options.

My advice? (and this applies to any school) Don’t get swept up in shiny promises. Research. Ask questions. Lots of questions. And if you start getting answers that you’re unsure about, question those. 

There’s always controversy around whether kids with disability should be mainstreamed or placed into special school. I can absolutely see the pros and cons of both. The underlying issue, however, is whether or not the mainstream school is providing an inclusive education for all students. The fact that many mainstream schools have failed to deliver inclusive education doesn’t mean that inclusive education doesn’t work. There’s a plethora of research that promotes inclusive education as ‘best practice’ and I don’t disagree with any of it. The problem is that the system is broken. Inclusive education should and has to work going forward.

The education department likes to talk about inclusive education in mainstream schools but until there is enough money, resources and professional development for teachers to fully understand disability, the system will continue to fail others as it did us. And until that happens, there is absolutely a place for special schools in our current education system.

Looking for the right educational setting for your child can feel like the search for the Holy Grail. But if you find it. Hold on to it because it’s priceless.


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