Years ago education for children with special needs was poor or non-existent. Some children were classified as ineducable, others were sent to special schools because of problems which today seem quite minor.
Over the years, the situation has gradually improved. No parent now receives a letter declaring their child to be "unsuitable for education in school". Children are no longer rigidly classified into delicate, blind, severely subnormal and all the other categories which used to exist. Now each child's special educational needs are supposed to be individually assessed to ensure he or she receives the most appropriate education.
A policy of inclusion means far more special children than ever before are now being educated in ordinary local schools. This doesn't mean special schools have ceased to exist, although a few have closed. For some children they are still the right placement.
On the plus side, a special school will offer small classes in suitable buildings with teachers who have usually had some special training. The staff will be aware of the difficulties you face and special schools often have good links to the support services. Physio and occupational therapy are usually available at school and there should be no problems about administering drugs. Your child will meet other children like him which will help to prevent him feeling isolated by his problems.
However, unless you are very lucky, the school is likely to be a long way away necessitating a long daily journey or boarding education. As a result, your child will lack local friends and you will have only limited contact with other parents as you will not meet them in the playground. Special schools, especially residential ones, offer a sheltered environment which doesn't prepare your child for the rough and tumble of normal life and may have low expectations of children's educational achievements. Parents also complain that children at special schools lack normal children to copy and may pick up strange behaviour and mannerisms from more severely disabled pupils.
Education at an ordinary school offers plenty of contact with ordinary children. The school will probably be local so both you and your child will gain from a network of friends and acquaintances. However, your child may feel isolated if he is the only child with problems. Another snag found by some parents is that the other children and staff can be overprotective. One mother described her son (who has Down's Syndrome) being dressed in his coat and gloves by two adoring little girls when he was quite capable of doing it by himself.
Ordinary school offers the full range of subjects and the opportunity to take exams but it will have larger classes and teachers untrained in special teaching methods. A special assistant in the classroom can ease these problems a great deal, allowing children with very severe disabilities to cope in mainstream school.
Try to forget all the generalised arguments about inclusion. The most important thing for your child is that he goes to the right school for him: the one where he can be happy, receive all the help he needs and achieve his full potential. Whether that means an ordinary or a special school will depend not only on his problems but on his personality and on the schools available. Also the right solution now may not remain the right one as he grows older and his needs change. Let's consider some hypothetical children to show you what I mean.
James has severe learning difficulties and spent his pre-school years attending the local playschool. He mixed well and made local friends. However, by the time he was five the gap between him and his friends was growing rapidly, especially in language, and his parents could see that he needed more specialised help than he would receive at the ordinary school. He now attends the local special school where he enjoys being one of more able pupils but he also spends two afternoons a week at the local primary school where he benefits from contact with ordinary children.
Laura appeared completely normal but had not learned to speak by the time she was due to start school. It would have been hard for her to cope in an ordinary class so she attended a special unit for children with speech and language disorders attached to a local primary school. This enabled her to have the intensive speech therapy she needed while still being part of the local community. Once her speech improved, she was able to transfer to an ordinary class in the same school.
Patricia's eyesight is very poor which makes reading and writing difficult. She coped well at primary school where the teachers understood her problems and her special assistant gave her as much help as she needed. However, when she changed to secondary school the different teaching techniques caused problems. Each subject had a different teacher and they didn't all remember Patricia's needs. Teachers now wrote rapidly on the board in small writing instead of in the large round script of the primary school. Patricia started to slip behind in her work and became increasingly discouraged until she stopped trying. A transfer to a school for children with visual problems restored her lost confidence so she was able to gain good exam results and go on to higher education.
Tracy has temporal lobe epilepsy which causes periods of difficult behaviour. The ordinary school she attended was unhelpful, insisting on disciplining her even though the reasons for her behaviour were known. Tracy became unhappy and lost all her confidence, assuming no one would like her and she would never be good at anything. The school recommended transfer to a special school but the LEA agreed to try her first at a different primary school with an ancillary helper to occupy her when she lost concentration. The new arrangements proved so successful that Tracy rapidly regained her self confidence and became enthusiastic about school.
Before you can decide what is right for your child, you need to know the alternatives. Visit all the available schools, including the special ones and the ordinary schools which are further afield. Read each school's brochure carefully and ask around among other parents as well, to get a consumer's eye view.
Try to make an appointment to visit a school during school hours so you can see it functioning. If possible, talk to the headteacher, the special needs coordinator (SENCO) and the person who would be your child's head of year or class teacher. It is important to try to find out how the staff will react to your child and his problems as that will make such a difference to his happiness.
If you are visiting a special school, find out how your child will fit in with the other children. Are they noticeably more or less disabled than he is? How good an education will he receive? Will he be taught the full National Curriculum and will he be able to take any exams? How well will his education prepare him for adult life? A good way to assess the replies to the last question is to ask what happens to other children when they leave.
When visiting ordinary schools, talk to the staff as well as looking at the suitability of the buildings. Will they make such heavy weather of your child's problems that he will feel different and miserable? Will he be able to take part in most of the normal activities or will he have to do different things most of the time? How do the staff feel about administering drugs or taking him on school outings? Are they so concerned that they will swamp him with help, so preventing him developing independence? I am not suggesting all of these problems will arise - just that they are worth considering.
Choosing a school is a difficult task. The world is an imperfect place so there may be no perfect solution to your child's educational needs. For example, the ideal school may exist but be so far away he would have to be a boarder. In the end you may have to settle for the best possible compromise but, whichever school you choose, your support and encouragement will be vital ingredients in your child's success there.