The witch hunt on Warnock

The past few days appear to have been open season on Baroness Warnock, who in 1978 published a report advocating the integration of disabled children in mainstream schools. As you might expect, Melanie Phillips jumps on this bandwagon, publishing in the Daily Mail a long history of her mind-changes and her supposed “disastrous legacy” with reports of what she has said (remember, Phillips has a history of selectively quoting her sources).

As you might expect, the reality is more complicated, and today’s Sunday Times has a two-page spread on the Warnock report and its aftermath. Given that Phillips’ positions are nowadays right-leaning, it might do to point out that the Tories came to power in 1979 and were removed in 1997, and so any major education policy implemented during this period can be blamed on nobody other than them.

This is a summing-up of the report in the Times’ piece:

The report detailed a system that was Victorian in character. There was virtually no special needs provision in mainstream classrooms and the “retarded” and “educationally subnormal” were mainly dumped in special schools, with some 30,000 children deemed beyond education on the basis of “mental deficiency”.

Physically disabled children, don’t forget, were also dumped in these places! To this day, a huge proportion of mainstream schools in this country are not accessible to the disabled. I remember the controversy which resulted from a girl with cerebral palsy attempting to gain a place at a Catholic girls’ school in Croydon around 1994. The school refused, because, among other things, that as a disabled girl she would not be able to cope in the crowded corridors between lessons. There was, in the event, another Catholic girls’ school near Croydon which took this young girl; but where would she have ended up if this hadn’t been available?

The present controversy is not about a wholesale rejection of mainstreaming. It’s about making it easier for parents of children with different types of special needs to get the support, and the education, they need. Some children (particularly the physically disabled) have no real need to be taught in a special school. It may also be traumatic for a child, after acquiring a disability, to be suddenly removed from everything they have known - and even from their family, if the school is a boarding school, as they often are. It may even be more traumatic than the onset of the disability.

Or they may well benefit from being among people with similar challenges in life, who have dealt with them for longer and may be able to teach them some much needed skills which they might not get from the mobility adviser or whoever. They may also benefit from a special school for a short while and then be able to return to the mainstream. When it comes to behavioural problems, and particularly Asperger-type disorders, it could be that the best form of education is at home, rather than in any sort of school, least of all one which is full of disturbed (and possibly violent) people. The problem is that many parents are simply unwilling to make the sacrifices this entails.

It’s depressing that there are some people out there who want to turn this into a simplistic left-right issue. It was the right who were in a position to implement Warnock’s original report. It was the right who presided over a wave of special school closures in the early 1990s, and over the “Care in the Community” policies of the same period in which a number of the old mental hospitals were closed. They attack Labour now because they are in power, but fashions often don’t change just because another party is in power. Mainstreaming happened because people realised that shutting certain types of people away was not always beneficial, to the patient or to the community. We can’t confuse this important lesson with the modern issue, of children not getting the support they need for reasons mainly connected with saving money.

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