Second Class Syndrome.

Internecine warfare would be a good way to describe the debate which rages amongst the Down’s Syndrome community over Mainstream School v. Special School. At least, it feels that way some days. It is very damaging. We risk splitting Down’s Syndrome into two classes – ‘Acceptable Down’s’ and ‘Unacceptable Down’s’. Seriously.

A friend and I were accused on a public forum, of wanting to hide all children with Down’s Syndrome away, because we have both placed our children into specialist schools. In both our cases the decision to do so was not taken lightly. It became apparent that, for the wellbeing of our children, we really had no choice. Yes, we know what the research says, but we also know very well what our children’s individual needs and tolerances are, and we always put those first and foremost. Whatever we might have originally hoped for, we had to accept that our children, in their way, were telling us that they needed something different. We did not consign our little ones to the educational bin, we did what was best for them as individuals.


There is one thing that we both agree on – that the best school for any child is one where their needs are met, and where they are happy, be that Mainstream, Specialist, or home schooling.


Many children with Down’s Syndrome thrive in Mainstream School, and when that happens it’s fantastic — good news for everyone. But there are some who do not cope in the Mainstream School environment, or who do not have a Mainstream School in their area that is willing and able to fully accommodate their needs. Mainstream does not work out for everyone. So, what are these children supposed to do for an education?

Pre-1970 local authorities were not legally obliged to provide any education for children with Down’s Syndrome, so many did not go to school at all. If you believe that children with Down’s Syndrome should never be placed in Specialist Schools, then you risk sending some children, for whom Mainstream School is not suitable, back to the pre-70s situation where there was no suitable educational provision for them. These children would have no opportunity to learn and make friends, one parent would have to give up work to stay at home with them, and quality of life would be reduced for the whole family. If you wanted to create a situation in which more people receiving a prenatal diagnosis would choose to abort, then this would be the way to go about it.

At least as the situation stands now we have options. Children with Down’s syndrome can go to Mainstream School, and for many the placement will be a success. Those for whom Mainstream does not work out for one reason or another have the option to go to a Specialist School.

Children who go to a Specialist School are not pushed in there and forgotten about – it’s not like the bad old days of the long-stay hospital. They are not hidden away. They live at home with their families in ordinary streets and neighbourhoods. They have mums, dads, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours. They can go to Scouts, Brownies, swimming lessons, dance classes, whatever they like, alongside other kids, typical kids. They are a visible and active part of the wider community (as Specialist schools often are).

Why would anyone be against a child with Down’s going to Specialist School if they needed to? Why would anyone think that forcing a child to attend a Mainstream School, where that individual child was manifestly unhappy and unable to cope, was the best thing for them?

Is there a hierarchy of acceptability amongst people with Down’s syndrome? Are only the ones who go to Mainstream School, are ‘high functioning’, high achievers, those who can come close to the ‘typical’ norms, acceptable? Are the children who need specialist education not good enough for you? Are they not good enough to represent Down’s Syndrome? Are they ‘less than’, less worthy, less deserving of rights? Is it really YOU that wants to hide the ‘Special School children’ away, because you are afraid they will taint the fight for acceptance by being ‘unacceptable’? And what are you saying about all the children who go to Specialist School for reasons other than Down’s Syndrome? Are they less worthy, too?

If we do not accept and embrace the worth of ALL of humanity, the ‘high functioning’, ‘low functioning’, physically impaired, or those with very complex needs, then we might as well jump into bed with the eugenicists.

My child needs me to be an advocate for him as an individual, so if you think I’m ‘letting the side’ down by placing him in Specialist School, then hard cheese, old bean. My child’s needs come before your opinions. And yes, I am in the best position to know what my child’s needs are and what’s best for him. Some children with Down’s syndrome do need a specialist education. Accept it. Get over it.

For more on my view of Specialist Schools, click here:


End Of Year Thoughts

Another school year has come to an end. Over the past couple of weeks my newsfeed has been full of posts about Sports Days, leavers’ assemblies and prom nights, and end-of-year reports and concerts. Bittersweet moments have been shared, of children ‘growing up too quickly’ as they pass through the milestone moments of their education, moving onwards from one stage to the next, inexorably towards adulthood. A good many of these posts have shown children with additional needs and disabilities fully included and participating in mainstream school life. Inclusion is the ideal – where the school is willing and able to fully meet a child’s needs, and where the child is able, with appropriate support, to cope in a mainstream school environment, it benefits the whole school community, and society, as it teaches tolerance, and ‘normalises’ disability by allowing non-disabled and disabled children to interact as peers, on a day-to-day basis. However, for some children it is not the best option.

There are many children with additional needs who struggle in the mainstream school environment. There are many mainstream schools who struggle to meet the needs of SEND pupils. Often the situation is an unhappy mix of the two. For the parents of children in this unenviable position, the suggestion that their child’s needs would be better met in a Special, or SEND, school may come as a crushing blow. And no wonder – inclusion in mainstream is held up as the gold standard; having your child end up in a SEND school is seen as Failure.

Parents often express feelings of grief, guilt, despair, or anger when it becomes apparent that their childs needs can really only be met at a Special school, and some refuse point-blank to even consider it, preferring instead the idea of fighting to keep their child in a school that is manifestly unsuitable. I believe the reason for this is because the common perception is that they will be somehow selling their child short, or letting them down, if they choose Special school. No parent wants to do that.

This is a very sad situation for everyone involved. 

I can tell you from personal experience that SEND school is not the bottom-of-the-barrel option. It is not about failure, or giving up on children, or just ‘babysitting’ them for the day, and it is not about segregating disabled children away from Mainstream. Special Education, properly done, is about appropriate and accessible education. 

It is about acknowledging and accepting difference, and the fact that different people need different things. Inclsuion in Mainstream is all very well when it works: when the school can meet the child’s needs, and the child can cope in a mainstream environment, but this does not always happen. Of course there are good and not-so-good schools in both sectors, but Mainstream and SEND are, in a sense, two different animals, and one is not less than the other.

My own son goes to a Special School. Freddie is in a class of ten pupils and three staff (plus one extra to assist a visually-impaired pupil). He gets a much bigger share of attention than he would in a class of thirty. Yes, in mainstream he would have one-to-one, but there is no guarantee that his one-to-one would have any special training or knowledge. With a pupil/staff ratio of roughly 3:1 he does at least have to learn to stand on his own two feet a bit, but in a very safe environment.

All the staff in Freddie’s school are specialists in SEND and are aware that our children may need to learn and be taught in different ways. They seem to be able to be much more flexible and creative in the way they work than mainstream would allow, it means they can be very responsive to individual need and circumstance 

I don’t have to fight for anything, and I don’t have to be constantly going into school to sort out problems. The expertise we need is all in place.

All the staff have a great deal of experience in dealing with challenging behaviours in a calm and constructive manner. All the staff know how to discipline children with additional needs effectively, and they have certain expectations of the children, and know how to communicate them in a way the children can understand.

Acheivement is measured on an individual level at Freddie’s school; each child is encouraged to improve upon their personal best, and when they do so this is celebrated, no matter what others in the class have done. This is only fair because, as the school recognises, their children come with widely differing needs and abilities.

Freddie certainly isn’t just being ‘babysat’ for the day. And he doesn’t spend the whole day just singing silly songs and doing bits of craft. Yes, art and craft are on the curriculum, but so is literacy and numeracy, or English and Maths as he calls them now that he is in Year 3. They do Phonics. They do topic work on Science subjects, History and Geography. They do use songs as a learning tool sometimes, because it helps the children to remember things. I still sing a little rhyme I learned in school when I want to remember which months only have 30 days in them. 

They do cover life skills and skills for independence, which has taken some of the pressure off me at home. In fact I’ve learned a lot of helpful tips from the teachers which I’ve been able to use at home. Consistency of approach between home and school has improved Freddie’s behaviour. 

I’m certain he’s getting far more out of the curriculum at Special school, because it’s differentiated to meet his needs, than he would at Mainstream school. To insist that he be taught exactly the same as typically developing pupils would be to deny his difficulties, and, therefore, limit his opportunity for learning. Many of the things that pupils do in Mainstream can be adapted for Special School. In September Freddie will be doing Forest School. In another year or two he will get to go on a residential, if I can bear to let him!

So, if you’re one of those parents who’s feeling gutted because Mainstream school is not working out for your child, please believe me when I say this isn’t the end of your child’s education, and you’re certainly not failing them, letting them down, or selling them short by sending them to a (good) Special School. You might just be unlocking a door for them.