I recently visited a behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) school for boys from the age of 7 to 17. The majority of the boys live on site and are provided residential accommodation and care as well as formal schooling, with some on site for 52 weeks of the year. My visit has made me consider the place and function of special schools, the meaning of education in such a setting, and their place in the debate for the inclusion of children with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools.

There is a danger when discussing any aspect of special schooling of generalising and stereotyping, therefore from the outset it is important to note that every school is different, every child is individual, and every observation subjective. However, I want to briefly evaluate the day for my own benefit – and hopefully provide the reader (if there is one!) with something interesting to consider themselves. The following is a brief exploration of some of the ideas raised from my visit.

The boys formal schooling takes part within the community of the school site. The purpose of the education is to prepare the pupils for a life after school, where they can contribute to the society in which they live. The class sizes are small (I observed a GCSE science class with 2 pupils) and support staff prolific (for a number of reasons), which allows the teachers to personalise every aspect of learning to the pupils; individualisation is a large part of the schools ethos.

When discussing the role of the school with the head of education, one point in particular raised some interesting ideas. If a pupil is continually disruptive in one particular lesson because they are not excited by it, or interested in it, then is there any point in them being in that lesson? If a child is not interested in what they are being taught, then the ‘learning’ is surely considerably devalued. Would it be more effective to allow them to spend time on the subjects they are interested in, and therefore work from the child’s interests? This is what happens at the school I visited, as their curriculum and status as a school allows for this.

The pupils I observed had been excluded from many different educational institutions, and yet, when their personal interests were taken into account, they were more willing to learn. Obviously, I had a very diluted experience of the school as I only spent one day observing and therefore my understanding of the school holistically is limited. However, it seems to me that this aspect of individualised and negotiated learning, which is a fundamental and necessary part of the school’s pedagogical practice, could seriously benefit mainstream schooling. Certainly, personalisation is of great importance in educational agenda, and negotiated learning is being adopted by schools around the world. Perhaps this could be the shape of education to come.

Doug Dickinson, in considering the future of education in the UK, reflects upon John Dewey, an American philosopher whose ideas have been influential in the educational domain for a number of years. Doug Dickinson writes:

‘John Dewey (1859-1952) believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive. His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences which fostered their capacity to contribute to society.

Dewey was not a ‘de-schooler’ as was Ivan Illich but he became famous for pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students’ actual experiences.But he was also critical of completely “free, student-driven” education because students often don’t know how to structure their own learning experiences for maximum benefit.’

Here, links can be made with John Dewey’s philosophical educational thinking. This BESD school considers the experiences each child comes to the school with, before guiding their learning experiences in a real world environment, in order to prepare them for their future lives as independent members of society. The student’s experiences are not necessarily planned around knowledge acquisition of every curriculum subject, yet equally, the pupils are not entirely free to ‘do what they want to do’. There is a balance that allows for negotiation. One question to consider (perhaps) regarding Dewey’s thinking is: who does have the knowledge or right, to structure someone else’s learning experiences? Another question that comes to mind is: who decides what maximum beneficial learning is or should be?

To finish, the UNESCO Salamanca Statement (1994) suggests that mainstream schools with an ‘inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all’. Whilst I agree that inclusive schooling is important for creating a community of acceptance and understanding amongst all, for the pupils I observed, a mainstream setting would simply not be effective. These boys’ educational needs cannot be met within current school curricula, and whilst they are ‘excluded’ from the mainstream, they are very much part of an inclusive community at the school.

I have just realised that I am setting a great deal of questions for myself to explore and attempt to answer, without actually answering any of them. However, perhaps this is needed to be able to thoughtfully consider possible responses to the questions.

Image: silkegb (flickr)

2 thoughts on “Negotiations

  1. Alex, thanks for blogging about your visit. I teach at a BESD primary school(4-11yrs)though for some reason it is still called EBD…not enough emphasis on social in its name.<br/><br/>I am impressed with what you picked up in just one day! <br/><br/>I agree that strangely some special schools are far more inclusive than my experience of mainstream schools and though many may have had very negative experiences in the past on the whole when they arrive at a GOOD special school their thirst for learning comes alive again but not that of a passive learner but one who NEEDS to be engaged in the learning process.

  2. Thanks for your comments, much appreciated! Good point – without engaging children in their learning, we run the risk of destroying or seriously putting off, a child’s thirst for learning.

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