Updated: Tuesday, 7th April 2020 @ 8:10am

A mainstream or a specialist school? – The autism education debate continues

A mainstream or a specialist school? – The autism education debate continues

By Lauren Maughan

Parents want the best for their children and deciding on where they should be educated is a major decision for them to make.

This could be a challenge for any parent but when their child is autistic this becomes a much more complex problem.

It is an issue that many parents in the Manchester area are facing. Many want their children to be educated in special needs schools but the Government is focusing its attention on putting autistic children in mainstream schools.

Why, when it comes to education, are there such strong differing opinions? And why is the council having its say by closing certain schools?

This issue is mainly down to personal preference by the parent. However, some parents are being forced to change their decisions as Ewing School in Manchester is set to close by 2012.

The school, located in West Didsbury, caters for children with communication problems and contains 78 pupils.

There is a disagreement between parents at Ewing School and the Government and educational psychologists as to the best way to educate the children.

Parents say placing their child in another school will not work, with 38 percent of the children that attend Ewing School having, according to their parents, already been failed by mainstream education.

Incorporating children into mainstream schools is a new way of thinking. Previously it was thought that children with special needs required a separate environment where those needs could be addressed.

The thinking by experts now concentrates on inclusion and that children should be a part of mainstream society as soon as possible.

The closure of the school was announced in 2009 even though a 11,000 name petition was delivered to Downing Street to save it.

Withington MP John Leech said: “Mainstream education does work for many children, but these plans just aren¹t right for the children of Ewing.

“I am amazed at the breathtaking ignorance of Labour councillors who clearly don¹t know about the excellent work Ewing does on inclusion. This is the wrong decision for my constituents, who will see an excellent school close without any guarantees that what replaces it will be better.”

Shelia Newman, executive member for children¹s services at Manchester City Council, held a different opinion, however. She explained the closure of Ewing should not be seen as a negative.

“I hope people will have a look at the whole package and not focus on one aspect, particularly the closure of Ewing,” she said.

Peter Farrell, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Manchester, has suggested that in order for mainstream education to work certain skills need to be incorporated.

He said: “We need to take the quality from special schools and transfer them into mainstream so that children can get the value added benefit that they will get from mixing with other children who do not have disabilities.”

Parents of children who attend Ewing are adamant that its closure will have a negative impact on their youngsters¹ education.

Debbie Williams said that the council should leave the school alone and stop destroying the future of the children.

“If this school closes you will be destroying their foundation for adulthood. After all this is the only
speech, language and social communication school in the whole of Manchester,” she added.

Ann Marie O¹Reily, whose son attends the school, said she did not think her son would get the same out of the teaching as he did at the moment if he had to attend a mainstream school.

“The Ewing does the work to fit his needs. He is happy there,” she said.

In 2012 the children still remaining at Ewing will be transferred to Cedar Mount, Levenshulme, which will become a Centre of Excellence for Autism, a residential school and a respite care centre.
The other option is for them to be transferred to one of six nominated primary schools. There will also be provision for 15 places at each of the three secondary schools in the area.

A second Manchester school has taken a totally different approach as to how autistic children should be educated.

Bright Futures, Grasscroft, Oldham, which opened in April 2011, is registered with the Department of Education and provides schooling for children aged five to 14 years.

A unique environment, the school was set up by married couple Zoe and Dixon who have an autistic son.

With just two pupils, the methods at Bright Futures are strongly influenced by the thinking and research behind Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) resulting in a very unique approach to teaching.

Zoe Thompson, head of development at Bright Futures, said: “We take the view that academic achievement without appropriate social and emotional development leaves autistic children with a poor quality of life as well as poor life chances. We therefore focus our work on the difficulties that lie in the heart of autism.”

Local authorities fund students’ placements at the school, which hopes to expand and gain more pupils as the teaching progresses.

Academics specialising in autism have expressed how important the correct education is to a child.

Dr. Kerstin Wittemeyer, lecturer in autism at the University of Birmingham, said: “Given the challenges that individuals with autism face in adult life it is vital that their education sufficiently prepares them for those challenges, and, crucially, is planned with them so they are offered thebest chance of achieving their desired outcomes, whatever those outcomes maybe.”

It seems that it is down to personal preference as to how a child is educated. Whether it is in a mainstream environment or in a specialist school each method can aid the education of autistic pupils.

The closure of Ewing is a particular problem facing parents, children and staff. It does seem a shame that some children are not going to complete their education there.

It must be a relief for parents to know that other options are available in Manchester, such as Bright Futures, but what impact the closure of Ewing School has on the community remains to be seen in 2012.