In a country where primary and secondary level education is a universal right, it's sad to see the IHC bringing a complaint against the government to the Human Rights Commission. According to the IHC, a lack of adequate resourcing means children with disabilities are not receiving education of the same standard as their able-bodied peers. Disabled kids are being prevented from going on school camps and other extra-curricular activities, and have been suspended for behaviours related to their disabilities (not misconduct). Parents of disabled children are being asked to contribute financially to keep their kids in mainstream classes.
In the past, children with disabilities were sent to specialist schools designed to cater to their specific educational needs, but when they left school they often became socially segregated. Disabled kids deserve a chance to be part of society like everyone else; and, at least as importantly, everyone else should have the opportunity to grow up alongside kids with disabilities. Humankind is a broad spectrum, and learning to live tolerantly alongside diverse others is clearly a good thing. Most people would, I think, agree with me thus far. But I believe - and almost no one sees eye-to-eye with me on this one - that we should apply this same logic to elite education*. So nutty are my views that I'm scared to share them in polite company. But what is the blogosphere for if not for sharing nutty views?
My involvement with the mainstreaming vs 'specialised' education debate is from another angle. My daughter is a gifted child, and her precocious wee brother looks to be following in her footsteps. I've had a little bit to do with other parents of gifted children (or gifted parents, as they call themselves for brevity). Many of these parents strongly support specialised and separate educational programmes for their kids.
Like many a liberal leftie, my partner and I are raising our kids as a sort of benign social experiment. We have free and non-oppressive gender roles in our house (to the extent that when my daughter, M, made her dad a necklace out of crappy golden plastic beads, he felt obliged to wear it to work, to the great amusement of his colleagues). As a family, we spend an embarrassing amount of time resolving minor conflicts by talking earnestly about our feelings.
M's giftedness posed a challenge to our doggedly egalitarian ways. We've dealt with it by explaining it to her thus: talents - hers and other people's - are wonderful things to be celebrated, but getting on with and being decent to other people is more important still. Use your powers for good, we say, drawing our parenting inspiration from Yoda. M knows she's better at maths, reading and science than the other kids in her class, but she doesn't believe she's in any way different from these kids.
When parents - whether of kids with disabilities, or gifted children - criticise the school system for its one-size-fits-all inflexibility, they're not imagining it. Large classes and limited resources mean it's extremely difficult to cater to every child's individual learning needs. Until a couple of decades ago, clever kids were put up a class and strugglers were kept back a year. Grouping kids by ability in this way was an easy to administer system, but lead to social difficulties for kids separated from their peer groups.
It's now recognised that kids' social development is crucial so they're kept with their peers, but as the IHC's human rights complaint shows, under-resourcing means that diverse kids' needs are not met within mainstreamed classes: a situation of segregation by default.
Gifted parents often report that their kids are unhappy amongst their own peer groups; and this unhappiness comes in large part because they feel they have nothing in common with others of the same age. I deeply sympathise with this - no one wants their kid to feel alienated, whatever his or her abilities. I'm also reluctant to offer parenting prescriptions to other people; but I do feel that if you teach your child that he or she is different to (and perhaps better than) others, rather than emphasising the great amount of common ground all people share regardless of their IQs, you may undermine your kids' capacity to build friendships with others.
In the delightful utopian left-wing paradise which exists only in my mind, kids would be entirely mainstreamed, even to the point that single sex schooling and streamed classes within schools were abandoned. Resource-intensive teaching would enable kids within mainstreamed classes to engage in learning programmes tailored to their individual needs, whatever those needs might be, while reaping the benefits which come from a healthily diverse social life.
If M was put into some sort of accelerated programme (such as the small number of schools around the country specifically for gifted children), she could probably learn quicker and accomplish more. But there would be something distasteful about taking my kid out of the very education system that parents of disabled kids are struggling to get their children into. Arguably, I'm depriving M of educational opportunities with my nutty views. But if I denied her the chance to grow up alongside a normal cross-section of society, with all the abilities, talents, foibles and variety it has to offer, I think I would be depriving her of a kind of learning which is even more valuable.
*I need to be upfront about my hypocrisy: my daughter goes to a Catholic school. The kids there are from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but with only 5% of the roll reserved for non-Catholics, there's not much religious variety. We chose the school because of it's emphasis on ethical development and social justice. Feel free to disapprove!