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Choice!

David Matthews returns to discuss parental choice in education and the need for equality of resources between special and mainstream education.  

The current swirl of letters, articles and media comments around the possible closing of residential schools, and other special education issues, has once again raised the notion of “parent choice”. Some people argue that to keep special education facilities supports “parent choice”. My view is that like in all things, it is great to have choice, but the choice needs to be a real and genuine choice. Choices are only real and genuine when there is a level of equality between the options. The options do not have to be the same, but they should be close.

There are many genuine choices that parents (and students) face in education today. Such as which type of school to go to (single sex, co-ed) and what subjects to study (languages, technical, arts, sciences etc.). These choices are genuine because the resourcing is similar. It would not be very fair if you were told you could choose between a single sex or co-ed school, but the co-ed school had far less resources and that it was not well suited to your child’s needs.

In special education, the choice is not as fair and as genuine because parents are choosing from options that are resourced at significantly different levels. The majority of special education resources are concentrated in a small number of special facilities. A limited number of students with special education needs have Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding, which is available in both a special and mainstream setting. Even this, however, is often not applied equally between mainstream and special education. Because of the number of students with special educational needs who do not receive it, mainstream schools sometimes pool individual student’s ORS funding to give to a number of students. This means in mainstream schools students sometimes do not get their ORS entitlement.

Given the resourcing issues in mainstream schools, I do not think that having additional special schools and units creates real and genuine choice for parents.

So what should we do? The answer is simple. We need to clearly identify the support needs of students with special education needs. This support can then be provided to the student in an individual package, similar to what is already done for adults through Individualised Funding. Support would then be available irrespective of whatever educational setting a parent chooses to enrol their child in. This would be the best way to deliver what many believe we have now – real choice. Would all this cost more? The answer is no because the pool of resources available would simply be the value of all the current special education resources.

What this would mean for regular schools is that students would enrol with adequate resourcing. The schools could then find the staff to deliver the student’s programme and be fully accountable for the spending of that student’s entitlement. For special education facilities, their basic resourcing would be the same as for any regular school and their future would be dependent on them receiving sufficient enrolments, which would bring the extra resources to staff their schools with the kinds of specialist staffing that they currently offer. Rural schools that in most cases enrol all students because parents have no other choices would benefit greatly from this system.

Children with special educational needs would be the winners of this type of arrangement and parents would finally have real and genuine choices – and is this not what our education system is all about?