From School to Resource Centre: A Comenius 1 School Development Project
Year One Report
Special Schools in the Continuum of Provision
When one considers the issues surrounding the debate on the future of Special Needs Education one should refer to the statement of commitment outlined in the Salamanca Statement. The key part of the Salamanca Statement on Principles, Policy and Practice in Special Educational Needs (1994), especially for those advocating the mainstreaming of pupils with disabilities is contained within the first paragraph:
We, the delegates of the World Conference on Special Needs Education ... hereby reaffirm our commitment to Education for All, recognising the necessity and urgency of providing education for children, youth and adults with special educational needs within the regular education system, and further hereby endorse the Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, that governments and organisations may be guided by the spirit of its provisions and recommendations.
The Statement continues to call upon all governments to:
Adopt as matter of law or policy the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise.
At face value, the ideas and beliefs contained within the Statement leaves little room for the continued existence of special schools. However, if one continues on to read the Framework For Action that accompanies the Statement, thought is indeed given to a future role for special schools for pupils with specific impairments:
Such special schools can represent a valuable resource for the development of inclusive schools. The staff of these special institutions possess the expertise needed for early screening and identification of children with disabilities. Special schools can also serve as training and resource centres for staff in regular schools. Finally, special schools or units within inclusive schools - may continue to provide the most suitable education for the relatively small numbers of children with disabilities who cannot be adequately served in regular classrooms or schools.
Though the Salamanca Statement reaffirms the commitment to work towards education taking place within the mainstream, the continued existence of special schools is acceptable providing that these schools can embrace a new role - that of a resource centre supporting pupils in the mainstream.
Concept of the Special School Resource Centre
A country with one of the longest experiences of resource centre provision is Sweden. Though the Tomteboda School for the Blind closed in 1986, it continues to survive as a resource centre supporting children and young people with visual impairment. The remodelling of the school into the Tomteboda Resource Centre is very well documented in Harry Svensson's article "The Need for Centralisation in a Decentralised System: the Swedish Model for Supporting Visually Impaired Pupils in Mainstream Education." (1993).
Examining the situation in Sweden in the early 1990s, Harry's article outlines the 5 main areas of work for the Tomteboda Resource Centre which supports children with visual impairments following a mainstream curriculum:
1 Assessment: This service aims to provide a complete picture of a pupil's needs through the assessment of: visual ability, physical and psychological development, and the need for special aids. The assessment team consists of teachers, an ophthalmologist, an optometrist, a psychologist, a physiotherapist, a social worker and an occupational therapist.
2 Intensive Training: Supporting pupils who require intensive input in Braille, orientation and mobility and daily living skills.
3 Group Visits: Bringing together pupils as groups of equals. Working on themes, pupils can enjoy functioning under the same conditions as their peers who are also visually impaired.
4 Special Courses: For teachers working in mainstream schools.
5 Research and Development: Including the development of new visual acuity tests as well as the study of the causes of blindness.
A second Swedish institute with extensive experience of supporting pupils with visual impairments, but this time for pupils with additional profound and complex needs, is the Ekeskolan/Resourcentre Vision in Orebro, Sweden. The team working within this organisation has recently been addressing the concept of a resource centre and, in particular, a charter of rights that such a facility would work to deliver. Ekeskolan/Resourcentre Vision believes that a resource centre is a national resource supporting schools that have children and young people with disabilities in order that they have the opportunity for:
- Equal education
- Equal treatment
- Full participation
- Equal conditions.
However, not all nations have extended the concept of the integration of pupils with SEN into the mainstream as far as Sweden. Many continue to offer special school placements for children and young people with visual impairments. A recent paper by Eberhard Fuchs addresses the new opportunities available for these special schools. In an article entitled "The School for the Visually Impaired is Changing" (2000), Eberhard argues that many special schools have already evolved beyond their traditional role and are likely to continue evolving. He writes that schools are currently providing a broad range of services for the visually impaired and that, as the range of tasks increases, special schools will no longer be schools but will be Centres for the Visually Impaired. Service provision includes:
- Early Intervention: Providing services which support the child with a visual impairment in his/her physical, intellectual, emotional and social development as well as supporting the family relationship.
- Advisory and Support Systems: Having a static and mobile advisory and support system to all those with a visual impairment.
- Open School: Open up the school for the visually impaired to those without a sight problem.
- Multiply Disabled Visually Impaired Pupils: The development of orientation and mobility, visual stimulation, alternative communication systems, Braille and symbol/tactile based communication system for MDVI pupils will continue to come from the special schools.
More support for the development of special school resource centres to support mainstream activities is found in the notes from the "Third Workshop on Training Teachers of the Visually Impaired in Europe". Theme 4 of the workshop addresses special fields of competence and in particular the problem that:
In special schools many different professionals are employed: not only teachers, but also experts in the field of Activities for Daily Living, Orientation and Mobility, Low Vision, subjects like mathematics, geography etc. The special professionals are not always available for Vl children in mainstream schools.
One of the conclusions of the panel considering this issue was:
The provision of these special services should be a shared responsibility of mainstream schools and some external body specially involved with the visually impaired, such as a special school, association of or for the blind and visually impaired, resource centre etc.
Phil Hatlen of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired argues that, indeed too often in the debate regarding inclusion and special school education, the pendulum has swung between extremes of inclusion versus segregated education. It is, in his opinion, the duty of those responsible for delivering the education service to try and ensure that the pendulum is moved towards the middle where:
- Regardless of placement, all visually impaired children have a qualified teacher of the visually impaired who can meet their special needs.
- The expanded core curriculum needs of visually impaired children are considered when planning educational services.
In order for this to be achievable it is necessary, in Phil’s opinion, to accept that special schools:
- Are centres for the most experienced, most expert professionals in the education of the visually impaired.
- Schools for the blind should be the hub of educational services for blind and visually impaired children, regardless of where they go to school.
Based on these two principles, it is the responsibility of schools for the blind to share their expertise wherever it is needed. The Texas School meets this responsibility by acting as a statewide resource. Its activities include:
- Summer schools
- Curriculum development
- Teacher preparation
- Short-term classes
- Research and development
- Instructional materials centre
- Public awareness
- Development of statewide standards
Returning to Europe, a recent paper produced by the European Agency for Development of Special Needs Education entitled Special Needs Education in Europe (January 2003) confirms the situation whereby many special schools have taken on a resource centre role and are involved in the:
- provision for training and courses for teachers and other professionals;
- development and dissemination of materials and methods;
- support for mainstream schools and parents;
- short-time or part-time help for individual students;
- support in entering the labour market.
Special schools have a challenging but exciting future. Pupils, regardless of their educational placement, will need support. Many believe that special schools with their expertise and experience are the best places to provide this support - from early intervention programmes, mobile multidisciplinary assessment teams, intensive tuition, curriculum development, teaching and learning materials production centres etc. However, those schools which have moved towards establishing themselves as resource centres still retain a traditional teaching role. They recognise that resource centre staff need to work regularly with children and young people, aged from 3 to 18, even if the pupils only attend the centre on a short-term basis.
© Comenius 2003