Mainstream or specialist school – my thoughts and experiences

This is often a subject that evokes heated discussions. Sometimes objective, sometimes verging on the aggressive. People seem so easily caught up in the “us and them” mentality, whoever the us and them happens to be at any given time.

I don’t want to do that though. I have strong opinions on this subject, but I’m certainly not here to tell other people what to do, and I’ll listen to anyone who can stay civil!

Originally, the plan was always for me to attend a specialist boarding school for blind children. I really didn’t want to go. I liked living with my family and couldn’t think of any reason why I would want to go and live somewhere else with people that I didn’t know. Who would do that?

However, Before the time I was due to be sent away, my family had a change of heart. Thanks partly to the new technology I received, I was able to attend the local primary school. I attended four schools in total and was the only totally blind child and Braille reader there.

What was it like?

I can’t make a comparison as some people can who attended a mixture of specialist and mainstream schools. Mainstream school was all I knew. I had my specialist equipment – at first a Braille machine and the old BBC micro. Later I updated to a Braille notetaking device from which you could get printed or Braille copies of work, depending on whether you connected it to a normal printer or a Braille printing device. Later I moved to a laptop, and this is what I’ve continued with throughout my working life.

My books and any worksheets that I needed were prepared by an assistant so that I had them in Braille. I also had huge Braille books for my lessons – the German pocket dictionary was 10 large A4 volumes! The books that I studied for English A levels were 7 or 8 volumes each. I had so much to carry – at one point I was banned from carrying books for more than one lesson at a time due to worries about manual handling and the strain on my back! Now I do a lot more electronically, but I still maintain that it’s important for children to learn to read in Braille. Nowadays, electronic Braille displays are much more common than they were when I was at school.

At the beginning I had a learning assistant with me all the time. This lessened as I grew older and in the end I only had the support for maths, or practical subjects where I might be let loose with an electric saw or equipment for experiments in the science lab. During A-level lessons, I didn’t need any support.

My favourite subjects were languages – in my case English, French and German. I preferred science and humanities to the arts. Maths drove me crazy, although I still got a decent grade, and PE and games were the worst. Not because I was lazy, but I thought some of the activities I was asked to join in with were pretty pointless. I became more interested when I was allowed to do things that made sense to me, like using the gym equipment or going swimming. Cross-country in the snow was just the worst, and I didn’t enjoy learning about games that I would not be able to play. I enjoyed school because I didn’t struggle academically. Games was a reminder of what I couldn’t do, which is why I was glad when I could go swimming instead. And of course I had my horse-riding outside of school!

I’ve since learned that there are team sports for blind people, but I’m not sure I’d have been interested if I’d known about them before – too rough – too dangerous – I’d rather have had my head stuck in a book!

I always had friends, but I preferred smaller groups of good friends to socialising with lots of people and being part of a big crowd. I was never bullied, but I was never that fussed about being popular either. Some people would like me – others wouldn’t. That’s kind of how I go through life now. I saw no point in changing myself to fit with whatever expectation was popular at the time, and my main point of being there was to learn.

Having said that, I made some lovely friends and have good memories of the things we got up to.

I was often resistant to socialising in the way people wanted me to – that shows in the school reports – but part of the deal there was that I just didn’t like being in the noisy lunch hall or outside.

Apart from some differences, such as art, where I was allowed to work with clay rather than to draw things, I did pretty much the same as everyone else. I had friends who helped me, but I helped them too. I gravitated towards specific roles in group work, such as presenting or writing, rather than gathering the information from inaccessible books, but at the end of the day, someone needed to fulfil that role and often others were happy for me to stand up in front of the class because they didn’t want to.

Teachers learned that my friends shouldn’t be used to compensate for their lack of preparation – I needed accessible materials and it wasn’t ok to ask people to read things to me that were still warm because they’d just been dashed off the photocopier! Supply teachers didn’t always get this, but I think on some occasions nobody had even told them that I’d be in their class!

Of course not everything was easy at school. I had the same exam stress, friend troubles, achievements and disappointments as everyone else. I was strong-willed and determined, which got things done, but didn’t always make me popular! It said on my year 7 report that I didn’t suffer fools gladly, and that included adults who thought they knew best, but were suggesting things that had no chance of working. But somehow this set me up for life in a world where things aren’t always accessible and you do sometimes need to stand up for yourself to get the things that you need.

As a younger child, I was always involved in the school productions. Acting wasn’t my thing, but I wasn’t scared of reading in front of a hall full of parents, and that type of job was always going to be available!

For the last two years (12 and 13) I moved to a different school because my one didn’t have a sixth form. I wasn’t the only new girl, but a lot of the other people knew each other, and I was welcomed accepted there.

Maybe there are a few things we could have done differently. I’m an “all or nothing” kind of girl – so I can’t be kind of interested in things. I either like them or I don’t. I think at some point I gave up with maths because I just didn’t get it, and maybe we should have stuck at it and found other explanations for me for the things I wasn’t getting. But hey, I did ok in the exam, and we can always come up with smart ideas when looking back! Overall my grades were above average and I got the highest grades in the things that really interested me.

Being different

I guess I was different, but I never had a hard time because of it. I think I sometimes tried to take control of the difference – to be different because of something other than my blindness. Something of my choosing. So I was Kirsty, the one who loved languages. Kirsty, the horse-mad girl. Kirsty who got top marks in the exam. Kirsty – the Hermione Granger type who annoyed everyone by learning lists of dates off by heart, but who could get a class credit to benefit the whole class by reciting them. My hyper focus could be annoying, and a problem when others didn’t share my interests. However, on more than one occasion, the history class asked me to engage the teacher in an in-depth political discussion so that everyone else could chill out for half an hour! I was happy to oblige.

Kirsty who had the cool tech! Ok there were the obligatory “can you make the speech software say rude words” questions, but in time some of my friends were learning Braille too, and if a teacher’s talking, you can get a lot more down when typing on a laptop than you can with a pen and paper.

I wanted to own the narrative, and not just be different because I was unable to see. Obviously this was a big difference, but thanks to the good support I received and my friends, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage because of it.

Knowing what I do now about additional needs, I wonder whether other things were missed as my differences were generally assumed to be visual impairment related. I don’t think they were entirely. But neither do I think that I missed out on any help that I needed – I either asked for the help, or said all the right things and then continued doing things my own way (“I will try harder to socialise more…”)!

Advantages of attending mainstream school

I think for me, the biggest advantage was that a mainstream school set me up to thrive in a world that isn’t only made up of blind people. It’s a world where the edges aren’t rounded off for you and you will come across inaccessibility, things that are twice as hard for you as they are for others, and things that you need to speak up about.

Overall, I had a lot of really nice, kind, motivated teachers. However, none of the classroom teachers had worked with a blind person before and I had to work with them to establish how we would do things. I did lock horns with people in the education system at times, but it was never these classroom teachers who were doing their best to make their lessons accessible.

When I was about to leave high school, one teacher admitted how she had been apprehensive about working with me and how I would learn in her class. But we did it together. We tried things out, and if they didn’t work, we tried something else. Teachers learned to dictate as they were writing on the board and describe what they were doing as they demonstrated things in the science lab. I’m aware that this was extra work. One teacher used my report as a place to point this out, which wasn’t the appropriate place for it, but in general, most teachers did the extra work willingly and in doing so, made their lessons more inclusive.

I actually enjoyed working with people who had never taught a blind person before. They don’t think they know everything and are generally more willing to listen. Ok, they may not have the experience of blindness that teachers in a specialist school would have, but everyone is different, and one size doesn’t fit all.

So as well as the teachers learning about inclusivity, my classmates also saw someone working alongside them. Maybe I didn’t do everything in the same way as them, but unless there was a really graphical element to what we were doing, I was expected to meet the same standards as they were. I just did it with a laptop and huge folders of Braille!

They did absolutely help me – whether that was getting somewhere unfamiliar, reading inaccessible information, or doing visual parts of presentations. But I can also remember trades, such as me giving help with German in exchange for having my nails painted (I still can’t do it now!) or someone explaining what’s going on in the German video whilst I tried to translate and tell them what was being said.

I think it’s really important for non-disabled children to learn alongside children with disabilities so that the idea will be nothing new when those same children grow up to be adults in charge of recruitment. We can’t expect to have inclusion and integration if it doesn’t start at school.

I wouldn’t want to be segregated because of other characteristics. Most of the time I thought boys were annoying, apart from the quiet ones who wanted to learn stuff, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to a school just for girls.

In year 12, we had a Japanese exchange student join our class for a while. We became friends and she taught us about Japanese food, language and culture. I had had no experience of any of these things before, and as well as improving her English and learning about life in the cold UK, she taught us a lot too. Diversity is a good thing and we can all learn from different perspectives, or people who do things differently to us.

Specialist schools

I can’t write a lot about this because I didn’t go to one. I know some people who did. Some of them are not that different from me. Maybe it was easier for them because they never had to think about anything being accessible. Their teachers were all familiar with blindness-related things. But bullying can happen anywhere, and blind kids can be as mean as sighted ones. As I’ve listened to other people’s experiences, I understand that it’s not as nice and easy as we may think.

On the plus side, these young people had more exposure to the blindness community and specific activities that had been organised for blind children. Fro mmy point of view though, I never missed this.

Then there is another group of people that seem to have difficulty adjusting to life after specialist school. They didn’t make sighted friends as a child, because there weren’t any around. They don’t know how to respond to people who are different to them because they only knew the homogenous group where everyone else was blind. They can then find it harder to socialise or integrate into the sighted world, or to cope when things go wrong. This isn’t true for everyone of course, but I’ve seen enough examples of it to identify a pattern.

Even though it may be uncomfortable at the time, I’d argue that it’s better for a child to learn how to self-advocate from a younger age, than to have all the obstacles taken away from them, and then fall at the first hurdle after school.

Specialist school may be good at developing blindness and other independence skills, but I’m not convinced that it prepares people as adequately for what comes next as a well-supported mainstream school experience can.

Children today

So, where does that leave us now?

I think choice is important. If mainstream education would be detrimental to a child’s learning, then of course there should be alternative provision to help them reach their potential. This could either take the form of specialist provision elsewhere, or a unit, allowing for some classroom time and some work in smaller groups or one-to-one.

If the local educational authority is not providing enough support, then I can understand why a parent would opt for an alternative. I was lucky. I got the hours of support and the equipment that I needed. It makes me sad to read how some children nowadays don’t. Ultimately though I believe we should strive to have a system that allows children with additional educational needs to learn in a mainstream classroom, both because of the skills they can develop there – skills that have nothing to do with academic learning – and because I believe an inclusive society starts in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Mainstream or specialist school – my thoughts and experiences”

  1. I wonder what it would have been like half in mainstream, half in specialist, to see the differences? Although, as with anything, every school will vary. “Teachers learned that my friends shouldn’t be used to compensate for their lack of preparation” – That kind of thing can’t make children feel too great either, knowing the teacher hasn’t thought ahead to include them. But as you also say, some people, teachers included, who are new to the experience (ie. teaching a blind person) can be open to learning and changing and adapting, and that can change the future, make the way things are done better for future pupils.
    “I wanted to own the narrative” – having the support, the cool tech, hopefully means you and other children can/could have as many of the same opportunities as possible and be on the same level as others, rather than at a disadvantage.
    I remember one girl at school in particular (there were a couple with severe sight impairments) who often had a support assistant, but there wasn’t any tech to speak of, no additional help, and I’d like to think that tech advances now can hugely improve the experience for so many.
    A fascinating insight, Kirsty, thank you for sharing your thoughts & experiences.
    Caz xx

    1. I think the sad thing about all of this is that it’s a postcode lottery. My primary school was in a little village in Yorkshire, and I think I definitely benefited from smaller class sizes as a result. So much depends on how willing a school is to make the accommodations, and what kind of staff are employed to provide that support.

      The thing about friends became important because they didn’t want to feel dumped on just because they were friends with me. One said she didn’t mind helping because she was my friend, but didn’t want teachers to just expect her to do that, allowing the teacher to cut corners with the preparation.I think my friend had a point and I was keen for there not to be negatives associated with being my friend!

      Thanks for your thoughts X

  2. I so want to keep son in mainstream but the one size fits all approach just doesn’t work for far too many kids. Without a change of government policy and more funding it’s not going to improve.

    1. I know. I was thinking about your situation when I wrote the last bit. You can want mainstream education, but if the LEA doesn’t provide adequate support, I know it’s really tough. I ranted about people being obstructive from time to time, but we didn’t have any of the problems that you have to deal with.

  3. This one made me think! The bit about where your teachers learned to dictate as if they were writing on the board – I do some teaching myself and that would put a whole new spin on the experience for sure. Good on you for being so unapologetic about who you are and your interests, I always admired people like that at school. x

    1. It certainly made them think twice about writing stuff and crossing it out because they’d already dictated it 😀

      I think with time we learn to find our people, so we don’t bore other people with things that don’t interest them.Maybe that’s part of growing up, or maybe that’s something the internet has given us – you’re not just in a group with those immediately around you any more.If your schoolmates don’t like topic X, you can go online to find people who do. I think that really helps as we’re finding out who we want to be or as our interests change.

      Thanks for your comment X

  4. I completely agree with “I think it’s really important for non-disabled children to learn alongside children with disabilities so that the idea will be nothing new when those same children grow up to be adults in charge of recruitment. We can’t expect to have inclusion and integration if it doesn’t start at school.” When Declan had playdate, he started to fray a bit at the end and I was worried his new friend wouldn’t want to play with him anymore. Declan’s special education teachers said she was observing him in the mainstream classroom and witnessed Declan get upset, but the same friend was using the strategies the teachers use to calm Declan. I was really happy to hear how the kids are learning to work alongside of Declan, accept and include them. And you are right – working with children’s differences is not just something they are doing now, but will also be something they will have learned and can apply when they are older.

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