Wiltshire’s proposal to close three special schools and create an all-in-one school for 350+ pupils with moderate to severe special educational needs in a remote rural location has many of the features of the institutionalised responses to need which those of us in the field of learning disability and mental health thought were gone forever.
Experience shows that even with relatively benign institutional regimes attempting to solve short term needs and cost pressures in this way makes no strategic sense. Although there had been campaigns throughout the second half of the 20th century to draw attention to the poor quality of life and abuses in the large institutions for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems, in the end it was their inflexibility and the long term costs of keeping them open that sounded their death knell.
1) The proposed school will be one of the largest of its type in the UK. Large institutions are inflexible because once a large building has been opened it can take decades to close it when needs change. Almost inevitably numbers needing or willing to go there will fluctuate – especially when it is in a hard to access location involving long and expensive journeys for students and families
2) There is always pressure to keep institutions full because they cost the same to run whether full or not. Thus they suck in and hold people who would be better elsewhere or who would benefit from change or a greater range of choices
3) Institutions isolate people who need special help by keeping them in social groups defined by those needs rather than enabling them to know and be known by the wider community. For disabled children small special schools located near where they live and working with mainstream schools can provide the flexible, outward looking and non -stigmatizing education that all children are equally entitled to.
4) Institutions in isolated settings develop inward looking staff cultures and are unattractive from a career perspective because they are essentially static. Recruiting can also be difficult because journey times and costs of travel also effect staff members
Wiltshire’s proposals are full of good intentions but, in addition to ignoring the practical issues raised by the families of current students, they also ignore the laws of unintended consequences which experience shows produce large expensive white elephants that no one knows what to do with. Generations of children and their families will be tied to an outdated model simply because it is there and needs filling.
Dr Bob Grove
Dr. Bob Grove worked on deinstitutionalization programmes in the UK and across Europe for 30 years