RNIB’s sponsorship of special school is ‘dark day’ for inclusion


theweeksubThe decision of a disabled people’s organisation (DPO) to sponsor the conversion of a special school into an academy is a “dark day” for the inclusive education movement, say disabled activists.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) announced this week that it would be converting Three Spires School in Coventry into a special educational needs (SEN) academy.

Three Spires had been in “special measures” since an Ofsted inspection in October 2012 branded it “inadequate”.

RNIB said it would become the first disability charity to sponsor a special school academy.

RNIB’s own Pears Centre for Specialist Learning – also based in Coventry – which provides education, residential care and outreach, has already taken over the management of the school, and hopes to use its “extensive specialist expertise” to support “improvements” at the new RNIB Three Spires Academy.

But Tara Flood, chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said she was “deeply depressed” by the RNIB takeover.

She said: “Being a DPO isn’t just about the numbers of disabled people on the board, it’s about the culture and the ethos of the organisation.

“You cannot be a DPO and segregate disabled people. It is just not possible. Whatever RNIB consider themselves to be, they are not a DPO.

“It is a dark day, but not an unexpected one, because the disability charities have a vested interest in keeping segregation going.”

She said such partnerships were a way of “mitigating” the impact of falling numbers of children at other special schools run by charities, and could eventually allow RNIB to make a profit from Three Spires.

Flood said: “ALLFIE is entirely opposed to it and sees it as a money-making opportunity for those charities involved.”

Earlier this month, ALLFIE took part in a protest outside the offices of the disability charity Scope, calling on it to close its three special schools, commit to a fully inclusive education system, and close its “institutionalised and segregated” residential homes.

The Conservative education secretary Michael Gove has previously suggested that he would like those organisations running academies and free schools to make a profit, although his Liberal Democrat coalition partners are opposed to the idea.

Eleanor Southwood, RNIB’s vice-chair for external affairs, who is a governor at the charity’s other special school, Sunshine House, in Middlesex, defended its decision to sponsor Three Spires.

She said: “It is about choice and what is going to work for individual children and the right of their families and carers and themselves to make choices. Full integration will work for some children, partial integration will work for others.”

She said a special school could be the right choice for some young people. “Every child is different and you can’t prescribe one or the other.”

But Flood said: “It is the easy route to talk about choice. Choice doesn’t exist for parents of disabled children and those with special educational needs [who want a mainstream education].”

Southwood said she had been “quite anti-special school” as a teenager, having attended one in London with her sister and seeing her parents fight successfully for them both to attend a mainstream school.

She said that a special school was “a very artificial scenario and at 18 you have to move into a world where the majority of people can see”, while it was difficult to learn how to be assertive at a special school and “pretty hard” to pick up such skills if you do not have them at 18.

But she said that the part of the disabled people’s movement that was not “dogmatic” and “wants every young person to reach their potential will recognise that that potential might be nurtured in different settings”.

25 September 2013