By Gerald Lebrett, Headteacher, Side By Side
Earlier this year, two Cambridge professors, John MacBeath and Maurice Galton, published a report on inclusive education systems in the UK. They concluded that the current system as adopted by mainstream schools is failing. They stated: “Children with conditions such as severe dyslexia and autism are struggling, bullied or teased by their peers and dismissed by teachers as difficult or lazy.” These children, they said, become ‘forgotten’.
For those whose children have learning difficulties and or special needs, this report is alarming. But we should be proud that this does not reflect the reality of the Jewish schools we have in our communities. The provision in place for children, in particular young children, is truly astounding. Across our community we have nurseries that are second to none in integrating all children.
Parents may accept that some children with learning difficulties may struggle in school just like some children without learning difficulties might struggle. If, however, you can prevent any feelings of differences and remove that struggle from an early age, wouldn’t you do that for your child? That’s where we come in. As a community – and in our case the Stamford Hill community – we have set up a school with special needs that not only offers a specialist provision for those children who need this support, but also offers an integrated nursery for children both with and without special needs.
It is important to put our children in an environment in which they don’t have to struggle to keep up because the system is created for them, completely tailored to their needs.
For years, governments have amended and adapted policies based on new scientific research and statistics, trying to identify the best ways to educate our children with special needs. Since the 1970s, schools have been adopting these policies to include all children, whatever their challenges, in mainstream education.
Many schools that were set up specifically to educate children with special needs have since closed down. In 2015, there are now only 1,148 dedicated schools for special needs children compared with the 1,571 schools that existed in 1979, and mainstream education is struggling with the pressure. These pre-1979 figures add gravitas to John MacBeath and Maurice Galton’s argument, highlighting the problems this has created in our current education system.
Despite these figures and Mr MacBeath and Mr Galton’s findings, it would seem that the broader British education policy continues to fail some children with special needs.
Within our community, however, we have developed our education provisions on the premise that for many children with special needs, a tailored specialised approach is required. Our vision ensures that while meeting all the requirements as set out within the early years foundation stage curriculum, we spend considerable time planning and ensuring that our programmes are designed to meet the specific needs of all the children.
Placing a child in a mixed ability nursery significantly reduces any feeling of differences, prejudices and struggle. The children develop an understanding that stays with them for life. We teach them how to accept, work and play with other children, to do more than coexist, but to be friends with mixed ability children and to consider them in no other way than fellow children.
Side By Side welcomes special needs and mainstream two to five-year-olds and supports them with our own specially designed integrated nursery. So although many nurseries offer some places to children with varying degrees of special needs, our nursery has an approximate 50:50 ratio of non-special needs to special needs children, a ratio which has a truly positive impact on all the pupils.
The time at nursery is some of the most impactful years of a child’s life. With a diverse mix of high functioning children, children with developmental delay – be it speech or physical – and children with severe special needs, Side By Side gives an opportunity to those parents whose child is developing slightly later than their peers to benefit from our therapists and a learning environment where there is an extremely high ratio of teachers to children so they can focus their attention to supporting all of our children. We work to combat the issues of the existing system and develop something that works for us.
Nursery years are the time when children learn the subtle tools that will help them navigate through life, including how to interact with others while developing an awareness that although there are children who may be different, friends come in all shapes and sizes and from all different places. Our children learn that there is more that unites than separates us and that there are no barriers to making friends or getting an education.