I do not remember any children with special educational needs in my town-centre infant school. It was the nineteen-sixties. Children with physical and sensory disabilities were sent to ‘special schools’, while children with intellectual disabilities were officially deemed ‘ineducable’. If they were not in a residential institution, they stayed at home with their mothers.
My junior school was a C of E village primary, having a single-storey Victorian Gothic main block, with the original large schoolroom, now designated the ‘small hall’, in the centre. Around it, like petals on a lopsided flower, spread three high-windowed classrooms and two cloakrooms, with a suite of tiny offices and staffroom occupying the space that would otherwise have been a fourth classroom.
An Infants’ Department squatted in a separate 1920’s block, tucked away round a corner at the back of the ‘little playground’, and on the far side of the ‘big playground’ was the ‘big’ hall (cum-gym-cum-dining-room): 1960’s system-built, with a kitchen at one end of it. On the west side of the big playground was the Top Classroom, a separate single room under a double-pitched roof, with its own cloakroom and lavatories.
Behind the Top Classroom was the netball court, and beyond that was ‘the field’ – a large football pitch bounded to the east by the road, to the south by the school, to the west by heathland, and to the north by a chain-link fence, behind which was another low, modern, pitched-roof building. This was the ‘ESN’ unit, a newish construction in the same style as the Top Classroom, where the ‘Remedial’ children went. ESN stood for Educationally Sub-Normal. The 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act had given all children a right to an education provided by their Local Education Authority.
I do not ever remember seeing the ESN children in their playground, even on the most glorious summer lunchtimes when the pupils in my school were sprawled on the grass making daisy chains or simply bickering idly because it was too hot to run around. Were they kept indoors all day, every day? Their invisibility intensified the impression that they somehow still did not merit to be treated the same as everybody else.
The primary school Headmaster was an old-style martinet. He looked, dressed and sounded like a retired wartime RAF officer: immaculate silver short-back-and-sides, neatly trimmed moustache, tweed suit and clipped speech that escalated to a bark if he spotted malefactors. He certainly did not lack courage. An adder was discovered one lunch-time, curled up in the suntrap at the foot of the Top Classroom’s south wall. Mr. L seized a garden rake and as the snake struck out, jabbed with the metal tines, hit its head and killed it. He then invited the watching crowd of children to observe the zig-zag pattern of scales that indicated that this was Vipera berus, the British Isles’ only venomous snake, used the rakehead to estimate the length (“I’d say those tines are about an inch apart, wouldn’t you? Rake fits in twice… say, fourteen inches.”) and thus the age of the snake, and gave us a brief outline of the creature’s lifecycle and habits (“It’ll have come in from the heathland”).
He was a severe disciplinarian. In a cupboard in his office resided a whippy bamboo cane, which was produced from time to time for the sanctioning of boys caught fighting or ‘picking on’ smaller children. (Although some of them could, on occasion, be just as viciously violent as their male counterparts, girls were mysteriously exempt from this form of punishment).
One morning, the Headmaster’s assembly admonitions included the information that the school was to be joined by a new boy who was delicate and to be treated with especial care, owing to his having undergone fourteen operations. Such a child today would probably be given full-time 1:1 support to ensure his safety, but it seemed like nobody had thought of what extra help this new boy might need to ward off the many bullies. D arrived the following week. Looking back, I am pretty certain that his disabilities were due to a genetic condition, perhaps a chromosomal disorder.
At the time, what I noticed was that he had low-set round ears that stuck out at right-angles to his head and which, taken together with his long upper lip and short nose, gave his features a slight but definite simian cast. He was promptly dubbed ‘chimp-face’ by the bullies. D’s speech was indistinct and his handwriting was noticeably shaky, straggly and slow. He was spindly-limbed, his body was asymmetric, and his general physical co-ordination was poor. Here, concluded the bullies, gleefully, was someone who was not capable of running away or hitting back, and who would be unable report in detail anything that happened to him. From the first day, the big boys’ gang declared open season on him, and the Headmaster’s injunctions notwithstanding, he was subjected to merciless physical bullying. Changing for PE, his abdomen was seen to be criss-crossed with purplish scars – the legacy of the fourteen surgeries – and it became a competition amongst the most thuggish to see who could kick D hardest in the belly. On his last day in the school, he had been felled in the midst of a knot of boys, the better for them to take scientific aim before putting the boot in.
Someone ran to fetch the Headmaster, who arrived like a whirlwind of the wrath of God to carry the semi-conscious child to the office, whence D departed in an ambulance, never to return. The Headmaster did return, and disappeared again, this time dragging the responsible boys with him. All were given the cane and some were subsequently expelled. Rumour said that the kicking had caused D to have an ‘abdominal rupture’ and that he was in hospital for some time. I glimpsed him once thereafter, climbing out of a minibus and being escorted through the gates of the ESN unit.
Grenouille has, thankfully, never experienced such bullying. Forty years later, school inclusion of pupils with disabilities is widespread and generally well-managed. School staff working with G have always been keen to get themselves well briefed in advance on G’s capabilities and limitations so they can work with and around them. The typical children in G’s schools have been helped and encouraged to think of G as someone just like themselves who happens to need some extra help. On the one occasion that I am aware of when a mainstream child said something unkind to G, a more verbally gifted friend told the bully where to go, before fetching a Teaching Assistant.
Still, I don’t think the attitude that people with disabilities are ‘subnormal’, even subhuman, lies far beneath the surface in some, perhaps even many, places. Eldest has had to endure disparaging remarks about having a ‘spaz’ or ‘retard’ sibling – although when this was reported to school, the teaching staff were horrified, and the pupil responsible was severely reprimanded.
Officialdom cannot refuse all blame. Despite careful phrasing in SSEN guidance about ‘strengths and needs’, the fact is that those who have disabilities are defined by deficit, as anyone who has ever filled in a DLA assessment form knows only too well. People with disabilities are categorised, classified, and still viewed, as varying degrees of ‘less than’.