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The Education is Special project mainly covers the period of the last fifty years, 1970-2020, but some of the schools we are working with are much older than that, having been founded at the start of the twentieth century, so we cannot ignore the historical context of earlier times completely.
Dame Ellen Pinsent School and Victoria School were two of the first special schools in the city and are probably some of the oldest in the country. Although they both moved premises and changed names in the 1960s, their records show what life must have been like for the first children with Learning Disabilities who ever went to special schools.
The inspectors’ report from 1905 is shocking not just for the language used, but for what it says about the children’s lives outside school: “The school provides for children who are not only feebleminded, but who are in most cases suffering from some physical defect of nutrition as well.”
By the 1920s, things had not improved very much. Another entry in the logbook states that: “Eight girls have been excluded from school on account of the verminous condition of their heads”, while the punishment book is full of entries where children were beaten for being “dirty”.
That these children were getting an education at all was an advance and something that many children with Learning Disabilities across the country weren’t able to access. Thanks to the determination of people like Ellen Pinsent and Clara Martineau the numbers of children in special schools rose spectacularly in the early years of the 20th century. They were two of the first women to be elected as councillors and both chaired the Special Schools Subcommittee on Birmingham City Council. Through their hands-on approach to ensuring that education was being provided, there were nearly 1,300 children in eight schools by 1913, when there had been less than a hundred at the turn of the century.
Despite this progress, in the 1960s many parents with a child with Learning Disabilities would still receive a letter saying that they were “ineducable” and couldn’t be offered a place at school. Dame Philippa Russell was one of these parents and she started a campaign to end discrimination against children with Learning Disabilities. This resulted in new legislation in 1970 called the Education Act (Handicapped Children). Since then, all children have been guaranteed the right to an education in law.
Now, there are 27 special schools in Birmingham providing education for over 4,000 children. Many children with Learning Disabilities are also educated in mainstream schools with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) provisions. There is a debate about which is better, but for the thousands of kids who study in special schools, these places provide them with a community of people who understand what their lives are like and provide friendship and support as well as education.
We will be looking at how special schools have changed over the last 50 years and learn how the experience of going to a special school, or teaching at one, has affected the lives of the people we interview.
At a time when funding for this vital provision is under threat and disabled children’s rights to an education are in danger of being violated, we feel that this is a much-needed piece of work. We will illuminate a little understood, but vital part of our communities and add more crucial stories to the Learning Disability History of Birmingham and the UK. We will also give people with Learning Disabilities a voice by giving the children in each school the opportunity to lead this project and speak out about their experiences, as well as those of previous generations.