THE HISTORY OF
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 the progress that was made at the start of the century there were still many people who were discriminated against. In the 1960s, many parents of children 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.
As a result of this campaign, in 1970 new legislation was passed called the Education Act (Handicapped Children). Since then, all children have been guaranteed the right to an education in law. There were still many problems in accessing the right education after this point, but this was a landmark in the struggle for equal treatment.
Since 1970, a number of other important government reports have been published and new acts passed:
In 1978, the Warnock Report investigated educational provision in England, Wales and Scotland for children and young people with disabilities. It recommended using children’s educational need rather than their medical categorisation.
The 1981 Education Act brought in statementing of Special Educational Needs (SEN), consultation with parents and entitlement to a place in mainstream (with three caveats).
In 2001, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act was passed. This made Educational discrimination unlawful.
The 2004 Children’s Act brought in safeguarding and assessment procedures, which are potentially beneficial to children with Learning Disabilities.
Today, 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.
Through this project, we have been looking at how special schools have changed over the last 50 years and learning how the experience of going to a special school, or teaching at one, has affected the lives of the people we interview. We have also compared the experiences of people who have studied or taught at both mainstream and special schools. We hope that you find the information enlightening, as we have.
We have found that there is a lot of fear that funding for this vital provision is under threat and disabled children’s rights to an education are in danger of being violated. We hope that by learning more about special schools, people will understand more about their importance, as well as the importance of ensuring good prospects for the children outside of school and after they leave.
We hope that our project sheds more light on a little understood, but vital part of our communities and adds more crucial stories to the Learning Disability History of Birmingham and the UK. We feel it was important to give people with Learning Disabilities a voice, so we gave the students in each school the opportunity to lead this project and speak out about their experiences, as well as hearing those of previous generations.