In the early 1800s, learning disabilities and mental illness were often confused without any clear distinction being made between the two. The journey towards understanding the nature of special needs has been a long-fought one. The blanket labelling of disabled children as ‘defective’ moved from the most offensive terms such as ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ to the more compassionate terms of today which reflect the gradual social recognition of the various classifications of disability.

1918 saw the birth of Special Educational schools throughout the UK, when the Education Act made school compulsory for all disabled children. In the same year, the RNIB (Royal Institute for the Blind) set up a network of ‘Sunshine Homes’ which pioneered progressive teaching methods, the first of which opened in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire.

By 1921 there were more than 300 institutions for various disabilities including epilepsy, blindness, deafness and physical disabilities. Many of these schools were solely residential as it was considered beneficial for children with special needs to be away from their families. Parents were discouraged from visiting and letters from children were censored.

The start of the 20th Century was transformative throughout so many sections of society and in the early 1900s the concept of ‘open-air’ schools, originally pioneered in Germany, began to flourish. The first ‘open-air’ school opened in 1907 by London County Council at Bostall Woods, Woolwich and advocated improved diet, lessons and naps taken outside with blankets and fresh air. By 1939 there were 150 such open-air schools providing places for 20,000 children and improvements in health were quickly observed. However, discipline was harsh and educational expectations low, and there were few work prospects for the older children.

The 1944 Education Act provided ‘special educational treatment’ in specialist schools where children were medically assessed to determine their eligibility. Sadly, many children, however, were still classified as uneducable and not permitted to attend school, as disabilities and mental illness were still not fully understood and separated accordingly.

Society has come a long way since those early days when it was deemed necessary to segregate and isolate children with disabilities from their families and the outside world, no matter how well-meaning the intentions of the educators and policy-makers of the time. But these first steps started an evolutionary change in the way disability was perceived and stimulated vital conversations about what type of support was necessary for children with special educational needs.

The provision of Special Educational Needs today may not be perfect, but its path is a progressive one and like most systems, it is a work which is always forging ahead as we look to expand our understanding of what help is required for children with SEND, and thereby improve the quality of the inner workings of all the organizations involved.

‘School is a building which has four walls with tomorrow inside’

Lon Watters

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