Parents choosing to combine special and inclusive early years settings: the best of both worlds

Nind, Melanie; Flewitt, Rosie and Johnston, Brenda (2005). Parents choosing to combine special and inclusive early years settings: the best of both worlds. University of Southampton: Mencap City Foundation.


This project developed in the context of New Labour government commitment to parental choice, to inclusive education and to maintaining a continuum of provision for pupils identified as having special educational needs. The first aim of the study was to gain a sense of how many children with learning difficulties attend a combination of special and mainstream early years settings, and to explore ways of identifying and accessing parents who had made this choice. The study also aimed to gain a better understanding of how parents conceptualised the choices available to them and the processes involved in their decision-making. Finally, the study explored the parents’ expectations of combined special and mainstream/inclusive provision and their views about how their expectations were being met in practice.

The study was conducted in three education authorities in the South of England, one urban and two with both rural and urban populations. This was an exploratory, scoping study for a planned larger project that would focus on the experiences of children in combined placement early years education. The primary research methods were questionnaire and semi-structured telephone interviews, with thematic analysis of the data.

> The most successful route found to identify parents of children with learning difficulties who combine special and mainstream early years services was by targeting settings known by the LEA to have children with split early years funding. Only one authority had administrative systems that permitted such access. Other less successful approaches included: sending questionnaires to all known early years settings in an LEA; contacting voluntary groups; asking parents to pass our details to other parents.
> Approximately 47% provider respondents reported they had children with special educational needs in combined placements. Over time, many children increased their attendance in one kind of provision and decreased attendance in the other, reflecting parents’ plans for their child’s future primary education.
> Some parents and providers reported that there were no real choices or very limited choices available. Reasons for this related to geographical location, approach of the LEA towards the funding and allocation of places for children with SEN, and perceived limitations in either the special or mainstream/inclusive setting.
> Parent responses indicated that visiting preschool providers and talking with family, friends and other parents were an influence on their decision-making, as was the support of education and health professionals, with Portage workers being seen by many as playing a key role.
> Some parents had received conflicting advice from professionals; for some parents professionals had been most supportive and for others, although professionals had been supportive, they had had to fight, sometimes in vain, for funding to fulfil professionals’ recommendations.
> Twice as many provider respondents cited positive experiences of children combining special and mainstream/inclusive settings as cited negative or mixed experiences. Providers, parents and voluntary groups volunteered advantages and disadvantages as being for children with special educational needs themselves, for providers and for parents. Advantages for children included: developing social skills with local children combined with accessing special resources; academic/developmental gains; more comprehensive assessment; variety of experience, atmosphere and activities; belonging to different communities; and opportunity to participate in large/small groups, structured/less structured play. Perceived disadvantages included: coping with different structures/ routines/ expectations/ relationships/ curricula/ pedagogies; confusion; difficulty settling in; the tiring nature of too much input; the time in transit; and children’s preference for one of the settings.
> Various factors were cited as key to determining the success of combined placements. These included characteristics of the child (individual qualities, age, disability) and characteristics of the provision (liaison between settings number of placements; quality of support; experience/ training of staff ethos/curriculum; relationships with staff; number, balance and timing of sessions; staffing ratio; proximity of settings; and how settings complement each other).
> Respondents also identified process issues as important including: funding of placements; lack of choice; shortage of places; changes in local arrangements; the statementing process; and conflicting advice.
> Thematic analysis of the parent interview data led to the identification of the following themes: seeking/getting the best of both worlds; having insurance (each setting making up for what the other lacked); trial and error (see how each type of placement works); belonging to diverse communities; doing the right thing; making hard choices and learning to live with disappointment; struggles and feeling safe.
> Parent respondents who had opted for combining mainstream/inclusive and special settings did not perceive inclusive education as offering the best of both worlds in itself. The social and 'normal' environment of the mainstream was wanted but there was a lack of faith that the 'special' input needed could be provided there.

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