A few months ago I was really perturbed by a BBC news report on the cost of educating pupils with additional needs and disabilities. The entire focus of the report was on the cost of the special provision these children need, and how this is a drain on the education budget. There was no reference to the enormous disadvantages such pupils face, and how the money spent on them just goes a tiny way towards levelling the playing field and giving them similar opportunities to their peers.
There was definitely no reference to the enormous benefit, not only to the pupils themselves but to the whole country, of educating children with additional needs, helping them to fulfil their potential and become productive members of society. Even that wouldn’t have gone far enough for my liking, but it would at least have been something. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that there is more to life than economic productivity, and just because someone’s contribution to the community is not a financial one, that doesn’t mean they are not contributing to making our country a better place.
And then last week an even more damaging article appeared. It was published in The Times and circulated widely on social media. It’s actually the first article that has ever prompted me to submit a formal complaint to IPSO, the official press regulator. The article was subsequently edited, but in the original version, the one that went out in The Times newspaper that morning, the headline read, “£400 million schools funding diverted to special needs”. It went on to describe how mainstream funds were being taken from “pupils” and “children” to be diverted to “special educational needs”. The implication was obvious – children with additional needs are not proper children.
The reason for this was, apparently, because parents were chasing the “golden ticket” of an Education, Health and Care Plan which would trigger all kinds of additional help for their child, and these EHCPs were, by implication, being handed out willy-nilly to those who didn’t need them.
I remember the long, soul-destroying battles we fought to get our daughter’s most basic needs provided for on her Statement of Special Educational Needs, the intransigence of a Local Education Authority that only wanted to include what it was willing to pay for rather than what she actually needed. Since Statements were replaced by EHCPs I have been following the struggles of a number of friends whose fight is even more fruitless than ours was. There has been a large increase in children with additional needs being home schooled, not because their parents have made that choice, but because no suitable schooling has been provided, in many cases no schooling at all of any kind. And this has come about because of swingeing cuts to the education budgets, which have hit SEN provision hardest.
The article also complained about this funding being extended beyond the age of 18 to cover further and higher education. Again, the implication was that this was an undeserved bonus handed on a plate to the lucky students who could get their hands on it. There was no explanation that it was in fact an attempt, however inadequate, to try to overcome some of the massive educational disadvantages faced by these young people.
As I read this, and noted the similarity to the earlier BBC news report, I was reminded of a book I read recently, Girl With a White Dog by Anne Booth – a novel I highly recommend, aimed at the pre-teen market. In this story, a German Jewish holocaust survivor comes and gives a talk to school pupils about her experiences during World War 2. The part that came to mind when I read The Times article was a section from that talk, in which she said this:
“And in the schools, in Maths lessons, the lessons were quite different from the ones you have. The children were being taught to add up how much things cost….
But do you know what costs they were worried about? So worried that nearly every day the children did sums about it? Every day at school they were working out how much disabled people, elderly people, sick people, cost the German people to keep in hospitals and in care homes. As if disabled people, elderly people, sick people weren’t true Germans. And they did sums about how much people cost who didn’t work, even though they told my father, and everyone else who was a Jew, that they weren’t allowed to.”
Am I exaggerating or scaremongering when I make that connection between Nazi Germany and the kind of rhetoric we are starting to hear from reputable broadcasters and newspapers? I think not. It’s only a few years since George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a speech in which he made disparaging remarks about people whose curtains are still drawn when the rest of us go to work – thereby stigmatising people with conditions like ME or cancer or recurrent migraine, and people who rely on the visits of carers to get them up in the morning.
How should we, as Christians, respond to this tendency by the media and politicians to influence public opinion against disabled people, and to portray them as nothing but a drain on the public purse? For the answer to this question, I turn again to Anne Booth’s book. Later on, the same character says this,
“So I would like to end by begging you to look out for any early signs of prejudice, any racism, any homophobia, any discrimination against people for their religion – or lack of it, any valuing of people purely for their economic worth, any cruel jokes against the elderly or the disabled.
Stop them early, the moment they show their heads, so that those ideas do not take root and take over your country the way they rotted my beautiful Germany. If the attitudes of Nazism hadn’t been tolerated in its early stages in the 1930s, those millions of people would never have been murdered.”
And that is why I felt compelled to complain to the press regulator about that article in The Times. When I was a teacher, teaching A level Philosophy and Ethics, I often used to show my students the film Judgement at Nuremberg. It’s a film about the trial of Nazi war criminals after the war, and, based on the transcripts of those trials, is an accurate reflection of what took place in that courtroom. There comes a point, near the end of the film, where one of the former Nazi judges, convicted of crimes against humanity for sentencing Jewish people and disabled people to concentration camps, says to the prosecutor, “I never knew it would come to this. You have to believe me.” The prosecutor replies, “It came to this the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”
It’s a topic close to my heart because I have 3 daughters, all young, all healthy and all with a normal life expectancy. For one of them I am regularly asked if I want to write “Do Not Resuscitate” on her medical notes, something no one would think of suggesting for either of her sisters. Why the difference? Because she is a wheelchair user with learning disabilities.
So it’s no use looking at the past and saying, “It would never come to that.” When propaganda in the media is aimed at prejudicing the public against disabled children, it has already come to that. And as Christians we must pray, yes, but we must also raise our voices and refuse to be silenced in defence of those who need us to speak out for them. Proverbs 31.8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
If you want to sign a petition I started 3 years ago against inviting disabled people’s families to write Do Not Resuscitate on their medical notes, you can do so here: https://www.change.org/p/health-secretary-stop-asking-families-of-disabled-young-people-to-discuss-do-not-resuscitate-directives