'Special Ed' can sometimes get a bad reputation, or at least an inaccurate one. It's often described as where they shove all the weirdoes, nutjobs and thickoes to keep them out of the way, so that parents visiting the school to which they may send their children* would not be frightened away.
Not so in the establishment where I have spent my secondary education. One of the -very few- things that this school is quite well-regarded for is our special educational needs department. This is a well deserved good reputation; I know, because I've been a recipient of it.
'Special needs' covers a lot of things, of course. Behavioural and emotional problems, lack of social skills and poor reading ability come under this heading, as well as things like attention deficit disorder (which is what I feel like I've got during assemblies with our headmaster; nice enough man but he does tend to ramble on a bit) and the autistic spectrum. This latter is the bit I'm something of an expert on, since at the age of seven I was diagnosed with a relatively mild variety of autism -and I emphasise RELATIVELY- known as Asperger's Syndrome. I cannot quote the precise details of the symptoms at length because I've never bothered to memorise them, but basically my brain is wired slightly differently from other people's. Famous people who may show Asperger's tendencies include Andy Warhol, Patrick Moore and Sir Isaac Newton, though in the latter case much of his strangeness could plausibly be explained by spending so much time physically in the presence of mercury that he wound up mentally orbiting Neptune. Many trainspotters and science fiction fanatics (I'm both) also have the condition, and for a number of reasons the majority of us are male. It's not a wholly inheritable condition, though it can be transferred that way; I don't know all the science because I've never cared enough to look it up.
I had the advantage of arriving at secondary school already possessing a diagnosis and statement of special educational needs,** and was immediately placed under the jurisdiction of our Special Educational Needs COordinator, or SENCO in school jargon. This was a teacher to whom I owe quite a lot; Mrs J Wicks, who also briefly taught me English in my second year. She could be intimidating, especially if you were fairly new to the place and not especially good at remembering to do homework, but she also had a genuine dedication to get as many of the aforementioned 'wierdoes, nutjobs and thickoes' as she could through school and into either further education or a fairly good job.
Commonly, students with behavioural or learning difficulties are taught separately, often in rooms set aside specifically for the purpose. Not so in this establishment; apart from the psychological effects of isolating students that way, getting work from the regular teachers before each lesson is a pain in the rear, so unless they're the sort who find it amusing to sabotage classes pupils with special needs are put in regular lessons as much as possible- officially, this is known as an Inclusion Policy. If they require a bit of individual help in some classes, they are assigned a Learning Support Assistant. This is the most undervalued group of individuals on the entire education system. Their task is to control the least tractable and most disagreeable students in the school, as well as assisting those who have serious emotional problems. LSAs have violence or threats directed against them by pupils more often, by virtue of the fact that a regular teacher who is threatened refers the guilty party to the special needs department where he or she can threaten the LSAs instead. All this for a miserable salary that's usually about two thirds that of a regular teacher's. I had an LSA working with me in several lessons, and their help was utterly invaluable.
In my fourth year, I was invited to participate in a program for students with assorted social and emotional difficulties. This involved studying for something called the City & Guilds Skillpower Diploma; no, I'd never heard of it either, but I'm assured that it is a recognised qualification. This was instead of one of two options I could choose for study up to exam level.
We were a fairly ill-assorted lot, all things considered. No, that's a bit of an understatement. We were such a weird and wonderful bunch of eccentrics, headcases and social outcasts that you could have written a sitcom about us, but then have it bomb for being too unbelievable. Notables included an expatriate cockney, a school-of-hard-knocks tough girl who's what Pink tries to be and fails, and one absolute sociopath who is now on the Sex Offenders Register. Where did I fit into all this? I was actually one of the quieter ones; the one with pretensions to intellectualism who annoys the hell out of everybody for the first few weeks but gradually becomes accepted within the group. I made some of the best and closest friends I've ever had in this group, which was of course part of the exercise. Skillpower was one of the few classes I genuinely enjoyed, and I am saddened to report that I am the last of the group currently attending this school, the others having gone on to other things.
Our syllabus was far too complicated to go into in much detail here, but one of the more memorable experiences was organising and running the school Christmas disco. This is an annual event for first and second years, and tends to be a raucous affair, especially before Mrs Wicks issued executive orders for a massive reduction in the sugar content of the refreshments. My duties that dark November evening were divided between serving burgers and pizza slices at fifty pence each, patrolling the rest of the building in case somebody had nipped off for a smoke or to canoodle with their other half, and breaking up fights on the dancefloor and surrounding corridors. This was not my idea of fun, especially since when I did succeed in breaking up a fight the spectators made clear their objections by scragging me. I did get to dance with a couple of people, though.
We also held an event for some children from a nearby preschool establishment, and the experience of up to seven small children hanging from various parts of my anatomy and simultaneously pulling in exactly seven different directions is one that I shall not soon forget.
All this was in aid of a Christmas dinner for the senior citizen population*** of the rather dispiriting village that this school shares with a large chemical plant and some shoe factories, with the actual housing looking like something of an afterthought when seen in aerial photographs. This was at least less noisy than the disco, and serving roast turkey and assorted vegetables is a restful experience compared to the preceeding events.
The disco and Christmas dinner-organising was repeated a year later (the small children were a one-off that nobody has been foolish enough to suggest repeating), but actual attendence wasn't compulsory more than once. Why I ended up doing it all again is therefore something I've never fully understood, but there I was in the middle of it again. I was quite glad about it later, because I took the opportunity to dance with a very shy but very attractive girl in Skillpower who I'd actually had a bit of a thing for for quite some time. Those of a romantic bent will doubtless be pleased to learn that we are still an item two years later.
The event for the senior citizens (we were under strict instructions not to call them old people or anything else even vaguely derogatory) was slightly different that year, being a carol concert with refreshments served afterwards. We all had to suggest various alternatives to keep those who hadn't died since last time interested, but sadly my idea of adopting a 'Tarts and Vicars' theme was not taken up.
Somehow it doesn't seem like as much hard work and high stress now as it felt like back then, and there were many genuinely funny moments: All twelve of us putting up decorations by collective argument in a manner reminiscent of an 'Ever Decreasing Circles' Christmas special, or one of our nuttier members getting engaged to his girlfriend and then being dumped within a week, or just about any conversation involving expat Londoner and enthusiastic Millwall fan James Rose and one of our huge number of Manchester United fans.
Strange as it might seem to some people, I quite often miss 'special ed.'
*Note to people whose government retains some sanity: parents have a free choice on where they send their kids to school, and each pupil brings in extra funding, forcing schools to compete for students- this is a relic of a Conservative administration that thought market forces were the answer to everything. They aren't.
**Assuming that people from overseas may not be familiar with our educational system, or are just as confused by it as I am by some of theirs, I'll give you a brief overview of how it works. In most of the country, the system works like this:
From age four until seven; Infant School. 7 to 11; Junior School. Both are referred to collectively as primary school, and it's not unusual to combine the two into one establishment, especially since the two buildings are almost invariably within yards of one another. Normally fairly small and local.
From 11 to 16; Secondary School. Generally much larger, and take in the output of several primary schools. Compulsory education ends with the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams, replacing the old O-Levels.
Post-16; various. Many secondaries have provision for teaching the GCE (referred to as the A or Advanced Level for reasons of tradition), though it is necessary to gain a specified number of GCSE passes that vary from place to place, whilst the same courses are taught under the same roof as a lot of vocational courses in Colleges of Further Education.
Just to confuse things even more, some places divide the 7-11 and 11-16 into three tiers for various reasons, but they are usually as close together as the primaries and the actual differences are more administrative and organisational than anything else. I've never experienced this alternative arrangement directly so I can't really judge which way works better.
***What they thought about having their social event funded by playing loud pop music and charging small crowds of juvenile delinquents a pound to listen to it is rather hard to say.