Turning full circle

One of the first Mental Institutions was opened in Norwich. Strangely enough, it also houses one of the last. Before the big boy institutions took over there were some small retreats you could book yourself into, presuming that you had the means or contacts that is. It was considered that mental ill-health could be resolved by resting and taking part in some therapeutic activities – and plenty of fresh air to boot, no doubt. I believe they were generally run by philanthropists with a desire to ‘make a difference’.

I was lucky to have completed a Certificate in Mental Health Studies with The Open University. Lucky in two main ways because a) they no longer run the course and b) the course was also attended by many service users.  I got as close as I could to what’s like having mental ill-health, and what it is like to experience ‘care’, as I could without being there myself. I am also acutely aware that it could be any of us at any time and indeed, one lady was sectioned for a short time whilst on the course. Many on the course had been sectioned at one point or another. I learned, both from these personal experiences and from the course materials that ‘care’ no longer meant rest, relaxation and therapeutic activities. ‘Care’ was more likely to lead to being restrained, face-down, while your undergarments are removed so that ‘medication’ can be administered, forcibly, via an injection in the buttocks. I, like most, thought that these places were there to ‘therapeutic’. How wrong was I?

While ‘learning disability’ and ‘mental distress’ are recognised as separate conditions, they are frequently provided for together. The Lunacy Act 1890 used the terms interchangeably (e.g. idiot and lunatic), the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 and the Mental Treatment Act 1930 made separate provision, then the Mental Health Act 1959/1983 bought them back together again. The 2007 MH Act altered the definitions of mental illness and introduced an exclusion for people with learning disability, so that they would not be considered to have a mental disorder simply as the result of that disability. In the hey-day of the mental institution, it wasn’t therefore just those experiencing mental ill-health that found themselves in an asylum; there were those with learning difficulties, often placed there when their parents died, ‘wayward’ children, petty criminals, single mothers and ‘cast-off’ wives. In respect of Norwich, it is also suggested that a Reverend was placed in the asylum to avoid the scandal of being accused of rape. I doubt this would have been a one-off tactic for law evasion.

Sadly, although asylums were closed and most people were rehomed back into the community, we are wandering back into the rule of the big institution again. Sizeable prison-like homes for children and, well prisons for the rest. Way too many people who are in prison have mental health conditions or learning difficulties. Their incarceration is rationalised by the masses. As naïve I was in considering that mental hospitals were there to make sick people well, I thought prisons were there to, well, sanction the ‘bad’. Hmm. I didn’t know until the end of his life that my grandfather had suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He served in Burma and never discussed his experiences, or claimed his medals. His spells in hospital papered over the cracks, but did not make him well. He had relapses. Likewise, prisons remove offenders from the streets, but do not stop reoffending. In fact, behaviourists have established that punishments not only do not work, but may actively reinforce the behaviours you wish to remove.

What do asylums and prisons have to do with our schools? Well, lots really and I’ve only just scratched the surface here – I could write a complete thesis on this! There is an increasing ‘boldness’ to addressing what some educators are calling ‘the elephant in the room’, that is, inclusion. Inclusion should not be ‘at all costs’ and that ‘other children are having their education disrupted’. Is it ok to say ‘but we’re happy if those ‘included’ kids have theirs disrupted’? I tweeted the other day about how, while defending themselves as not being racist, I’m hearing a flow of racist comments. No, I will not validate your position, you are racist. The same as I won’t defend a position of excluding children, around 85% of whom will meet the legal criteria of being disabled. That would be Disability Discrimination. I’ve drawn parallels between racism and disability/social exclusion before. The two are the same in my book, as is making sexist choices regarding employment. I was listening to Allana Gay talk the other week about how, the higher up the leadership team you go, the more male and white the ‘team’ becomes (Whole School SEND). I am not surprised that Women Ed and BAME are becoming aligned with SEND to lobby for change. Inclusion should include all.

I wonder whether schools think about where their pupils disappear to, or what becomes of them later? Out of sight is usually out of mind. I know that Natalie Scott wonders what happened to her little ‘Superman’ because she told us about him. We know what the damaged little child called Jazz (Ampaw-Farr) did next – and she told us how she cherishes a teacher’s actions (TedxNorwichEd). But what has happened to Superman and did that teacher ever know of his impact on Jazz’s life? Humans. Real compassionate humans.

The wheel is turning full circle on the rights of children to be educated alongside their peers, if you can call it full circle. Perhaps more of an arc, as we climbed towards the top, we’ve found ourselves sliding back down again. We never quite made it to the summit. I read, early on in the ‘old’ SND reforms, of London boroughs that moved their special schools lock, stock and barrel into mainstream schools. Special school teachers taught alongside their mainstream counterparts, their special school children learned alongside their mainstream counterparts. Special schools were closed. I don’t know how sustainable that became and it would be interesting to hear feedback from those who were there, back in the ‘80s. Now, in 2017, there is a rising clamour for special schools, from both teachers and parents alike. Children with ‘high incidence, low cost’ SEN (not my words) are being refused mainstream school places. And, like the linking of learning difficulty and mental distress, SEN has become linked to bad behaviour. Now, I would pretty much agree with the linking of the two, since the mere expression ‘SEN’ appears to result in the bad behaviour of too many school’s leadership teams. If a child cannot access a lesson, it will not do the work. Simple common sense. If you are going to exclude a child for ‘low level disruption’, can you please exclude yourself from CPD sessions? or conferences? I hear your chatter when the speaker is talking (and I do it too, sometimes). A child does not (usually) go to somewhere ‘much better’, in the same way as being sectioned and forcibly injected in your backside isn’t ‘better’. Nor is being restrained, face-down. In fact, it can kill.

Let’s have inclusion units where we can exclude all our SEN pupils, the reasoned arguments go. Only, they are not ‘just’ for SEN, they’re for all those with mental distress and those with bad behaviour too – I think we’ve already been there though already, haven’t we?

Two poems from the OU course K272 – Poppy Buchanan-Barker & Phil Barker drew parallels between Nazi Germany in the 1930s and life today (based on the words of Pastor Martin Niemoeller, victim of the Nazis)

20th Century Values

First they came for the Communists

And I didn’t speak up

Because I wasn’t a Communist.


Then they came for the Jews

And I didn’t speak up

Because I wasn’t a Jew.


Then they came for the trade unionists

And I didn’t speak up

Because I wasn’t a trade unionist.


Then they came for the Catholics

And I didn’t speak up

Because I was a Protestant.


Then they came for me –

And by that time

No one was left to speak up.



21st Century Values

First they came for the dispossessed

But we didn’t speak up

Because we thought that we weren’t dispossessed.


Then they came for the marginalised

But we didn’t speak up –

Because we thought that we weren’t marginalised.


Then they came for the dissidents

But we didn’t speak up

Because we thought that we weren’t dissidents.


Next they came for the asylum seekers

But we didn’t speak up –

Because we thought that we would never be asylum seekers.


Then they came for the mentally ill

And there was no one left to speak for anyone.



OU (2010) ‘Searching for understandings’ in K272 Challenging ideas in Mental Health Milton Keynes: The Open University


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