Mainstream vs Specialist Education

Hi all, this is a guest post written by Emma who has her own blog, Rock for Disability. A blogger who is interested in anything music, creative arts or disability-related.

Emma has kindly agreed to guest post on Little Sea Bear.

Today, she will be discussing her experience in both Mainstream vs Specialists Education.

Mainstream vs Specialists Education

By Emma

Growing up, I’ve experienced both mainstream and specialist schools and both had their positives and negatives.

I was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at 13 months old. At that stage, there was no way of knowing the severity of my disability. Therefore we did not know how capable I’d be to read, write and communicate. I first went to a pre-school called Heathfield School in Fareham at around 3 years old. This was a specialist school for children with learning difficulties and other complex needs. After about a year, the school suggested I was too academically clever for their level of learning and would be better at a mainstream nursery.

So I then went onto join Sunbeams nursery who were connected to my local infant school. I did meet other children who later became my classmates at infant school.

At age 4, I began at Lee on the Solent Infant School. I was there from 1998 – 2001. I was the only physically disabled child at the school but they accommodated me brilliantly. I had an adapted wooden seat to sit on in class, a wooden standing frame in the shape of a camel named Humphrey, a large cubical toilet in the pupils’ toilets, I was able to participate in all lessons and activities plus had friends. This continued when I started at Lee on the Solent Junior School in September 2001. At this time, I was using an electric wheelchair around the school. The other kids used to love it; thought my wheelchair was cool and wished they had one too. The only negative experiences I had at primary school were the occasional pupil would make rude comments about my disability such as I shouldn’t participate in sports day because our team would lose. Also, some kids would fiddle with my wheelchair in class and do things like turn the breaks on and put pins in my tyres to puncture them. My greatest memory from junior school was when kids loved the speed of my wheelchair in the playground and referred to me as Michael Schumacher (former Formula 1 driver). Then when I was 9 years old, we had to dress up as sports stars for Sports Relief. Due to my famous school nickname, I chose to dress up as a Formula 1 driver with red overalls, Ferrari stickers and have a cardboard cut out of a F1 car on my wheelchair.

Emma during Sports Relief

As secondary school approached, I was told I couldn’t attend the same school as my primary school peers because it was not accessible for disabled students. Instead, I attended Portchester Community School which was also mainstream but included disabled facilities for disabled students around the Portsmouth areas. On my first few visits to this school, I was rather impressed with the place and loved meeting other people with physical disabilities. However, two weeks into my first term, I was rushed to hospital with a suspected virus in my left eye. I was later referred to St Thomas’ Hospital in London where I had a biopsy that diagnosed me with Acute Retinal Necrosis. I was already diagnosed with this condition in my right eye at age 8 but they were too late to save any of my vision. This time they caught it early enough and I had approximately 30% vision remaining in my left eye. I remained in the hospital for an additional ten days before returning to school. When I returned to school, everyone had settled in and made friends while I was lonely, isolated and now registered blind. For the next three years, I was ignored, bullied and treated unfairly by both students and staff. With my poor vision, I felt more dependent on people and required more equipment and adaptations to complete my studies. However, the support was just not available.

In 2008, it was decided this school was no longer suitable for me and needed to find a better place to complete my education. This is when I discovered Treloar’s. Treloar’s School and College is a registered charity that enables education to children and young people with physical, sensory and learning impairments. In order for me to be accepted at this school, I needed to prove to the local authority that my current school is no longer suitable and no other local school would be suitable for my needs. After 6 months of sharing evidence and visiting a school for blind students to prove I’m only suitable at Treloar’s, the local authorities funded me to attend.

On 23rd June 2008, I began at Treloar’s School in Upper Froyle, Hampshire and it was the best decision I ever made. I made lots of friends, some of whom I’m still close to a decade on, I have accommodated excellently both academically and with my personal care in the boarding houses and managed to complete my GCSE’s. They gave me confidence in becoming independent and going on to complete A-Levels, my degree and going into full-time employment. My love of music and attending live gigs and festivals was inspired by a friend from this school who invited me to my first concert aged 15. I have so many memories from this school I will treasure forever.

In 2010, I moved to the Treloar College campus in Holybourne, Hampshire. Here I lived on campus, using their care, physio and medical services but did my A-Level studies at Alton College, the local mainstream college. Treloar’s provided us with transport, class adaptations and support staff. So I felt I had the best of both worlds; facilities provided by Treloar’s but studying in a mainstream environment. Unfortunately, things did become difficult in my second and third year of college when Treloar’s had to be registered under the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and a lot of rules and regulations were put in place as to how students receive their care. We lost the family-like feel to our boarding houses and felt like a care home or institution set up.

After three years of college, I went on to university. However, my uni lifestyle wasn’t the traditional student halls, freshers parties, student union societies and numerous lectures. My life at uni consisted of a one bedroom bungalow on Treloar’s campus, domiciliary care that sent me to bed at 10pm every night, a university campus that clearly added disability access after it was built and student peers who acted like I was invisible. I went to the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham to study Journalism.

I chose this because I liked the course curriculum and it was in a convenient location near enough to my family. However, they were unable to provide me with accessible accommodation because it was already occupied by other disabled students. Therefore, I lived in Treloar’s independent accommodation because it was only 10 miles away from uni. However, I couldn’t have live in care because I only had one bedroom. So I relied on a domiciliary care agency who could only care for me certain times of the day, meaning I had no social life because I could only leave the house for lectures. If I could go back in time, I wish I hadn’t gone to university and gone down the apprenticeship route and potentially be in employment now. On the plus side, I graduated with a second class upper division degree.

Emma graduating from UCAS, Farnham

Overall, my academic life has been a rollercoaster. My time at primary school and at Treloar’s school will always be my highlights. I do believe more needs to be done to fully include all disabled people in education. As much as I loved being at Treloar’s, I do feel we were isolated from the rest of society. We should be given all the right facilities in mainstream schools the same as we get at specialist schools.

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to check Emma’s blog

Would you like to guest post on Little Sea Bear? Please feel free to contact me here, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Come back on Tuesday to read my thoughts on The Game of Thrones first book in the series, A Song of Fire and Ice. 



23 replies

  1. Interesting reading as I’m trying to get my child in Treloars following a mainstream primary placement. Treloars is getting so much right but I do fear for the social isolation. Mainstream secondaries are just too tricky though I feel.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, thank you for commenting.

      Like Emma, I’ve experienced mainstream education. In my experience, I was kept inside during break and lunchtime for my safety as I kept being pushed over – on purpose. This resulted in me having more friends who were teachers than kids. This lead to more bullying.

      Having said that, I liked my mainstream school at the time, (a lot has happened that has changed my view on things) and I think it’s made me more likely to question authority or people who seem to discriminate. I’m not sure if I’d have had that spirit in a specialist school.

      I think both mainstream and specialist schools have advantages and disadvantages. I know people who loved their specialist school and people who hated their specialist school, who felt their teachers didn’t believe in them.

      I hope whatever you decide helps your child.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jo, when I was at the school I had lots of friends but couldn’t leave campus very often. At the college we had independent skills and many students could access the town, buses and trains independently. Plus if you prefer A levels there is the option of attending the local mainstream college but with Treloar support.

      Since I left, the school and college has merged into one site so the set up may be different. If you need further info or advice, feel free to message me on 🤓♿️

      Liked by 1 person

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