Bearing Disability

Bearing Disability: School— Mainstream vs Specialist

A graduation cap and a "fork post" with 3 options, mainstram school, specialist school or unknown. On the right hand side, it reads: Mainstream or Specialist Education—A guest post by Emma. Url:

Hi all. Please welcome Emma. Emma has her own blog on Rock for Disability. She is a blogger, interested in anything music, creative arts or disability-related and has agreed to write a guest post on her experience in both school systems: Mainstream and Specialist education.

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. I had been to the school for a year. Afterwards, the school suggested that a mainstream nursery would suit me better.

I was too academically clever for their level of learning.

I enrolled at Sunbeams Nursery, a nursery connected to my local infant school and meet other children who later became my classmates at infant school.

At age 4, I began at Lee on the Solent Infant School and I stayed there from 1998 until 2001. Dispite being the only physically disabled child at the school but they accommodated me brilliantly. Some of these adaptions include: a wooden seat, to sit on in class; a wooden standing frame—which was in the shape of a camel named Humphrey—and a large cubical toilet. 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 was the occational bullying. A pupil would make rude comments about my disability; saying things like I shouldn’t participate in sports day because our team would lose. Some kids would fiddle with my wheelchair in class. They would do things like turn the breaks on and put pins in my tyres to puncture them.

It was great.

My greatest memory from junior school was when kids loved the speed of my wheelchair in the playground; they referred to me as Michael Schumacher (former Formula 1 driver). At 9 years old, I dressed up as a sports star for Sports relief with the rest of my school.

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. I had Ferrari stickers and have a cardboard cut out of a F1 car on my wheelchair.

Emma at age 9 in her wheelchair, red overalls and Ferrari stickers.
Emma during Sports Relief
As secondary school approached, I had to find a secondary school.

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, another mainstream school. It included disabled facilities for disabled students around the Portsmouth areas. My first few visits went well and I loved meeting other people with physical disabilities. I was rather impressed. However, two weeks into the first term, I became ill with a suspected virus in my left eye.

I was rushed to hospital.

Later, the doctor referred me to St Thomas’ Hospital in London where I had a biopsy that diagnosed me with Acute Retinal Necrosis. I had already been 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. I was now registered blind.

When I returned to school, I felt lonely and isolated. Everyone had settled in and made friends while I received treatment. For the next three years, students and staff would treat me unfairly, bully me and ignore me.

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 became clear that this school was no longer suitable for me. I needed to find a better place to complete my education.

This is when I discovered Treloar’s School and College.

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. The hard work began. It took 6 months of sharing evidence and visiting schools for blind students to prove to the local authorities that only Treloar’s School suited my needs. They eventually funded me to attend and I began Treloar’s School in Upper Froyle, Hampshire on the 23rd June 2008. It is the best decision I have 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. A friend from this school initiated my passion for music and my love of attending live gigs and festivals. This friend invited me to my first concert at 15 years of age.

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, Treloar’s had to register under the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and a lot of rules and regulations changed how students receive their care. This made things difficult for me in my second and third year of college. 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.

I went to the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham to study Journalism.

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 forced me to bed at 10pm every night and the university campus clearly added disability access as an afterthought. To add to this, my student peers acted like I was invisible.

I chose this because I liked the course curriculum and it was in a convenient location near enough to my family. However, I couldn’t stay in accommodation at Farnham due to the lack of vacant and accessible rooms available. Therefore, I lived in Treloar’s independent accommodation, 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's graduation photo, books behind her
Emma graduating from UCAS, Farnham

Thank you, Emma, for this post.

Would you like to guest post on Little Sea Bear? If so, please don’t hesitate to contact me on here, through facebook or twitter. And don’t forget to check Emma’s blog out.

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30 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.

    • 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.

    • 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 🤓♿️

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