The instant I saw that Mrs Renner and Mrs Turner were nearing retirement age, I knew the matter in hand was going to be tricky. Not all stereotypes are necessarily wrong: I wouldn't get on a bus full of boozed-up skinheads with swastika tattoos. Some stereotypes are too risky to be coming over all liberal.
The matter in hand was a seven-year-old pupil called Leo. It was time for a review of his Statement of Special Educational Needs. His school wasn't one of mine but I was filling-in after the retirement of its usual educational psychologist (EP). According to his file, Leo had a marked cerebral palsy: very uncertain on the legs, flailing arms, great difficulty with fine motor control, game but often incomprehensible attempts at speech. He had no medical needs apart from piedro boots and some splinting monitored by a physiotherapist. There was speech therapy oversight but no direct involvement. The Education Authority's own specialist services had supplied a range of equipment to support him in school. I noted too that his educational attainments were commensurate with his age – no mean feat considering the obstacles he faced.
Leo was clearly thriving. It seemed, too, that the support he was getting was a textbook example of good practice, not least because it was about delivering services to him rather than delivering him to services.
But there was something else on the file. Leo had been placed in the school on the assumption that he would not be able to survive mainstream schooling beyond the infant stages. After that, it would all be too much for him. Even if it didn't overwhelm him, the highly intrusive level of support required would absorb so much classroom time and effort that the quality of his classmates' education would be diminished.
Such an assumption was not an uncommon device when the notion of integrating more physically disabled children into mainstream education was beginning to take root. It was sometimes used as a way of coaxing uncertain and fearful schools into taking children by offering them a safety net. It was also sometimes a way of warning parents not to get their hopes up. Unfortunately, however, it was also inclined sometimes to acquire the status of a fact with an existence independent of any evidence to the contrary.
I had arranged to visit the school that morning in order to familiarise myself with the matter before holding the review with Leo's teachers and his parents in the afternoon. And now, here I was, introducing myself to Mrs Turner, Leo's class teacher, and Mrs Renner, the school's special educational needs coordinator. Even as we shook hands, their frostiness confirmed my stereotype of them.
They came from age when physically disabled children went to special schools, and that was that. They would be of the view that Leo should never have been placed in a mainstream school in the first place. I, on the other hand, was a younger and altogether more modern person who would consequently be trying to ensure that Leo stayed where he was. Accordingly, battle lines would have been drawn and attacks planned long before I set foot in the school.
I'd heard it all before. They would no doubt begin their attack with how it was all a ridiculous piece of nonsense. Then they would assail me with stuff about the messianic pursuit of integration at any cost, the blanket application of a principle regardless of a child's best interests. There would also be some stuff about Leo increasingly being taunted and mocked by other children as he moved up the year groups beyond the infants. Things in that direction might be alright at present, they would say, but that was only because his little classmates were as yet too egocentric to be bothered with giving someone else a hard time. At least if Leo were in a special school his difference wouldn't constantly be shoved in his face. And so the haranguing would go on.
Sure enough, no sooner had we sat around the table than Mrs Renner and Mrs Turner set about me, beginning with the stuff about how the whole thing was a ridiculous piece of nonsense. But then they spent the next 10 minutes lecturing me about why Leo had to stay where he was. It would be a crime to take him away from his pals in the school and from the common experience they shared in the streets where they all lived. And, they demanded to know, what was it about segregating Leo along with other special needs children that was supposed to be good for him? Had I weighed up the balance between needs met and needs created if Leo were to move to a special school? And so it went on. It was like getting a doing from the skinheads on the bus, if not quite the expected doing.
Somewhat disorientated, it was a moment or two before it dawned on me that Mrs Renner and Mrs Turner were operating on the basis of a stereotype of their own. That seemingly went along the lines that EPs were agents of the Education Authority for whom it was cheaper and more convenient to have children in special education (it isn't, by the way). While their stereotype may have been wrong in general, it wasn't in those days necessarily wrong in particular.
Parents duly came along that afternoon, clearly distressed and expecting the worst, no doubt having been primed by the two teachers. Mrs Turner got straight to the point: everything was fine and Leo would be staying where he was. After addressing a few technicalities, during which Leo's stunned parents began to sob, Mrs Renner proposed that there was nothing more to be said unless they wanted to raise anything. They didn't. Or rather, they couldn't, at least not right then. It was the shortest meeting I'd ever had. But that was no bad thing. Children in Leo's position don't get much privacy: people talk about them too often and for too long.
Thanks in no small measure to Mrs Renner and Mrs Turner, Leo completed his primary and secondary education in the normal way. He became the first in his family ever to go to university – a prestigious one at that – where he got a good degree in a mainstream subject.
Leo came to mind the other day when someone told me of a story he had heard about a young woman with cerebral palsy who had gone to a pub one evening hoping to get a click. She soon met someone and they got on so well that she felt the need to tell him about her condition, even though it was obvious. 'I should tell you I've got brain damage,' she said. The man laughed: 'No you don't!' he said. 'You're just you!' It was a neat illustration of what mainstreaming in education is about.