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Why the Crystal Peaks College turnaround is a bittersweet victory for disabled children's education

Children and young people with additional needs often end up in segregated education. Sheffield Voices self-advocacy group tell us about their experiences of school. 

A brick building behind a road with roadworks.

Peaks College


A few days ago, we got the news that Crystal Peaks College would be opened up again in September 2024 as a college for students with additional needs. Sheffield Voices were thrilled with this news, not least because I, as project manager, had campaigned against the closure of this building alongside Clive Betts MP, because there is such a lack of quality education facilities for young people with additional needs.

We talked about this and the issues of segregated educational facilities in our self-advocacy meeting. Crystal Peaks College will be one of these.

We talked about whether we thought segregated education was a good thing or a bad thing and whether there are better ways forward.

When we talk about segregation, we are talking about any facility that is separated from mainstream society, whether that be a school, a college, a day service or supported living.

What we mean by mainstream society is that people enjoy the freedom of movement in their community, they have jobs, a home, money and can do what they choose, whenever they choose to do it.

All our self-advocates, for one reason or another, started their education in mainstream schools and ended it in additional needs schools. I use the term additional needs because the group feels that the term ‘special’ is a terrible way to describe people who need a bit of additional help. They feel that they are no more ‘special’ than their non-disabled peers.

We heard heartbreaking stories of people's experiences in both segregated and mainstream settings and talked about what commitment from the Government would be needed to ensure the safety of children and young people if we ever did manage full inclusion.

A Deaf Black man wearing glasses looks neutrally at the camera while holding a hand lettered sign declaring “NOTHING about us without US”.

Nothing about us without us

Disabled And Here

What was both interesting and upsetting was the horrors and abuse some of the group said had happened in these additional needs schools, the very places we would think exist to offer extra care.

Natalie told us of her experiences of a Community Special School that closed in 1997. She talked about never having friends and being beaten by both pupils and teachers.

The harrowing stories continued with headteachers smacking children and being stabbed with a pencil by another pupil.

Bullying was a painful memory that Jake also has from the 80s. He described how young people who had serious behavioural problems were wrongly placed in these schools that were primarily for additional needs children. It was those children who were his worst bullies.

Terry experienced both sides of segregation and inclusion. In his early years, he describes having a board rubber thrown at him because he didn’t understand the science class. His mum demanded he went to a better school and Terry went to an additional needs boarding school.

One of the common themes that ran through everyone's experiences was the very low expectations and aspirations institutions had of all our self-advocates. No one sat exams, no one got jobs and apart from a quick meeting with the Resettlement officer in the DWP, they were mostly written off, forgotten about.

Jess believes that ‘whether or not you have a disability, you should all be in the same school’. Some of the group felt that this would be too difficult for children with additional needs and that they would be educationally ‘left behind’. Some felt that they would be bullied and at risk from gangs and would not be protected.

Jess went on to tell us that she had good friends in her mainstream school, who looked out for her and treated her like everyone else. This was very important to her. But even Jess started to get bullied and felt like she was struggling to keep up. The decision was made for her to leave and start the new term in an additional needs school.

Similarly, Samuel went to a mainstream school and was dragged into class, aged 13, by a teacher who then made fun of him.

Sara felt that full inclusion isn't a good idea because of bullying, and she gave a very upsetting and graphic account of her own experiences of being being bullied as a little girl because her dad had cut her hair to keep it neat.

She recalls bullies calling her a ‘tramp’ and teachers not dealing with it.

A young girl in a pale t-shirt

A young girl in a pale t-shirt

Nicola Barts

Terry equally felt full inclusion would be too disruptive and having children and young people with very high needs in the same space as non-disabled children would be too hard for everyone to learn at the same pace.

I thought about my own schooling in the 1970s and how I had not been exposed to disabled children and how shocking it was to find out that they had all been hanging out in a completely different place to me.

As an adult, I can now see that I had missed the party as I feel far more comfortable surrounded by amazing people like Sheffield Voices’ Self Advocates than I ever did as a child with non-disabled peers.

I was hoping that things had changed but then our medical student, Nicolas, told us that he had never met a disabled person before coming on this placement and that there were none in his school.

This is the shocking reality of segregation. People becoming professionals or even just adults with zero exposure to amazing people who just need a little bit more help than them, giving them no real-life experience of anything other than their own peer group. How can that be ok?

I did speak at two Sheffield partnership boards about this college shutting down and about the terrible way in which the college had handled the communication of that to students and families earlier this year. I did plead with them to consider opening this up as an additional needs college, not because I agree with this type of segregation, but because what we currently have is so dreadful that any form of education for young people with additional needs would be better than the building be privately bought and turned into flats.

So it’s a bittersweet victory. Despite this, it will never ever take away the awful, distressing, inhumane experiences that many people with a learning disability, autistic and disabled people have endured during their early years. The level of trauma that they have endured can never be taken away.

Every child matters, not just non-disabled children! Let's continue to fight for more for all our young people.

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