It is of ongoing concern that disability continues to be connected with disadvantage and that
children with disability are less likely to experience an optimal school life than those without. It is
widely believed that an inclusive approach will address inequities in the schooling system, and
many governments have adopted this philosophy through the development of inclusive education
policies. In spite of these policies, the good school life that inclusive education promises has
remained elusive to many students, particularly those with intellectual disability. Traditional
practices such as segregation persist, and students with intellectual disability continue to experience
educational exclusion in many forms; one example is the continued provision of separate special
schools, unexpected given the widespread nature of inclusive education reform. The existence of
segregated school settings within inclusive education systems has been explained in a number of
ways. One explanation is that parents are divided in their school preferences when their children
have a disability. A policy of choice is necessary, it has been argued, in order to provide parents
with the options of both regular and special school enrolment.
The literature is clear that parents are accorded significant authority regarding school
enrolment for their children and that parental choice has been a driving force in both the
preservation of the special school system and inclusive education reform. It is unlikely, however,
that a parent’s decision regarding school enrolment is merely a simple preference for a regular or
special school. Research indicates that parental decision-making in this regard is influenced by a
number of factors other than individual preference, for example, professional opinion. Using
parental choice as a justification for maintaining a segregated schooling system is a questionable
argument without a deeper understanding of the decision-making process in which parents engage.
The decision to transfer from a regular to a special school is a particularly potent illustration of the
complex and ongoing nature of decision-making when children have an intellectual disability and
offers scope for exploring the parental decision-making process.
This thesis used a sequential, multi-phase, mixed-methods research design to investigate the
parental decision to transfer a child from a regular to a special school. The aims of the study were to
firstly explore parental perceptions of what constitutes an optimal school life and whether this is
different when a child has an intellectual disability; and secondly to investigate the specific
circumstances surrounding a parent’s decision to leave regular schooling. Three phases of data
collection were undertaken: Focus group interviews were used to explore the views of 30 parents
(of children with and without disability) regarding the features of an optimal school life, and the
decision-making process regarding school enrolment; narrative research was then undertaken with
one parent who had decided to transfer a child from a regular to a special school; and finally, survey
methodology was used to more widely investigate parental decisions to transfer to special school.
The theoretical underpinning of this investigation was Social Role Valorization (Wolfensberger,
1998) which focuses on the pivotal link between perceptions, social roles and access to the good
things of life.
My own experiences as a mother navigating her way through school choice for a child with
intellectual disability have been woven through this thesis. This narrative thread serves both to
make clear the personal stance which has inevitably influenced the research process, and to provide
a unifying voice through the various stages of the investigation. Findings from each stage have been
brought together in the final chapter of the thesis and considered in light of the overarching research
question, that is, understanding parents’ decision to transfer their children to a special school. The
conclusion is reached that parents connected an optimal school life with growth, connection,
personhood, and wellbeing, and that these elements were not as readily available when a child had
an intellectual disability. Parents’ hopes for what they saw as an optimal school life sometimes led
them to transfer to a special school. So too, did the experiences of families in the regular school.
Many parents indicated that disillusionment with their children’s mainstream enrolment was a
critical reason for leaving regular schooling. Children’s learning was an especially crucial factor in
decision-making; barriers to learning (e.g., inadequate specialist support, work that was too hard)
were influential in the decision to transfer, and were closely linked to wellbeing and to school
culture. Many parents indicated that they and their children were stressed in the regular school, and
that children were excluded, unwelcome, unhappy, had no friends, and were not feeling successful.
Additionally, overall results confirmed that the parental decision-making process was more
complex when children had an intellectual disability, and was made even more complicated by the
power imbalance in the parent/educator relationship. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents
indicated that someone in authority had told them it was best to leave the regular school, and both
overt and subtle pressure from educators regarding school enrolment decisions were themes in the
narrative and focus group findings. It was clear that parents were keen to take responsibility for
their enrolment decision, but could be undermined in the decision-making process by professional
opinion. Finally, a Social Role Valorization framework was used in the closing discussion to
explore the findings more deeply. The use of this framework provided important insights into the
impact of a child’s intellectual disability on parental decision-making, illuminating the unconscious
devaluation and wounding that still occur despite inclusive reform, and the connection between
devaluation, wounding, parents’ mindsets, parental hopes for their children, and decisions to
transfer to a special school setting.