Finch (1984) has argued that education systems have increasingly provided explanations for social and economic inequalities in terms which account for and legitimize that inequality. The education system may fulfil the function of providing a vehicle for advancement within a meritocracy, yet it also serves as a tool for defusing political dissent by promoting the notion that the privileged deserve to be there. When, during times of economic recession, the opportunities for social mobility through education decrease, schools are likely to come under increasing pressure. On the one hand, the contraction of opportunities fuels the competition between schools for the role of gatekeeper to this scarce commodity. On the other hand, the ability of schools to defuse dissent is threatened by economic decline and/or restructuring. The presence of increasing numbers of children in school who perceive education as a poor investment and who see no benefits to be gained from conforming to the values the system promotes may make the socializing role of the school towards all its children more difficult.
The humanitarian concerns which led (following the Warnock Report and the 1981 Education Act) to the needs of up to 20 per cent of the school population being recognized as ‘special’ may actually be, as Tomlinson (1985:157) argues, ‘an ideological rationalisation which obfuscates the educational, political and economic needs actually served by the expansion.’ Thus, the concept of special education itself inhibits any genuine discussion of the needs and interests actually being served by the expansion of special education. Those who adopt a humanitarian perspective on special needs ‘still have to explain why a whole sub-section of special education has developed and expanded, which is backed by legal enforcement and caters largely for the children of the manual working class’ (Tomlinson 1985:164).
The conceptualization of educational failure, disturbing behaviour and