Inclusion is good for everyone, and schools that include a more diverse range of children do best by all their pupils. These are the messages that an inclusion project run by East Sussex LEA aims to deliver to governors and schools.
"There is a huge amount of evidence for this," says Julie Parker, the project's co-ordinator. "There are plenty of individual case studies of children and schools. Then you only have to look at authorities like the London borough of Newham, or Barking and Dagenham, where they've gone for full inclusion and results have gone up."
There is also evidence from authorities which have comparable school and pupil numbers and socio-economic profiles, such as East Sussex, Bedfordshire, Dorset and Devon. Figures show that where there are more pupils in separate special schools, the all-round levels of academic achievement are lower. For example, Worcestershire has 1.6 per cent of secondary pupils in special schools, and 88.7 per cent of all its GCSE-aged pupils achieve five GCSEs at A*-G; in Leicestershire, on the other hand, where fewer than 0.5 per cent of pupils are in special schools, the percentage of all pupils who achieve five GCSEs A*-G is 91.5 per cent.
The three-year project, with pound;191,500 funding a year from the Standards Fund, is working to increase the percentage of pupils in mainstream schools, enhance the quality of inclusion, forge links between schools, and increase staff skills and confidence across East Sussex.
"The number of permanent exclusions in the county has dropped by 50 per cent," says Julie Parker, "and the project has definitely contributed to that. Last year for the first time there were more children with Down's syndrome in mainstream than special schools. Teachers are more confident as a result of training, and more people understand the difference between inclusion and integration, and that inclusion is not a question of dumping a child in the corner of the classroom and have them do different work from the rest of the class."
Many East Sussex heads and teachers see benefits in a strengthened inclusion policy, provided it is done with proper support and resources.
"You have to change both attitudes and practice for inclusion to work, and it's a very gradual process," says Sarah Fury, the head of Saxon Mount Special School, St Leonards. "But excellent improvements have been made in the links between special and mainstream schools. The next move must be not simply inclusion for pupils, but us working more closely with mainstream colleagues, and sharing expertise."
Mike Spooner, head of Stone Cross Primary School on the outskirts of Eastbourne, has been involved with pupils from special schools for years. He has often seen the "amazing" academic progress that pupils can make in a mainstream classroom. "We had one lad who was autistic, and who came here as the most difficult four-year-old you could imagine, and he left us with a couple of level 4s in English and maths." Even so he worries whether schools can cope with the increasingly aggressive behaviour problems they find coming through their doors, without improved support.
The project is helping schools share expertise in this area, and also showing how widely practice can vary. For example, last year, of two nearby secondary schools with similar intakes, one lost 343 days in fixed-term exclusions, while the other, twice its size, lost only 24.
"You have to see children with behaviour problems as being disabled by their life experiences," says Helen Kenward, the deputy head of Filsham Valley School, St Leonards. "You don't just say 'you've got to behave': you have to teach them how to do that."
Filsham Valley, which has 55 children with severe impairments and many more with SEN statements, has become something of a model for inclusion. "A lot of teachers feel daunted when these pupils first come," she says. "But then they see they are just ordinary children. And there's no doubt about the social impact. The majority of our pupils are comfortable with the fact that people are different."
The challenge now for East Sussex is to encourage all schools to adopt a similar policy to avoid a clustering of special needs pupils in just a handful of sympathetic mainstream schools. That's a challenge which will soon spread across the country when, under the Special Education Needs and Disability Bill which becomes law next September, the rights of pupils with special needs to attend a mainstream school will be strengthened.