EVEN the most inclusive mainstream schools sometimes have to say no to children with special educational needs, Margery Browning, lead inspector for SEN, said in an address on inclusion and equality in Catholic schools.
But heads said they harbour serious doubts about the practicalities. Frank Corrigan, Lourdes Secondary, Glasgow, said that he had had to employ 14 teachers as scribes in the recent Standard grade English exam. Other pupils were deprived of their normal classes, underlining that inclusion carries unforeseen costs.
Mike Doig, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, sympathised with teachers who warned in last week's survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland that they did not have the support they needed.
"I do have a concern that staff do not have all the opportunities they should for professional development," Mr Doig said.
Mrs Browning, said: "You do need appropriate cover. If you have got a youngster that is likely to blow, you cannot leave the teacher without some sort of support and some mechanism for summoning help."
She accepted that some pupils with particular difficulties may never be able to integrate into mainstream classes but said that their needs should be met by inter-agency working.
Heads had to face the realities of inclusion, such as establishing routines if there was a fire on the third floor. "You have to be brutally honest with your staff. If they are told to leave children in a safe area for the sake of other children, you have to do it. But, of course, you discuss that with their parents," Mrs Browning, who developed polio as a young teenager, said.
She was "disappointed" by some of the newly refurbished secondaries which retained steps at their entrance, making access difficult for disabled people such as herself. Access legislation had not filtered through to developers.
Mrs Browning further appealed to teachers not to prejudge pupils' abilities simply because of their disabilities. She knew of one student with Asperger's syndrome who achieved seven Credit 1s at Standard grade while a class of hearing-impaired pupils had impressed her with their level of German.
"Make no assumptions about pupils with hearing impairments who can achieve highly in modern languages, because if they are learning English and BSL (British Sign Language), these are two separate languages. Very often if they can do it in written form, they can take it forward."
Inclusion was about staff and their attitudes, expertise and experience. A whole-school approach was essential and it was no use if the dinner ladies spoke of "those kids from the unit". Leadership was crucial.