Can we make inclusion work?

Joan Mowat

As the Additional Support for Learning Act came into force this week, Joan Mowat asks what we mean by inclusion

The seemingly innocent and straightforward question of what we mean by inclusion masks a highly complex and emotive issue, which opens up a Pandora's box of dilemmas, contradictions and controversies. At the heart of the question and much of the controversy is the concept of the presumption of mainstreaming, which arose from the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000.

Evidence from various studies points to the fact that, in principle, Scottish teachers support the concept of inclusion. Teachers, in general, no longer question the principle that pupils with additional support needs should be able to access their local school. With financial support from the Government, local authorities have done much to facilitate this process.

The central issue relates to what we mean by inclusion. Does it simply mean children of diverse needs being educated together within the same building and within the same classrooms or does it have a much deeper meaning?

We have all experienced that feeling of being present in a gathering and feeling isolated and alone, even when surrounded by friends and colleagues.

This should indicate to us that inclusion is not solely related to location, or even being among other people, but a sense of being included and affirmed - to be made to feel that we matter as individuals and are valued by others. We should therefore be asking:

* Am I creating the conditions under which the individual child can thrive?

* Can the child access a meaningful curriculum within the school and classroom setting, or is it inclusion in name only?

* Can the child cope with the social aspects of school life, such as "the torrent of noise and activity" described recently by Baroness Warnock in referring to children with Asperger's syndrome?

The common theme in each of the above questions is that they all emanate from the needs of the individual child - not from a political ideology of inclusion for all and no matter what the cost to the individual or the school community at large.

This raises the issue of the extent to which parents, children and educational psychological services play a part in the decision-making process. Whose judgment prevails? The removal of bureaucracy associated with the record of needs is to be welcomed, but it is inevitable that these conflicts will remain.

Fortunately, the evidence is that a presumption of mainstreaming is of value to many pupils with additional support needs, to their families and to the wider school community - if the right conditions are in place. These conditions relate as much to the ethos and values of the school community at large as to more practical considerations such as staff training and the provision of resources. It is as much about will as it is about resources.

This leads us to the concept of the inclusive school. Professor Pamela Munn of Edinburgh University has drawn attention to the importance of this factor when noting the difference in exclusion rates among schools serving similar catchment areas. Schools, in general, have become much more aware of the importance of an inclusive ethos and are undertaking reviews of their discipline systems to promote positive behaviour. However, one of the concerns I have is that some of the practices are intended to promote inclusion can, in practice, have the opposite effect on some groups of children - mainly those from disadvantaged home backgrounds.

We all accept that for learning to be effective, instruction needs to be differentiated. Yet many teachers hold the view that their expectations of all children's behaviour should be the same. Schemes are set up whereby pupils who attain certain outcomes are rewarded by outings, vouchers and other incentives. My principal concern relates to the fact that some children will never pass the post: they will never go to the disco or, in some cases even participate, in events of an educational nature.

Imagine a race where some children get a head start; others from homes where parents have made time for their children and engaged in activities such as reading with them are at the starting line; and a group of children running a three-legged race lag behind and fail to finish. This last group are the children who become disaffected, who develop emotional and behavioural difficulties and who become alienated not only from the school community but from society at large, posing a real danger to the community.

We need to think much more deeply about our practices.

It is the last of these three groups for whom the greatest concerns about social inclusion pertain. A probationer teacher recently described a child crawling round the room, disrupting the learning of all of the other children - a phenomenon that will be familiar to all teachers. In such circumstances, whose interests does it serve to promote an ideology of inclusion? Even with the presence of an auxiliary and additional support, a small number of children cannot cope with the pressures of a mainstream classroom.

Initiatives such as Glasgow's nurture groups are greatly to be welcomed, as are the many early intervention strategies applied across Scottish schools.

Addressing the nature of the curriculum, widening access to vocational education, enhancing links with further education and drawing on the expertise of many charities are all means by which education authorities and schools try to address the needs of their pupils.

However, authorities face a major dilemma. If resources are to be directed more towards mainstream schools, where does the funding come from to maintain a range of provision, including special schools, to meet the needs of all pupils with additional support needs (if we accept that a mainstream school is not necessarily the ideal provision for each and every child)?

The report from Audit Scotland that made recommendations for allocation of resources put forward different models which education authorities can adopt. But the underlying assumption is that the reduction of services within the special school sector (some of which is of a high quality) will fund developing mainstream provision. Unless this matter is addressed urgently by the Government, there is a danger that the new legislation, with all of its good intentions, will fail.

Joan Mowat is a lecturer at Strathclyde University and was a national development officer for the Better Behaviour, Better Learning initiative.

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Joan Mowat

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