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A chance to turn the tide

It's time to askwhat's wrongwith the school rather than what's wrong with the child, argues Mel Ainscow.

The idea of inclusive education is gaining ground in many parts of the world. It was given impetus recently by the UNESCO World Congress on Special Needs Education, held in Salamanca, Spain. The congress set out to consider the future direction of the special needs field in the light of international efforts to ensure the rights of all children to receive basic education.

The congress examined how far special needs is part of this "Education for All" movement. Are we to aim for a unified system of schooling that is capable of responding to all children as individuals, or are we going to continue with the tradition of parallel systems whereby some children receive separate forms of special education?

In many countries The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action is being used to formulate strategies that will support movements towards inclusive schooling. For example, I have seen significant progress in this direction in countries as diverse as Australia and Ghana, Hungary and China. But progress in Britain is slight, apart from pockets of excellence in a few local authorities and schools. The proportion of children in our special schools remains static, while there is an explosion of children being excluded from schools. Meanwhile, some schools are returning to systems of ability grouping that were found to be largely ineffective years ago.

It is difficult to know why greater progress is not being made. Common sense would suggest that many factors are at work, not least the expectation that schools should act like post office sorting offices, selecting and preparing young people for specific roles in society.

But it may also be the case that the approaches we have been using have, unintentionally, undermined our efforts. As we have tried to integrate special needs children, we have tended to adopt practices derived from special schools. Many of these approaches are not feasible in primaries and secondaries.

I am thinking of individualised responses, based on assessments and systematic programmes of intervention, that are almost impossible to use in the context of mainstream schools. Where such approaches are recommended they tend to promote yet new forms of segregation, albeit within mainstream settings. Thus we see the proliferation of largely untrained, poorly paid classroom assistants, who work with some of the most vulnerable children and their individualised programmes. When such support is withdrawn, teachers feel they can no longer cope.

In essence, then, are the ideas of special education people, such as myself, up to the task of creating schools for all? At the very least, we must learn new ways of working. We must consider what forms of professional development will be required for those who are to take on a reconstructed special needs role.

Recently, a report was prepared for the Department for Education and Employment by a working group of the Special Educational Needs Training Consortium (SENTC), addressing the professional development of teachers. The report argues that a more planned and strategic approach is needed urgently. But its recommendations, particularly the competencies that are suggested, continue to argue for the use of approaches based on traditional special education practices.

So, what competencies are necessary among teachers who will take on leadership roles to develop inclusive schooling? What areas of understanding and skills are needed? It is important to recognise the implications of inclusion. Whereas integration was seen as preparing special needs children to fit into a school that remained largely unchanged, inclusive education assumes that all children have a right to attend their neighbourhood school. Therefore, the task becomes one of developing the school's work in response to pupil diversity. The agenda has to consider organisation, curriculum and classroom practice, support for learning and staff development.

This is a different agenda than that which has been included in the curriculum of most courses for special needs teachers. Rather than preparing them to work intensively with small groups of children, we must help them acquire skills so they can take a lead in the development of schools as "learning organisations". In this way a link is made between difficulties in learning and the improvement of schooling.

The time is ripe for such a change. The SENTC report has stimulated a debate on the future shape of teacher education. We should use this opportunity to explore new possibilities, learning from the successes and failures of previous experiences.

At the Centre for Educational Needs in the University of Manchester, we are attempting to make positive moves in this direction. In September 1997, a new masters degree programme will examine the relationship between special needs and development. It is designed to prepare experienced teachers to take on leadership roles in their school. The course will be asking what is wrong with the school rather than what's wrong with the child.

The course includes a module on school-based enquiry, focusing on processes for analysing and interpreting policy and practice. It will also address management and organisation, curriculum, pedagogy and pastoral care. It will provide participants with the skills and knowledge to co-ordinate a school review and development.

It will also emphasise the importance of collaboration between pupils, teachers and parents as a means of developing a school for all. We are building on evidence that schools which are effective in responding to diversity do so through an intensification of team work, including co-operative planning and, wherever possible, partnership teaching in the classroom. It is a simple idea but one that is difficult to implement.

The planning and teaching of the new modules will be undertaken by small teams of tutors, modelling the power of collaboration as a means of creating more inclusive learning environments. In this way, teachers will be demonstrating their belief in the principles being promoted.

The move to link special needs to development is a radical one and in some ways it appears to swim against the tide of current thinking in Britain. On the other hand, it is supported by evidence from other countries suggesting that measures schools take to cater for diversity can lead to more effective forms of education for all pupils.

Professor Mel Ainscow is head of the Centre for Educational Needs at the University of Manchester.

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