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Giving everyone a voice

Children with special needs can feel vulnerable in mainstream schools. Elaine Williams reports on a project that addresses all pupils' anxieties

Everybody else in the class was given a pen except me. I felt left out. I felt like running away." A girl with special needs is talking about her experiences in a mainstream school. A boy tells his own story of life in the mainstream playground: "People called me mongy and all that stuff. They don't think of the person, they just think of the special need."

These pupils are speaking out in the hard-hitting video Go On Then Make Inclusion Work, produced in a collaborative venture in York between the Institute for Citizenship, the NSPCC, the Children's Society, Connexions and the City of York council.

In every local authority, special schools are closing down in the move to inclusion into the mainstream. Inclusion is viewed as a positive development by policy makers, a means of widening opportunities for everybody. But what are the thoughts of young people on the ground? The video, which is accompanied by a pack with worksheets and background information about inclusion, has been issued to every school in York for use in citizenship and PSHE lessons.

The project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust as part of its Democracy for Citizenship scheme, was developed in the light of York's reorganisation of special needs provision, which will see the amalgamation of the city's four special schools this year. Its purpose is to let young people speak out about how they see inclusion and how they think it might work. Sixty special needs and mainstream pupils from four York schools worked alongside each other over several months, in workshops held by two York schools drama specialists, to give frank insights into the issues facing schools.

"If I have special needs will people listen to me?" asks one child in the video. "If I sit next to someone with special needs will people listen to me?" asks another. Special needs students say people should look at what they can do rather than what they can't do. Mainstream students talk about their anxieties as to how to cope with special needs pupils, frightened that they might "stare too long" or "look away too soon".

Bev Veasey, head of drama at Huntington School in York, who ran some of the workshops, said: "We are not saying that inclusion is bad or good. Young people are saying 'these are the things we need to discuss'. Labelling is a big issue, the use of negative language in the playground towards special needs children. "I recently used this pack to discuss use of the word 'gay'

with a group of students, to unpick what labelling words really mean, looking at them from all angles. I'm also planning to get a group of Year 11 students to direct a performance with Year 7 using some the issues raised by the inclusion pack. I think inclusion deserves a higher profile and the pack should spur schools on to face it more openly.

"One very intelligent girl who attended my workshops had to use a speech box to be able to speak. When the special needs students were talking about how they were made to feel she just shouted out 'thick'. But this openness was very positive. Students felt this frank exchange enabled them to move forward together."

Project director Bernie Flanagan, manager of the Institute for Citizenship in York, said: "It's young people who have to live out our policies in schools and make them work on the ground, and we decided to develop a project which would allow their views on inclusion to be heard."

He said the video and pack are designed as a practical citizenship exercise: "School is where young people can have the most influence, the place where they can affect their immediate environment. Using the citizenship curriculum they can learn to tackle inclusion issues through, say, school and class councils, playing their part in shaping the school's philosophy."

He also said the Institute for Citizenship was holding discussions with other local education authorities interested in using the video and pack as part of their inclusion strategic planning. One of the requirements of the SEN green paper Excellence for All (1997) had been for planning authorities to take on board young people's views. Make Inclusion Work was a project that had taken that requirement to heart: "Inclusion is happening in good faith but we have to listen to young people's fears, we have to have discussion; this is the way to making it work."

For further information about video and accompanying pack contact the Institute for Citizenship. Email: Tel: 01904 654557


Worksheets in the pack that accompanies the video include:

* A lesson on labelling

Background material includes quotes from young people who appear on the video, talking about the way they have been labelled. It explains how labelling can be useful and important as well as damaging, inaccurate and hurtful.

Pupils are divided into five groups and given a list of labels such as "wheelchair-bound"; "spastic"; "mute" and asked to decide whether the terms are positive, neutral or negative.

The groups then come back together to discuss their decisions. They are then given two further hand-outs explaining why some labels are positive and others negative.

* A lesson on the experiences and feelings of pupils with special needs Pupils are divided into groups of five or six and given one of four case studies - pieces of writing about themselves by young people who are currently in special school.

Each group has to choose someone to write on a flipchart and another to present their case to the class. They are then required to outline the problems faced by the young person in the case study; how these problems make them feel; what can be done to help; who can help.

The groups are drawn back together after 10 minutes to discuss their findings and feedback.

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