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Include flexibility to meet special needs

Klaus Wedell is emeritus professor at London university's Institute of Education.

There have been several claims over recent months that mainstream schools are not effective in meeting the inclusion agenda for pupils with special educational needs. These claims have been led by Baroness Warnock and surfaced again last week with the special needs edition of the Good Schools Guide.

There have also been reports about schools that have achieved great flexibility in responding to the diversity of pupils' needs. And how are they achieving this? By taking the initiative in breaking free from the rigidities imposed by the current system. These rigidities, which affect everything from timetabling to grouping of pupils, are often driven by fears about competition and inspection.

Crucially, schools achieving flexibility start from a recognition of pupils' diversity, so special needs are just an inherent part of this spectrum. These schools also place emphasis on valuing individuals and do not regard special needs as an "add-on".

Many recent initiatives reflect the flexible orientations of these schools.

The Every Child Matters agenda has set out its five outcomes, which should also apply to broadening the aims of the curriculum. Its focus on integrated services promotes the view that schools should see themselves as one among several services committed to meeting pupils' needs. 20-20 Vision, the report of the teaching and learning review group, published in January and led by the chief inspector Christine Gilbert, sets out the implications of the Government's personalised learning agenda and points to the scope for flexibility offered by ICT. Also, the recent Commons select committee report on special needs reveals the dangerous conflict between the Government's standards agenda and the realisation of personalised learning.

What is clear from all these policy developments is that the rigidities of the system must be overcome. But should this be through "patching up" its deficiencies or by recognising that in the 21st century it is time to develop a system that is not handicapped in this way? Criticism of the system's inadequacies in preparing children for life are now well-known, but they apply as much to special needs as to social and other individual needs.

By definition, successfully meeting the more severe special needs demands a high level of responsiveness. But working towards a system that starts from fully recognising the diversity of individuals' needs will also lead to values and approaches that begin to make this possible and move us beyond having to talk about "inclusion".

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