Educating special needs children in mainstream schools does not necessarily lead to a decline in standards, according to research. A review of academic studies on the impact of inclusion found that, in most cases, pupils who have no special needs suffer no adverse effects from studying in the same classes with children who have physical, learning or emotional problems.
However, there was some concern about the presence of children with challenging behaviour.
The studies, most of which involved primary schools, suggest that government ministers, local education authorities and schools should not be concerned about pursuing an inclusion agenda.
The findings will not be welcomed by some teaching unions, particularly the second biggest one, the NASUWT, which has expressed concern about disruption to lessons and the safety of staff and pupils.
Chris Keates, its general secretary, said inclusion was not a problem if children were given the appropriate support. But she added: "The problems come when that support is not there, and teachers use up their time and expertise helping a single child, leaving the rest of the class to their own devices."
Researchers at Manchester University, led by Professor Peter Farrell, carried out the review for the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre at London University's Institute of Education.
They looked at 26 studies. The vast majority, 22, were carried out in the United States, two in Australia, and one each from Canada and Ireland.
The review comes six months after a report on schools in England found evidence of positive effects of inclusion on the wider achievements of all pupils, such as their social skills and understanding.
That study, also written by Professor Farrell with staff from the universities of Manchester and Newcastle, "found no evidence of a relationship between inclusion and attainment". It said that highly inclusive and higher-performing schools were successful because they had adopted teaching that was flexible and personalised to meet the needs of individual students. In lower-performing schools adopting similar models, poorer performance was caused by factors other than inclusion.
The overseas studies revealed 40 different findings: nine indicated a positive academic andor social impact on non-SEN pupils under inclusion; six suggested a negative impact; while 21 said the impact was neutral, and four suggested mixed outcomes.
Researchers found that "taken as a whole, the findings indicate that placing children with SEN in mainstream schools is unlikely to have a negative impact on academic and social outcomes for those without special needs".
They found that "successful inclusion doesn't occur in a vacuum". Parents, teachers and pupils need to be fully committed, programmes have to be carefully planned and reviewed regularly, and support staff need to work flexibly as a team and receive appropriate support and training.
Professor Farrell said: "The research clearly shows that inclusion is not something schools should be frightened of. However, more research in the form of longitudinal studies is needed to examine further what is happening, particularly in secondary schools."
The study acknowledged there was a gap in the evidence-base for the inclusion debate. The danger of leaving this unfilled, it said, was that "policy and practice will be developed on the basis of an enthusiasm for inclusion or an antipathy towards it, neither of which is informed by robust evidence".
Academics called for more research. They want longitudinal studies showing the impact on other pupils, as well as exploring the views of mainstream pupils, who they say have been "oddly neglected" in the debate.
The impact of population inclusivity in schools on student outcomes. See http:eppi.ioe.ac.uk