When people talk about the "failure" of inclusion, it is usually a criticism of the whole idea: it’s a noble cause, they say, but it just doesn’t work.
These people miss a crucial factor: the increase in the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into mainstream settings in the past decade has unfortunately not come hand in hand with any meaningful development in mainstream SEND pedagogy. So it is not necessarily a failure of the idea but more a failure of education to adapt to make it work.
On the whole, the schools’ provisions are traditional: they recognise that, within SEND, pupils benefit from smaller class sizes, group or individual intervention and more regular one-to-one learning time. Well-trained SEND coordinators support the class and subject teachers by working out, sometimes together, stepped targets and personalised lesson planning and curricula. And yet progress is often slow.
Take a wider view and you begin to understand why. Students with SEND feel on the margins of the school, especially in big secondary settings. They are demotivated by a lack of value placed on their potential and ability, as their achievements are not in line with the desirable outcomes of the school. Pressure on schools to secure a spot high up the league table overtakes other academic and non-academic accomplishments.
So, is there a way of turning a noble idea of inclusion into a provision that delivers quality education for all?
The answer might be in looking closer at the practice of special schools, as they face a multitude of challenges that force them to transform, adapt and develop flexible mindsets to ensure well-rounded and ambitious education for all.
Due to the complexity of pupils’ needs in special schools, their teachers are required by necessity to become innovative practitioners who are continually engaged in adapting approaches and resources (often on the spot) in order to support pupils whose first instinct might be to say "no" to the task presented to them or who might be put off learning in their confusion.
In some circumstances, such pupils might pose a physical threat to themselves and others, and teachers must adjust their practice in order to turn such a situation into a learning experience.
An effective SEND teacher knows the barriers to learning raised by students’ syndromes, as well as their learning styles, interest and individual circumstances that impact on knowledge acquisition and progress in lessons. Pupils may be adverse to the subject matter planned for the whole class and an experienced SEND teacher will let them develop the same skills by studying something else for the time being – the pupil may be receptive to the planned lesson gradually or at the later stage.
It’s not a more difficult approach, necessarily, but it is a different approach. And it's one that can work in mainstream settings.
What we need is closer collaboration between special and mainstream schools. We recently forged such a bridge and the results were excellent for both schools.
Kasia Fejcher-Akhtar is assistant headteacher at the Collett School, a special school in Hertfordshire