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Inclusion without the blood, sweat and tears

Progress so far is patchy but answers can be found by listening to parents and children, says Julie Allan.

HIS was billed as National Inclusion Week, but you can be forgiven if this escaped your notice. The response in Scotland was somewhat muted. Could this have something to do with having little to celebrate? There is often talk about the progress we have made, but how much have we actually achieved in the 25 years since Baroness Warnock first proposed that we should be educating all children in mainstream schools? My sense is that we still haven't cracked the nut of inclusion and that we have a very long way to go.

As a member of the Equity Group, which seeks to promote inclusion, I constantly hear stories of heartache from parents who face massive obstacles in seeking to have a disabled child placed, and educated effectively, in mainstream schools. As adviser to the Scottish parliamentary inquiry into special needs last year, I found evidence of patchy provision, of an assessment system that was iniquitous and that disregarded parents' views, of widespread concern among teachers that they were unable to meet the needs of all pupils in their classes and of a failure to acknowledge minority ethnic communities in inclusion policy and practice.

And as an academic, I find myself despairing over the failure of researchers - and I include myself here - to come up with any real insights into what good inclusion looks like and how this might be experienced by individuals.

So what has stopped us making progress? The first problem seems to be concerned with where the focus of attention has been. Efforts to include children have been concentrated mainly on special needs, rather than on other areas of exclusion such as ethnicity, gender and class; on the school as the end point for inclusion, rather than on lifelong learning and adulthood; and on the child as the source of the problem rather than on the school.

The effect of this narrow view is the "included child", always identifiable as different and inevitably on the margins of school life.

A second problem concerns the failure to take account of the views of young people and their parents. Young people have many insights into how inclusion might be achieved and have strong views, based on their own experience, on what not to do. Yet their views are largely ignored. Parents have developed many successful inclusion strategies. Yet, they have at best been kept at arm's length and at worst patronised and ignored.

Finally, accountability measures - inspections, quality assurance procedures, testing and league tables - all place pressures on schools which discourage inclusiveness and equity.

While the picture I have painted here is a rather bleak one, there are grounds for optimism. MSPs appear to understand that inclusion - for all children - can only be achieved by simultaneously tackling exclusion within educational establishments and within the system as a whole.

In an effort to generate an informed debate on inclusion and influence policy and practice, Stirling University has funded a participation, inclusion and equity research (PIER) network. We will be looking to ensure that those with most direct experience of inclusion and exclusion - young people, parents and adults - inform our work directly by identifying the conditions for successful inclusion and specifying the kinds of consequences (rather than outcomes) which are acceptable to them.

On a more practical level, the Equity Group has established an inclusive learning network which is to be launched tomorrow (Saturday). Funded by the Scottish Executive, the network seeks to bring teachers and parents together in an exciting initiative to learn about working collaboratively to ensure that disabled children are included in mainstream schools effectively. Six local authorities have joined so far, but the Equity Group hopes eventually to increase participation across Scotland.

Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, has said that what was needed was "a response to the blood, sweat and tears - too often and too many - of parents who are battling with the system". The establishment of the two networks will, hopefully, create some impetus towards that change. Then, perhaps, we might have something to celebrate.

Julie Allan is professor of education in the Institute of Education, Stirling University, and director of the PIER network.

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