'Inclusive vision' or misguided crusade?

In an introduction to the recent English Green Paper Excellence for All Children: meeting special educational needs, David Blunkett talks in terms of an "inclusive vision" and the Government's commitment to the enforcement of civil rights for disabled people, all of which suggests that inclusion is seen as part of a mission or moral crusade. There are dangers in such a perception that we in Scotland should not ignore.

One has only to witness the single-minded way in which the philosophy of normalisation, which embraces the inclusive principle, has been promoted in Britain and the US to see the dangers.

Missionary fervour can foster professional intolerance, division and disaffection; lead to the application of powerful and insidious pressure to conform; devalue the work of those who find ground for criticism; promote the growth of a propaganda industry which places a low value on objectivity and truth; prompt the use of strategies and techniques which indoctrinate rather than teach; encourage poorly trained staff to believe that the application of a simple formula will resolve the complex problem of delivering effective and humane services; and result in the creation of an inflexible service that is unresponsive and insensitive to children's needs.

A major problem with presenting the case for inclusion in civil rights terms is that disabled people do not constitute a homogeneous population. They do not share a single defining feature that sets them apart, like skin pigmentation. No reasonable person can argue against the full inclusion of a child with a physical or sensory disability in a mainstream class as long as that child presents no significant intellectual impairment. However, to argue that a child with a severe learning disability should be included in a mainstream class makes no ethical or practical sense, for it denies their right to an education suited to their special needs.

It is worth noting that in the US, that most inclusive of societies, there has been increasing criticism of the inclusion movement. The drive for full inclusion is seen as unhelpfully focusing on the process of education rather than educational outcomes; mainstream curricula rather than functional curricula; advocacy for programmes rather than advocacy for children; and rhetoric rather than research evidence.

So how does the Government here reconcile the notion of inclusion with the growing trend in both primary and secondary schools to group pupils according to ability because of increasing competitive internal and external pressure (league tables indicating examination performance, attendance or truancy rates)?

And if the Government is committed to the principle of inclusion, is it prepared to make clear to all schools that ability grouping runs counter to the inclusive principle and is therefore unacceptable? Will it enforce this principle? If so, how?

Or is the Government arguing for a weaker definition of inclusion which simply means the opportunity for pupils to meet their peers socially in different settings within the school (playground, meal times)? What research evidence, as opposed to merely anecdotal evidence, can the Government advance that unequivocally demonstrates the benefits of this kind of social inclusion?

How can the Government reconcile its forthright commitment to the principle of inclusion with its enthusiastic acceptance of a growing (non-inclusive) independent school sector? The message clearly conveyed is that non-inclusion is acceptance but only for those parents who can afford to purchase it.

The continuing existence of a strong independent sector means that a small minority of parents are afforded a choice, a privilege which is withheld from the overwhelming majority of parents. If the Government is prepared to concede to parents of independent school pupils the right of choice, it can have no ethical justification for denying that right to other parents, including the parents of children with special needs.

For that choice to be meaningful, real and not paper options have to be offered to parents. No Government can sensibly argue that a key policy it is pursuing has a compelling moral and ethical basis and then at the same time grant exemptions to such a policy. To do so smacks of political expedience and ethical double-speak.

The most important rights of children with special needs are the right to an appropriate education and the right to be fully integrated into society. Inclusion in ordinary schools or segregation into special classes or schools is only justifiable where it facilitates these two rights.

It is essential to maintain a range of special education provision, along a continuum from special schools, through units in mainstream schools to ordinary class placements. Once this is recognised then the attention of special educators can return to the necessity of devising the most appropriate education for children with special needs rather than profitlessly devoting time, effort and money on ways of achieving greater inclusion.

The inclusive vision presented in Excellence for All Children is seriously flawed as inclusion is defined in the most general and superficial of terms, no research evidence is presented which demonstrates the efficacy of inclusive education and no attempt has been made to learn from the experience gained in other countries. It is a vision that is constrained by economic imperatives, clouded by conceptual confusion and distorted by obsolete dogma.

The inescapable fact is that inclusion is the cheaper option. Seeking to dress it up as a moral and civil right is politically inept and dishonest.

Dr Robin Jackson is an educational consultant in special needs.

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