Just how special are inclusion promises?

Every child has a right to mainstream education, says Douglas Osler, but expectations must stay realistic

Some policies are so rooted in professional correctness that it is hard to question them. One is the push to include almost all children with special educational needs in mainstream schooling.

It was therefore refreshing to hear an education official with responsibility in his authority for special educational needs point out the implications for those already in mainstream of the diversion of resources and attention from these children to those brought in through the policy of inclusion. He also challenged the assumption that inclusion in mainstream is always in the best interests of the child.

The right of any child to be in mainstream education is not in question.

Whether it is uniformly the best policy in every situation is still up for debate and in the main should be for parents to decide. The right of all children to be included in the best available education is not in question either, but the policy of social inclusion never meant that all children must be in the mainstream school.

I know because I was there when ministers were formulating what they wanted from social inclusion. In its application to education, the policy meant extending high quality to all wherever it was best to be made available.

Social inclusion does not necessarily mean inclusion of all in one kind of school irrespective of need. It is political shorthand for guaranteeing that each child has full access to the education best suited to age, needs and abilities.

Inclusion in the local mainstream school is not always the best way to meet special needs. That fact is being lost in the very powerful assumption that it must always be best for all children. This is driven in part by a genuine intent to provide for children with special needs alongside their peers but the bigger push is based on financial considerations.

Maintaining specialist schools or paying fees to send children to them costs the education authority a lot of money. If children are brought into mainstream schooling and full provision is made for their individual needs in every school, it would cost even more. But that is not what is happening. Limited provision, usually extra adult supervision, is being made from schools' existing budgets so the specialist support is not there and the standard of provision for mainstream children is debited to pay for the additional costs of care.

The application of this policy bears more than a little resemblance to care in the community. The argument that adults in need of care would be best provided for in their communities rather than in an institution is hard to argue against.

The problem is that they are persuaded to give community living a go, but the standard of care falls short of what is needed because it is much more expensive to provide it separately for each individual than it is to do so for groups of adults. So they are vulnerable in the community.

The notion, too, that all the needs of all children will be catered for in every primary and secondary school is attractive but it is unrealistic to pretend that every school can replicate the individual attention and special facilities that can be made available in a specialist school catering for their particular needs. If the policy is based on genuinely educational grounds, rather than economic ones, every school would be fully adapted to cope with children whether they have a movement difficulty, are visually or hearing impaired etc, in case one such child comes along every few years. This simply will not happen and the child who is, for example, visually impaired, will find the local school does its best rather than being fully adapted for just such an eventuality.

It is dishonest to pretend to a pupil or parents that a visually impaired child will have access to the full range of curricular opportunities in the local school which are equivalent to those available to mainstream children and to those provided in a specialist school.

Primary schools are more likely to be able to oblige but secondary schools require the adaptation of too much specialist accommodation for this to happen. The pupil in question will always be subject to special arrangements to accommodate him or her in a school planned for the mainstream.

The system quite simply cannot afford the training of teachers, the extra staff, resources and building adaptations necessary to accommodate all specialist needs as if it was the mainstream provision. It may be that inclusion in the mainstream school is still the choice of the pupil and parents and that they are prepared to sacrifice some opportunities for the ease of attending the local school. But they should be made aware of that deficit.

I know of one school where a visually- impaired boy was enrolled for the first time and he turned up for a science lesson. As his teacher told me, he knew the boy was coming and welcomed that, but he had been given no training in how to enable a blind pupil to tackle science and the accompanying adult was a carer also unfamiliar with these specialist needs.

An undue amount of the attention of the teacher was diverted to this one pupil, and other parents complained that their children were being deprived.

In the end, science became a subject not available to this pupil. If he had attended a specialist school familiar with the needs of visually-impaired children, he could have thrived within a science curriculum adapted to his needs, taught by specially- trained teachers and with properly adapted resources.

That is the choice which should be offered to pupils and their parents.

That is what social inclusion is all about. Ideology is not a replacement for appropriate education.

Douglas Osler is former head of HM inspectorate of education.

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