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Out of the comfort zone

The changes required to bring in social inclusion will challenge schools, teachers and society, says George MacBride.

OCIAL inclusion is a major ideological transformation which almost casually has become part of the everyday currency of educational discussion. Even the Conservative leader, David McLetchie, has committed himself. If we take this concept for granted, however, we fail to recognise how profound are the changes that we will need to address; we have only to walk round our cities and towns to see the consequences of failure.

The current structure, culture and technology of schools fail to promote social inclusion and indeed frequently prop up social exclusion. Most schools built in the past 50 years are in a tradition of (sub)modernist architecture which reflects the Fordist philosophy of the mechanical production line. Buildings are functional, inflexible and impersonal; they are indeed sets of "little boxes"; at their worst, they are inaccessible to anyone who does not fit the norms set by society.

It may be relatively easy for teachers to subvert the physical structures of schools; it is much harder to subvert the internal organisation of the school. Management structures are arbitrary and historically determined, largely modelled on the selective schools of the 19th century with some ill-fitting additions. Most fundamentally the system is hierarchical. By definition, in any hierarchical system there are some at the top and some at the bottom: scarcely a model for social inclusion. Similar comments can be made about the ways in which we place pupils in classes.

And, of course, these formal relationships ignore or conflict with the hidden reality of the complex relationships among pupils: liking, friendship, hatred, love, fear, care. We all too often fail to recognise the support pupils can afford one another.

If the technology of a school is defined to include not only equipment but also the practices of pedagogy, then what is immediately noticeable is the limited range on which we draw and the extent to which older technologies persist. When did pupils first begin to copy out information? Why are they still doing so? Our pedagogies are designed to a large extent to ensure the transmission and reproduction not only of knowledge but also of the structures of a society in which inequality is a central feature. Our assessment system underlines this. However careful we are to afford learners opportunities to display their achievements, the system is still largely determined by its historical role as a sieving mechanism promoting exclusion.

We are presented with the paradox that, simultaneously, we are transmitting the past while coping with the present and creating the future. In this context, we create the future by going for more of the same, trying to improve present provision, most obviously by setting targets which we can simply measure. It was evident during the recent discussion on the development of performance indicators in terms of the five national priorities that we had to hand what seemed like dozens of indicators relating to attainment, while we had almost none that covered such areas as inclusion or citizenship or creativity.

An inclusive curriculum must make connections across time and across boundaries; it must determine what are the essential experiences we afford learners. In the 21st century we cannot pretend to offer them a representative sampling of all the wealth of our culture on which we can draw but we must afford them - all of them, not just the most successful - the dispositions and skills to draw on this wealth in meaningful ways.

In an inclusive future, relationships and authority within schools must be built on an acceptance and recognition of others; this may at times be tiring. The development of more inclusive pedagogies will recognise the variation among learners, will recognise the importance of developing the learner's responsibility, the social nature of learning and will draw on a much wider range of practice.

As we create and build a different future there will be tensions, some of which will be immediate. All too often reskilling is perceived by teachers as deskilling and this is understandable in that all too often things have been done to them rather than with them or by them. Along with new skills there will be a redefinition of staff roles; this we are likely to find threatening.

here is here a major issue for teacher unions in that many members express dissatisfaction and frustration with existing provision, but are unwilling to move from this familiar comfort zone into new territory; this says a lot about the ways in which teacher confidence has been eroded over the years. But there are more fundamental tensions which we have to address as we seek to build a more inclusive school system.

If we dismantle our current control systems (whether those of external accountability or those within the structures of the school) then how do we plan, for plan we must, if we are to promote social inclusion which will not come about through reaction to passing events or personalities? We will need to develop new ways of ensuring that reflection and action illuminate each other. There is a wide range of techniques for encouraging reflection we can draw on from fields such as youth work, churches and community development.

However inclusive our school systems become, social inclusion will continue to be put at risk by the wider inequality of our society, the effects of which we can see in our workplaces and work practices. Social inclusion depends on action in a wide range of spheres: housing, health, social security, taxation, justice. Schools cannot carry out this task on their own. And it is unfair to ask them to do so.

George MacBride is principal teacher of learning support at Govan High and education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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