Inclusion was the theme when Jacqui Smith, the minister responsible for special educational needs, gave the opening address at the recent National Association for Special Educational Needs annual conference. Over 200 delegates listened as she set out once more the Government's position on this issue. What was new was the launch of the consultation on the SEN and Disability Rights in Education Bill.
This Bill will have a far reaching impact on teachers' practice, schools' policies and LEA's planning. While many of the proposals are broadly welcome, the Bill raises issues that teachers and others in special education should address.
One of these is the growing realisation that not all pupils with disabilities have special educational needs. This may seem obvious but how many pupils have a statement of SEN which is more about their disability than their learning difficulties? Has special education accepted some pupils as having special educational needs when it should have been arguing for less discrimination of children and young people who have a disability?
The child in a wheelchair does not necessarily have SEN once physical or technological access to the curriculum has been achieved. The pupil with diabetes should not be identified as having SEN when all that is required is flexibility about enforcing the rule that forbids eating in class.
Another issue is the shift the Bill will cause in the principles involved in allocating pupils with a statement of SEN to a school. The consultation document suggests a revision of Section 316 of the Education Act 1996 so that the principle becomes one where the "child with SEN shall be educated within a mainstream setting".
It is undoubtedly true that more pupils with SEN can and should be within mainstream schools, given appropriate resources. But it is also true that some pupils' learning needs require specialist provision. It should also be borne in mind that merely placing a child with SEN in a mainstream or special school does not automatically confer a sense of inclusion. Both placements can be very marginalising experiences.
What this consultation document and the resulting legislation may support, but cannot of itself achieve, is change attitudes, values and beliefs regarding disability and SEN. To feel included comes from a sense of belonging, of being valued. This sense comes from the interactions we engage in as well as the range of opportunities which are open to us.
Copies of SEN and Disability Rights in Education Bill are available at www.dfee.gov.uksen. The consultation period ends on April 28, 2000.
John Visser is president of NASEN, 4-5 Amber Business Village, Amber Close, Amington, Tamworth, Staffs B77 4RP.Tel: 01827 311500E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgWebsite: www.nasen.org.uk