What does inclusion look like today? In many schools it looks like a pupil with special educational needs and disability (SEND) working with a teaching assistant in a corner, or even in a separate room, while the teacher deals with the rest of the class.
Too often, disabled pupils and pupils identified as having special educational needs are facing what SEND coordinator Nicole Dempsey calls the "internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm". What she means by this is that inclusion has become little more than internal exclusion within schools as children face de facto segregation from peers because of traditional SEND practices and interventions.
These practices include the routine use of teaching assistants, children working apart from their peers within a school environment and a priority being placed on the physical presence of a child in a school rather than on their actual inclusion within the school community.
Perpetuating a negative culture
Dempsey asks: "What does it teach a child about their place in society if they always sit slightly outside of the systems? Especially if ‘their space’ is inferior in quality, such as learning spaces away from the knowledge hubs and [being taught by] unqualified, non-specialist staff."
The current approach can have lasting consequences. Some children report experiences of being made to feel different even within so-called inclusive environments. If a child’s schooling teaches them that "SEND kids" are treated differently, we are at risk of perpetuating a culture that sees disabled people as "others".
Responsibility of all staff
Of course, teachers cannot be expected to reverse these practices all by themselves. Just over a year ago, the Educational Rights Alliance (ERA), a collective of teachers, academics, disabled activists and parents, produced a manifesto on inclusion that makes demands for change on a wider scale.
I would urge every education professional to read the manifesto’s recommendations. However, teachers can also implement small changes that will make all the difference to children with SEND.
It all starts with accepting that SEND issues are the responsibility of all staff and not just of teaching assistants or Sendcos. Teachers should get to know the children with SEND they teach and take responsibility for these pupils’ experiences within their classrooms. Not only will this put them in a better position to question practices that may lead to segregation but it will also send the right message to pupils: that everyone deserves to participate fully in society.
Dr Debbie Sayers (pictured) runs the legal consultancy interalia.org.uk and is a co-founder and executive committee member of the Educational Rights Alliance. She tweets at @ERA_tweet
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