All together now...

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Winner - The Making of the Inclusive School By Gary Thomas, David Walker and Julie Webb.
Routledge #163;14.99

Highly commended - Children in Difficulty By Julian Elliott and Maurice Place
Routledge #163;14.99

What could be more satisfying for Gary Thomas, passionate devotee of inclusive education, than to have a successful model of a special school sending all its pupils into the mainstream as the centrepiece for a book on the subject? Indeed, this model is one of the chief strengths of The Making of the Inclusive School.

"The use of a case study embedded in a rich general narrative makes this book particularly accessible," commented the NASEN judges, who were also impressed by "the honesty with which the tensions and dilemmas faced by teachers, parents and children engaged in the inclusion process were discussed".

The first part of the book is a careful examination of the inclusion debate, suggesting ways in which mainstream schools can tackle the issues. The second part concentrates on the story of Princess Margaret School in Somerset, a Barnardo's special school for physically disabled children.

Princess Margaret closed in 1996 after five years' preparation and reconstructed itself as a service assisting physically disabled children in mainstream schools. Gary Thomas, professor of education at the University of the West of England, directed the research on the Somerset Inclusion Project (SIP), as it was known. Julie Webb was research assistant, and David Walker headteacher at Princess Margaret School.

"The project has been remarkable," says Gary Thomas, his quiet modesty belying a deep commitment to inclusion, based on years of experience as an educational psychologist.

"It has shown that, given the will, people can transfer their expertise from a special school to a mainstream setting, and it can work. In lots of ways it has changed the way I think. I get accused of sitting in an ivory tower, advocating inclusion, but the things people have said about the project have been very positive."

Not that the process has been without its difficulties. The book gives a robust, warts-and-all account of the many hurdles the team faced, with comments from teachers, parents and pupils. Some parents at the special school, for instance, transferred their children to alternative special schools. Some teachers in the mainstream schools involved also had grave reservations, although these largely evaporated once the new system was up and running.

One primary teacher comments in the book: "I was very apprehensive about teaching (the inclusion project child), about the physical organisation and its effect on the rest of the class, and about how to talk to her. Now I don't know what I was worried about: it's no problem. My fear was fear of the unknown. "

One important reason for the continuing success of the SIP, Gary Thomas explains, is that local authority funding for the special school has followed its pupils. Inadequate funding is often the reason for unsuccessful placements of special needs children in mainstream schools.

The Government's Green Paper on special education recommended that there should be more inclusion. "But there is not enough of a critical mass behind the idea, and progress is still very slow," says Gary Thomas.

"Ideally I would like to see every child in the country in a mainstream school - but this is not an ideal world." He acknowledges, too, that pupils with physical disabilities, as in the SIP, may be more easily accommodated in mainstream schools than children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties.

But he believes that the inclusion process will, nevertheless, slowly move forward, and hopes the example of Somerset - "brave innovators like David Walker and his management team at Princess Margaret School" - might inspire others.

The Academic Book Award judges were Harry Daniels, professor of special educational needs psychology at the University of Birmingham, former HM Inspector Diane Chorley, Mel Johnson, headteacher of Northcott special school in Hull, and Jackie Harrop, support service manager for Luton education authority. They chose The Making of the Inclusive School from 26 titles.

A close runner-up was another Routledge title, Children in Difficulty, by Julian Elliott and Maurice Place. This, said the judges, would be particularly useful for newly appointed special needs co-ordinators and a wide range of classroom teachers, offering "realistic advice with appropriate levels of caution".

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