The big debate

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Inclusion should mean a mix of special and mainstream provision, says Rona Tutt

The terms "integration" and "inclusion" have been interpreted, reinterpreted and misinterpreted for more than 20 years. The confusion surrounding these words has led to a situation where the pattern of provision is that there is no pattern. Instead, local education authorities, in the light of their own ideological viewpoints, determine what provision is available for special educational needs in their area, and equality of opportunity simply does not exist.

For as long as we are locked in a polarised debate about the meaning of inclusion, arguing about whether or not special schools have a future, we will remain shackled to the past, unable to move forward with a common sense of purpose to provide for the whole range of our pupils.

Last September, Education Secretary David Blunkett wrote a letter to those of us working in special schools. In it, he clarified what had been said about inclusive education in both the Green Paper Excellence for All Children (October 1997) and the subsequent Meeting Special Educational Needs: a Programme for Action (November 1998).

Mr Blunkett wrote: "We are aiming to encourage a more inclusive and coherent education system. We are encouraging a more strategic approach by local authorities to SEN issues, to promote more inclusive mainstream schools backed by special schools which have a clear and shared vision of how they will provide specialist skills and experience for the system as a whole. Inclusion is not about the wholesale closure of special schools. It is about building on and developing the wealth of expertise and experience within the specialist sector in the interests of the children."

For the first time we seemed to have an unambiguous statement about how the Government was defining inclusion. Since then, this same Government has paid out pound;130,000 for the Index for Inclusion to be delivered to all schools. The work of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Index talks about tackling what the authors see as "disablism" or "disablist attitudes". It concentrates entirely on how mainstream schools can become more inclusive, rather than following the vision outlined by Mr Blunkett of seeing all schools playing their part in working together to share experience and expertise.

In 1978, the Warnock Report identified 2 per cent of the school population who needed specialist provision. Twenty years on, many pupils who would have been in special schools are now successfully integrated into mainstream classes, but their places have been filled by pupils with even more complex needs. It is as if there will always be a very small percentage (and it has never been more than that) who need a specially adapted environment in order to thrive and it is right that we should make the effort to provide that for them, rather than expecting those with the greatest difficulties to fit in with what is provided for the majority. Meanwhile, special schools continue to fight for survival, and with each closure parental and pupil choice narrows hile the range of needs apparent in the school population as a whole continues to grow.

It is sometimes said that there are still pupils in special schools who could benefit from being in the mainstream. While this may well be so, it could be argued that there is an even greater number of pupils who would benefit from a longer or shorter time in specialist provision, who, at present, stay in mainstream classes until they have fallen so far behind that they may, belatedly, be allowed to move. Surely we can do better than this? Why is the system set up for failure? As each LEA tightens its criteria for statutory assessment, for statementing and for entry to specialist provision (where it exists), more pupils have to fail for longer. And yet everyone believes that the key lies in early identification and intervention. Part of the solution is to stop seeing special schools as a last resort where pupils may go when all else fails and to start seeing all schools as part of one inclusive system, with pupils and staff being able to move much more freely along a continuum of provision.

The majority of mainstream schools, in spite of the constant pressure to raise standards (regardless of how high they are already), have made incredible efforts to adapt and to welcome pupils with an ever increasing range of needs. But I believe there comes a point when it is right to offer pupils an environment created for them, instead of maintaining that one size fits all. This is not disablism, it is realism.

Once special schools are released from concerns about whether or not they have a future, they could be the place where theory and practice converge, helping researchers to consider, for instance, whether Ritalin is a dangerous mind-altering drug or a legitimate way of enabling hyperactive pupils to learn, or whether dyslexia, as has recently been suggested, can be cured by a cocktail of anti-motion sickness drugs and herbal remedies.

If we can move beyond the sterile and distracting debates of the past 20 years, I see an exciting future, where all providers work together as part of one coherent service, which embraces units and bases attached to both mainstream and special schools, support services, outreach services, in-school support and offsite units, so that what children receive is no longer dependent on where they happen to live, but on what they need to enable them to succeed. It could even be argued that, as more needs are identified, a greater variety of provision will be required. So let us have an end to ambiguity and contradiction, and move forward together to meet the needs of all pupils, including the disruptive and the disturbed, the damaged and the distressed, placing them where they will feel both valued and included, whatever and wherever that provision might be.

Rona Tutt is headteacher at Woolgrove school, Letchworth, which caters for pupils with moderate learning difficulties and autism. She chairs Hertfordshire's special schools heads forum and is vice-chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' special education sector committee

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