Can mainstream cope with all our children?

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Some children need to be in special education, argues Kirk Leech (below), but teachers should stop labelling them to suit their own needs

Inclusion in education is now taken for granted, the Government insisting that it provides equality, empowerment and opportunity. I'd argue it's a disaster for both the children involved and for the schools.

Inclusion is a muddled concept, making little distinction between physical disabilities, mental handicap and children who are "disturbed" for whatever reason. Dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, or autistic spectrum disorder have all become commonly diagnosed conditions. Under the policy of inclusion, these students are grouped with others with serious medical conditions. There are real differences between students with severe physical handicaps whose problems could be resolved through extra resources in school, and those who don't or can't deal with the intellectual pressure that school brings.

Special needs schools are now being closed across the country and children put into mainstream schools where teachers often report that teaching has become little more than getting through the day; classes are virtually unteachable.

We make this poor situation worse. On the one hand we complain about not having the tools to deal with badly behaved children, and on the other hand we go along with the extravagant labelling of children who can be hard work. If we can't handle them, labelling them provides extra money and resources. Some get by with "coping" and give up on educating "problem children" at all. But by doing so, teachers are undermining their authority, and losing their nerve. They're paranoid, which sums up the problem.

We are over-diagnosing and over-labelling our children. And the uncertainty over how to define, or treat with accuracy, these syndromes and disorders helps create a confused, panicky state of affairs where labels are slapped on all kinds of children, with all kinds of problems, and even some without serious problems at all. For example, can it be true, as a colleague teaching in a school in south London claims in ADDVance, the newsletter of the ADHDNational Alliance. He cites a school of 1,500 where more than 300 students are diagnosed as requiring special needs education? Or, that there are 150,000 children with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and 50,000 with "un-diagnosed" or "untreated" ADHD in UK schools? I have my doubts.

For starters, while there is popular consensus that these disorders exist, there is actually no agreement on what they really are. ADHD, for example, is not a clinically distinct disorder; it is a poorly differentiated cluster of symptoms. You know these symptoms if you're a teacher: children showing a lack of concentration, short attention span, distractibility, impulsiveness or a lack of social inhibition. There's no known underlying cause or unifying process to explain them.

What's more, its diagnosis, as with other disorders, is frequently not based on psychometric testing or neurological investigation; it's essentially descriptive: clinical observations and reports on children's behaviour from teachers and parents. School reports on the same child can differ from expert to expert. Reports from parents, teachers and educational psychologists often conflict or fail to even correlate. It's unreliable to say the least.

Experts don't agree on how to treat ADHD either: drugs or behaviour modification techniques. The psychostimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dexamphetamine (Dexedrine) can have a calming effect on some hyperactive children, though teachers are sceptical. One suggested that the calming effect on some of his students is so severe that he could teach them that the moon was made of cheese and their only question would be what type?

The very claim that a child has "organic" problems has a number of consequences. Parents, desperately searching for reasons to account for their children's slow development, grab at the life raft of disorders and syndromes. Some spend years fighting their local education authority to pay the bill for their child's special education needs. This is called statementing and can become the organising principle of their lives.

In our self-definition, self-obsessed world, labels are frequently welcomed. As one parent said: "It does their self-esteem wonders when it's recognised that they're not just lazy." We've replaced the stigma of special needs with a badge of honour.

Tragically, many experts have moved away from investigating the child in favour of fitting the child into given behaviour and educational frameworks. The descriptions of many of the behavioural disorders could be used to describe the behaviour of most normal children. By pathologising them, we are in danger of redefining what is normal behaviour and forcing children to live in a permanent state of medical need and attention.

There should be special needs schools for children with substantial and educational and behaviour problems. Teachers should get a grip and not look to special-education-needs-labelling to make our lives easier because, ultimately, it only makes our lives more difficult.

We need to turn back the tendency to inform our children constantly that they have problems. We risk creating generations of children who can only navigate school, and life, by dependence on medical or psychological intervention, cultivating among them a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. And that's no good for any child, whatever their challenges.

Kirk Leech is head of humanities at Centre Academy, London

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