Close the cupboards and all they stand for

16th June 2000 at 01:00
Support that enables all children to learn effectively is more relevant than ever, say Louise Hayward and Jean Kane ACROSS Scotland in 1978, following publication of The Education of Pupils with Learning Difficulties in Primary and Secondary Schools, doors began to open and, timidly at first, "remedial" teachers began to emerge from cupboards, bringing with them small numbers of children they had been supporting in language and maths.

The brave new world which they entered was one where every child "was the responsibility of the class teacher". Class teachers worked with "learning difficulties specialists", who later came to be called learning support specialists, to provide a rich learning environment, ensuring that each child had access to appropriately challenging opportunities. The philosophy was inclusive even before inclusion became fashionable.

The four roles assigned to the new learning support specialist constituted a pretty ambitious model; even more ambitious when they became five - co-operative teaching, consultancy, tutorial support, short-term support and staff development. There are many of us who still believe in the centrality of these tasks and in the need, particularly in secondary schools, for teachers who had an overview of children's learning to work in classrooms across the curriculum.

What was exciting then about learning support in secondary schools was the clear focus on learning for all. Learning support staff began to work with school managers, classroom teachers, parents and other professionals to enhance children's learning in all subjects. Creative approaches to learning were developed, such as family learning units and paired reading programmes, all of which helped schools to develop as learning communities. Working with primary colleagues and others from special schools created a wonderful opportunity to see education on a wider scale and to collaborate in promoting coherent and continuous educational programmes.

The postgraduate courses which provided the staff development related to the new roles for learning support were conceptually rigorous. They integrated ideas about learning and teaching with ideas about person-centred learning, challenging the view that learning and teaching could be considered separately from the persons engaging in them. These understandings were set in the broader context of issues related to equality of opportunity and the impact of systems and structures on people.

Every learner mattered. Every person was entitled to dignity and respect. Every individual and every group was capable of more than you or they believed possible.

It would be naive to believe that all, or even most, learning support teachers' experiences matched those described. Issues of effective learning were often lost in debates about systems. To teach co-operatively or not to teach co-operatively? That was the question. Yet, as far as stigma was concerned, what differene was there between children being extracted and a learning support teacher working with only a small group of identified children within the classroom?

The real issue of developing the curriculum in ways where it became accessible to all children was often avoided and learning support teachers worked to match children to the existing curriculum. Often described as agents of change, in less favourable circumstances relationships between learning support and class teachers were a little strained.

Some learning support teachers described themselves as front-line troops, sent over the barricades into departments where no one else dared go. Some subject teachers talked of learning support teachers "swanning around", often late or absent from class, with no real responsibility, and of constantly changing titles masking a lack of clarity in the job.

Although the idea of having a teacher (or teachers) whose main task was to promote effective learning experiences for all learners was difficult to carry out in practice, it was a sound concept. It was always seen as one step towards a world where all teachers would automatically consider themselves to be responsible for all learners - towards an inclusive educational system. The principles which lay behind this commitment to enable all children to learn effectively remain sound. It is now more than 20 years since the publication of the HMI report and it is a testament to it that it remains a seminal document.

Systems have changed considerably. Staff development opportunities are now open to many more teachers through the postgraduate modular programme. Yet many of the teachers now on these programmes tell of being asked to work only with children who are experiencing difficulties and only in language and maths. Tutorial support is valued by colleagues especially if related to programmes of work which the children can continue when the learning support teacher is not with the class. In co-operative teaching, the class teacher plans the curriculum and the learning support teacher plans for the children at the margins. At times it sounds as if they have one foot back in the cupboards they left in the 1970s.

Anthony Feiler and Howard Gibson (British Journal of Special Education 1999) identify four current threats: the lack of consistency in the definition and understanding of inclusion; the lack of empirical data in support of the inclusion movement; internal exclusion (where particular children are offered a narrower curricular experience than others); and the re-emergence of labelling.

Perhaps this might be a useful starting point for us in Scotland to review our own system; to take forward the Government's commitment to inclusion and finally to close the doors on the cupboards and all that they stood for.

Louise Hayward is associate dean and Jean Kane head of the centre for support for learning in the faculty of education at Glasgow University.

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