Cover story - Apart together

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Is educating children with special needs in mainstream schools beneficial or misguided? And how do teachers cope?

Primary school meant a lot to Sarah. Even now, more than a decade later, she still goes back to see her old teachers, and when she does, she gives them a hug. Two years ago, she stood up in front of a group of parents and gave a speech about how the school had changed her life.

For Jane Johnson, her primary school headteacher, Sarah is proof that inclusion works. Sarah (not her real name) has Down's syndrome. After six years at St Stephen's Primary, in the east London borough of Newham, she went on to a mainstream secondary school and college, and now has a full- time job. "If she'd gone to a special school, I don't think she would have achieved what she has," says Mrs Johnson.

But 30 years after publication of the report that ushered in the age of inclusion, the debate is far from over. Baroness Warnock, the report's author, has distanced herself from the "disastrous legacy" of wholesale inclusion, claiming children with mild learning difficulties were often bullied and unwanted in mainstream schools.

It has not been a bed of roses for teachers, either. As the trend towards inclusion continues apace - with 40 UK special schools closing in the past three years and almost 200 in the past 10 - teachers' concern about the practical implications have only increased.

Disquiet among its members prompted the NASUWT, the teaching union, to commission research last year into how inclusion actually worked in practice. Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, says that she expects the issue to be one of the key topics at the annual conference in April.

The anxieties are twofold: that the system has become too dogmatic, removing parental choice and pushing for inclusion as a default option; that mainstream schools are unable to provide appropriate support for children with sometimes complex needs. A review of teacher attitude surveys in the NASUWT's research found that many felt they did not have sufficient training to deal with children with special needs.

The surveys also found that some teachers saw having a teaching assistant in the classroom as a condition for accepting children with special needs, which then threw up problems over managing teaching assistants. Many teachers thought having children with special needs in their class would need extra time, and would also cause difficulties in pitching the lesson at the right level. There was also discomfort in dealing with physical disabilities, and anxieties over day-to-day teaching issues, such as ensuring children with visual impairments can access resources. Children with emotional and behavioural difficulties were seen as being the biggest source of stress.

Ms Keates says most teachers agree with the principle that children should be taught in mainstream schools wherever possible, but are unhappy at what they see as a blanket policy of inclusion. There are also potential problems with behaviour management, particularly when a class has several pupils with special needs. Although there has been a softening of the Government's position recently, and the number of pupils with special needs in mainstream schools has fallen slightly after a decade of steady increase, she says this has not met teachers' anxieties over the policy.

"The test has to be: is a mainstream school the right placement? Can the needs of that pupil be met? Put a child in a mainstream school and don't meet those needs, and that child is never going to reach their educational potential," she says.

Of the 220,000 pupils with statements of special needs in England, about 57 per cent are now in mainstream schools, compared with just under 50 per cent 15 years ago. Another 1.2 million pupils have been identified with special needs but have no statement setting out how those needs should be addressed. The majority of these children are in mainstream schools.

As a parent, Sophie Dow has first-hand experience of the dogmatic side of inclusion. Her daughter Annie has learning difficulties, originally thought to have been the result of brain damage in the womb, but since ascribed to a chromosomal abnormality. After a mainstream primary, Annie was allocated a place at her local school, Musselburgh Grammar, in East Lothian, but her mother was horrified at the prospect. "She can't read or write and has no concept of time, but she was supposed to be taught in a room on her own and then go to the lessons she could manage. She would have been crushed in that environment," Mrs Dow says.

"When they told me this information I was sitting there with tears streaming down my face. It was just humiliating."

After a process she describes as "jumping through hoops", she finally persuaded the local authority to fund a place at a special school in Perthshire, where Annie, now 18, has spent the past six years. As a result of her experience, Mrs Dow set up Mindroom, a charity aiming to raise awareness of learning difficulties and provide support for children and families. "Inclusion should be about having a choice, but the way it is now is inflexible," she says. "It is easy to put on this politically correct hat and say everybody should have the same rights. That is good in theory, but it doesn't work in reality."

Similarly, Maria Hutchings had to fight pressure to put her son Paul, who is autistic, into a mainstream school. Eventually she got him into a special school, but she was so incensed by the treatment of children with special needs that she memorably confronted Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, on the issue during a live TV debate three years ago. "There is no way he would have been able to function, let alone access education, in a mainstream school," says Mrs Hutchings, now a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives.

While some children with special needs can do well in the mainstream, autistic children can struggle with the changing routines of secondary schools especially.

"We all want our children included and accepted, but forcing them into an environment that makes them upset and means they don't learn and flourish is not necessarily the best way of doing that," says Mrs Hutchings.

Only once in her 20 years as head at St Stephen's in Newham has Jane Johnson had to accept that a mainstream school was not the right option for one of her pupils. He was at the extreme end of the autistic spectrum, and when he started taking his frustrations out on other children, his parents and teachers decided he would be better off in a special school, with a higher staff ratio and specialist facilities. "Inclusion is about all children, and if it affects other pupils, you have to ask what is best for all pupils," says Mrs Johnson.

That hasn't dented her faith in the principle of giving all pupils access to education irrespective of their needs. Seven pupils at St Stephen's, out of 420, have statements of special needs. Mrs Johnson's experience is that successful inclusion involves a lot of planning, focused Individual Education Plans for each child with special needs, support in the classroom and realistic expectations. But she believes inclusion has the potential to push children with special needs to achieve more than they otherwise would.

"Of course it is challenging, but teaching is challenging," she says. "It is important for children to have role models among their peers and in an inclusive school you have high expectations of all children. Our aim for children with particular needs is the same as for any other child."

S t Stephen's also puts a lot of emphasis on the transition to secondary school, because this is often the stage where children with special needs fall out of the mainstream. While primary schools provide a settled environment, with one room and one teacher, the changes in rooms and teachers in secondary schools can prove challenging for children with physical disabilities and for those with learning difficulties. Children with statements of special needs are nine times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers.

Meinir Rees, assistant head at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Plasmawr, a 920-pupil school in Cardiff, recognises that the logistics make moving into secondary schools a "different ball game" for pupils with special needs. But she believes that with the right support, many of these challenges can be overcome. For example, Plasmawr has installed specially adapted monitors so visually impaired pupils can get the same information from interactive whiteboards as their peers.

"Schools should be as inclusive as possible to all children, whatever their needs," says Mrs Rees, a former special educational needs co- ordinator (Senco) and special needs teacher of the year in the 2005 Teaching Awards. She says working alongside pupils with special needs helps children understand that some people see the world in a different way. "It enriches their lives and gives them an empathy towards people who have different needs."

Plasmawr has a high proportion of pupils with statements of special needs, 18 per cent compared with about 3 per cent nationally in Wales. Mrs Rees recognises inclusion on this scale can only work with the backing of all staff. "We ask a lot from our staff," she says.

Some pupils are accompanied by learning support assistants in every class. While this could be an obstacle between them and other children, Mrs Rees believes that if it is in place right at the start of their secondary schooling, it is quickly accepted. But sometimes the school has to acknowledge that it won't be able to cope with some children.

"You have to be ready to say `we can't do this'," she says. "It is an awful position to be in, but you have to be honest." And while a place in mainstream should be the aim wherever possible, she does not believe it is right for every child. "I totally disagree with putting children in mainstream school for the sake of it. There will always be a place for special schools."

Micheline Mason has seen both sides of the debate, as a pupil and a parent. Both Micheline and Lucy, her daughter, were born with brittle bones. But while Micheline went to a special school, Lucy went to mainstream Elliott School in Putney, southwest London. "I was born in an era where if you couldn't manage, you didn't go to a mainstream school," Ms Mason says. Her own experience made her determined that Lucy would not go to a special school.

"I enjoyed being with other young people, but it felt like we were being kept in a ghetto," Ms Mason says. "It was giving off the message that these children belong somewhere else, and I felt that was completely wrong." She says Lucy, now 25, did have problems at school - at one time fellow pupils were obsessed with her wheelchair - but she became part of the community in a way her mother never did. "I didn't aim to give her a happy, carefree childhood, I was aiming at a real one."

While inclusion for children with physical disabilities often depends on schools having the right facilities, Peter Farrell, professor of special needs in Manchester University's school of education, recognises that inclusion for children with learning difficulties is more problematic.

One objection to inclusion is the effect on pupils without special needs. But Professor Farrell carried out a study of two million children, which found that the number of children with special needs in a school had no impact on the achievement of other pupils.

Other studies have shown that the number of children with special needs also has no impact on behaviour among other pupils, with the possible exception of secondary schools with a large number of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. "The evidence is almost unequivocal: it doesn't have any effect," says Professor Farrell.

Nor is there any conclusive evidence that children with special needs do better in mainstream or special schools. Without evidence of any adverse impact, inclusion campaigners argue that it comes down to a question of human rights: that every child should have access to the same education. Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, says the aim is for a world without special schools.

"No one is saying we should shut every special school tomorrow; the mainstream system just isn't ready, but we believe young people benefit from inclusion," she says. "Our vision is that a fully inclusive education system won't need special schools."

Ms Flood says that this has got to mean more than just being in the same classroom: having a support worker at a pupil's side for the duration of the lesson can be just as much a barrier to teaching as having him or her in a separate building.

While this may require efforts to increase the capacity of the mainstream system to cope, she believes it is how children with special needs are absorbed into mainstream that is now the issue, rather than whether the process should take place at all. "We would hope that no child would ever feel excluded from traditional classroom activities, and teachers and support staff need to work together to ensure these activities are inclusive."

But if this is the eventual aim, Jan Cunningham finds it hard to see how it can ever apply to her pupils. Mrs Cunningham is headteacher of St Margaret's School in Tadworth, Surrey, a non-maintained school for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities, run by the Children's Trust charity. All of the 42 pupils have complex multiple needs and have cognitive functioning of between three and 12 months. The school has three full-time physiotherapists and a full-time paediatric consultant on site.

"I can't imagine how any of my pupils would manage in a mainstream school, because a mainstream school doesn't have the expertise and the therapists to do what we do," Mrs Cunningham says. It's not just the level of support available. For St Margaret's pupils, the need to follow a different curriculum would make inclusion meaningless.

"They would end up in ghettoes because they wouldn't be able to be integrated into a mainstream classroom. You would be mouthing platitudes when you are better off just having special schools," Mrs Cunningham adds.

But if there are children for whom inclusion is a very distant dream, if it is realistic at all, few people would argue that bringing some children previously destined for special schools into the mainstream has brought benefits.

At St Stephen's in Newham, Jane Johnson says she has seen the sort of changes that the architects of inclusion envisaged, where children with special needs are not seen as any different from any other pupils. "It has made a huge difference in the attitude society has towards people with special needs," she says.

"We have reached the point where the children don't see them as different. As far as the children are concerned they are part and parcel of the school. I don't think our children notice."

This seamless type of inclusion is the ideal, but the reality is there will be a place for special schools for some time to come.

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