Exploring the differences

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Julie Allan looks at how mainstream pupils can come to terms with integration

Scott, an 11-year-old with moderate learning difficulties, told me that the pupils in his primary mainstream class called him "brain dead". When I spoke to the mainstream pupils, they volunteered some other names they had for him, such as "radar" and "Tefal man", amid much laughter. That overt bullying of this kind is not more widespread is perhaps surprising, given that so little is done to nurture relationships between pupils with special educational needs and their mainstream peers. Recent research suggests that mainstream pupils have a remarkably sophisticated understanding of disability and a high level of sensitivity. Yet their understanding is complex and full of ambivalences and contradictions. Careful management is needed to ensure that integration is a positive process for all pupils.

The mainstream pupils I spoke to were convinced that all pupils with special educational needs should attend mainstream schools and acknowledged the benefits of associating with them: "I think it helps us, too, to have more respect for them, because I used to think people from the special unit didn't actually have to do anything there." They said they tried to avoid viewing such pupils as having something wrong with them (within a kind of medical model) or as objects of pity (within a charity framework).

Yet, sometimes these sentiments were hard to avoid. For example, one secondary mainstream pupil spoke of her uneasiness with Raschida, whose sight was impaired. "Sometimes I don't like to, I'd feel as if I'd patronise her by saying 'here's a seat over here' but at the same time I'm trying to help her. I just don't know what to do sometimes . . . I'm afraid, afraid I'm doing that sometimes, but I don't mean to. I'm just trying to, like, go out my way to help her a wee bit."

This particular pupil had, in a sense, worked through her own discomfort, by talking to Raschida and find-ing out what she was most at ease with. "I used to, because I didn't know what to do, but she told me not to, she didn't like it. Everybody treats her like, 'Do you need help? Are you all right? Do you want me to read it out for you? Can you see this?' If she wants help she'll ask us, kind of thing. She won't tell us to stop it, but she feels more comfortable if we treat her normally."

Sometimes, the uncertainty for mainstream pupils concerned boundaries of physical contact. One group of upper primary pupils laughed as they spoke of getting "a big kiss and a cuddle" from Brian, a boy with Down's syndrome. The only problem this caused them was the Milky Way stain he left on their shirts when he hadn't washed his face. One girl, however, revealed her embarrassment when, as she said, "he'd rub my knee or he'd rub my hand", suggesting he was trying to "get closer to me. Not as in a kind of friendship way, but something else." In the absence of anyone to talk to about this, she continued to sanction Brian's contact, not wanting to hurt his feelings, but remained anxious about what other pupils thought of her.

At other times the mainstream pupils' conduct was more negative, but their accounts of this revealed the tensions they experienced in deciding what was acceptable. Scott's classmates, for example, suggested he was unaware of the extent of their cruelty. "They just sort of say things that everybody laughs at but he doesn't really know that they're talking about him sometimes." Yet they also acknowledged that he would "stick up for himself" at times, implying that he did know what was going on.

The peers of Sarah, a secondary pupil, acknowledged that she often arrived at lessons when it was obvious that she had been crying and attributed this to the aggression of one class member towards her. The teachers, they said, were unaware of any bullying and they had considered telling them. They justified their own inertia, however, on the grounds that Sarah would "maybe not want us to say anything in case it started a big fuss over her".

These mainstream pupils appear to have given much thought to their relationships. Nevertheless, they were aware of, and troubled by, the contradictory messages they were giving about their conduct and made it clear that they needed help. The message was: "They should give us advice on how to treat them because people, like, say things. People wouldn't tease her as much." Without this, Sarah's peers concluded, she "won't have much of a future".

What can schools do to assist the process of integration? First, they should allow mainstream pupils scope to explore the kinds of ambivalences and uncertainties they articulated so clearly. Schools need to avoid being prescriptive, telling mainstream pupils how to "treat" pupils with special needs, but should provide opportunities for reflection. They should also encourage the kind of dialogue that Raschida and her mainstream peers had, which allowed them to negotiate the parameters of their relationships.

Schools also have a responsibility to help mainstream pupils deal with matters of gender and sexuality. This includes helping them to respond to uncomfortable situations (such as unwanted physical contact) as well as more positive aspects of their interaction. Some gentle persuasion may be necessary to ensure that pupils with special needs are recognised by their peers as having similar feelings and desires. This might help them, as Raschida said, "to see that my disability is part of me but it doesn't stop me doing the boyfriend stuff".

Staff need to be aware of the social relationships among pupils with special needs and their peers and be alert to difficulties as they arise. This means finding out what goes on in playgrounds and corridors, not just within classrooms. They should take a firm stance on bullying, such as that experienced by Scott and Sarah, but should deal with this in ways that do not further entrench the pupils' disabled identities.

Some schools have begun offer support to mainstream pupils. Specialist staff in one secondary school run a course for first-year pupils aimed at sensitising them to the experience of visual impairment. Another secondary school offers a Scotvec module, dealing with disability issues, for senior pupils who work within the special unit. But these are exceptions. Special educational needs do not have to be addressed explicitly within formal courses but could form part of more general discussions of identity and difference. They do, however, need to be part of the mainstream school's agenda if integration is to be an educative and positive experience for all pupils.

Scott argued that "nearly everyone is different. They've got talents and things they can't do." If schools helped mainstream pupils to explore these differences, perhaps people like Scott could avoid being, as he put it, "heartbroken".

Julie Allan is a researcher in the education department at Stirling University.

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