Focus on the child, not the disability

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Teachers' preparation to deal with inclusion is `patchy' and more needs to be done to ensure they receive parity of experience

It could take a school up to a decade to become an "inclusive community", according to one of Scotland's most successful practitioners.

Carol Cutler, principal teacher of support for learning at Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire, said it took them eight years to ensure all those with learning needs felt fully part of the school - "and we're not quite there yet". She said among the school's key strategies were relying heavily on parents, refusing to limit expectations of pupils and involving all pupils in discussing their attitudes to conditions ranging from autism to "dancing eye syndrome".

Ms Cutler was speaking at the launch in Dundee of the National Framework for Inclusion, produced by the Scottish Teacher Education Committee (TESS, February 6).

Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop threw down the gauntlet, saying that "achieving inclusion is the responsibility of all teachers in all schools", if children facing barriers to learning are not to be "marginalised".

Educationists admit that teachers' preparation to deal with inclusion is patchy. "More could be done to ensure parity of experience in all seven teacher education institutions," said Teresa Moran, associate dean responsible for initial teacher education at Dundee University and member of the STEC working group which produced the framework.

There is concern that the one-year PGDE courses could struggle to absorb such initiatives, in contrast to the four-year BEd programmes, as Ms Hyslop acknowledged. But she went on to play down the challenge, suggesting the new framework was as much about attempting a "cultural change" as it was about adding educational content to courses; it would help TEIs make improvements on which they had already embarked. She said there was "a golden opportunity" to "refresh 40 per cent of the profession" in the next five years - a reference to the 20,000 trainee teachers who would be entering classrooms in that time.

Ms Cutler, in a highly-regarded address, stressed the importance of focusing on the child, not the disability. She had an early reminder of that when the father of a Down's Syndrome youngster told her: "Alexandra is not a Down's Syndrome child. She is Alexandra, and she has Down's Syndrome."

The driving force behind these moves is 70-year-old racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart, who has lobbied ministers to ensure that "there must be no more scrapheaps". In a passionate video address, he recalled the "humiliation and abuse" he endured as a result of his dyslexia, which was not diagnosed until he was 41.

Several speakers underlined the difference between adults and young people in their attitudes to inclusion. Julie Allan of Stirling University said children "get it". Martyn Rouse, who directs a government-backed inclusive education project at Aberdeen University, said students on teaching practice were positive about inclusion: "they mostly survive placements". But he cautioned against "glib assumptions that primary schools have it cracked and secondaries haven't: we can point to many primaries that haven't and many secondaries that have; and, within secondaries, there are departments that are inclusive in their teaching and many that are not".

Professor Allan underlined the "huge resistance" to inclusion from the teacher unions, citing one former president who described the policy as "a time bomb waiting to go off."

She also noted, as another barrier, the recantation of Baroness Warnock, regarded as the architect of enlightenment towards special needs, who now believes that inclusion is "not a very bright idea".

The importance of inclusion, p21.

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