Get the priorities right on inclusion

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Don't blame the children if the policy is failing. It needs smaller classes and better staffing, says Andrew Fullwood

School inclusion is supposed to be a positive and beneficial move for all pupils, not just pupils with special (or additional) needs. But it is failing. Despite being someone who usually treats a Government initiative with a good deal of suspicion and a healthy dose of cynicism, I take no pleasure from this.

It is also understandable, albeit regrettable, that teachers are turning against inclusion. But anecdotal evidence that inclusion is to blame for declining standards of behaviour is gaining weight and the tension in schools is mounting.

The intention behind inclusion is good, a step towards a truly comprehensive education system. If we abandon it or get it wrong, we risk creating a two-tier selective system. If it moves forward in a truly inclusive direction, it will radically alter the existing landscape. But it cannot continue in the current one size fits all approach.

Unfortunately, opposition is taking an increasingly disconcerting hue - a culture of "blame the children" is developing: anyone who will not or cannot conform should be excluded.

Witness the vitriol at the Easter conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Listening to news reports, I was shocked and angered by a cheap joke made at the expense of a pupil with a disability. The union's members say they want a reversal of inclusion policy because it is failing the most vulnerable children. In practice, they too want to exclude any child who doesn't conform.

There are many who profess support for inclusion but with exceptions. But if inclusion is not for everybody, then it is not inclusion. Who will decide where the line is drawn and the door is closed?

Inclusion is not the real problem. Research has shown that all pupils can benefit from inclusion when schools put it at the heart of their ethos. It should be good sense that the best practice for pupils with special educational needs is best practice for all pupils. But it is failing and if we are not going to blame the children, then what or who is to blame?

It is worth considering some facts. The number of pupils likely to enter mainstream schools due to the new "presumption of mainstreaming" is tiny; it amounts to only 1 in 225 of the school population. Sixty per cent of pupils with a record of needs are already in mainstream schools and have been for some time.

The only area of the special school sector that will not see a reduction of pupils is those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD).

It is true that these pupils will need a high level of support and also that teachers are not being given the opportunity to prepare for this.

Finally, while HMI can produce statistics to say behaviour is not deteriorating, there is a real feeling that the number of pupils who could be characterised as SEBD is increasing.

There are a number of things to consider, all of which lead to the inevitable conclusion that a radical change is necessary.

First, society has changed faster than education. The modern social environment is not well suited to the development of essential skills in children; yet in school it is still assumed that children come equipped with the necessary language, attention and reasoning skills to learn. Then some blame them if they don't and they become the source of all problems.

Second, the Labour Government and the Scottish Executive are to blame, for many reasons. Is it any surprise that children are being blamed for problems in education when we have ministers determined to include them while at the same time demonising them? Jack McConnell's attacks on "neds" and the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders and curfews are creating an atmosphere where we live in fear of children - the children we are then told we have to include in our schools.

Politicians are trying to hammer square pegs in round holes and an increasing number of children do not fit school. The testing and exam cultures instil a sense of failure in too many children. The 5-14 levels, Standard grade and Higher results are the educational holy grail. This narrows the ability of teachers to create enriching learning experiences and defines a pedagogy that demands conformity from pupils. Both teachers and pupils have less and less control over learning.

So if politicians are really determined to create an inclusive education system, they must redefine the priorities. In the meantime, they could cut class sizes to 20 or fewer and provide the extra teachers and support staff needed, backed up by training and resources.

As a matter of priority a consensus of understanding must be reached about inclusion or it will become increasingly resented and continue to fail.

Only when all the participants in the process are persuaded will there be the collective courage and determination to revolutionise our schools and make them fit for all our children.

Andrew Fullwood is a support teacher at Hunter High in East Kilbride.

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