The gulf between ideals and inclusion
A significant number of schools now feel they are embracing the ideal of inclusion, according to the latest report on special needs provision from the Office for Standards in Education (TES, October 15). An earnest ideology, its intentions are hopeful and fair: the right for all pupils to have the opportunity to belong and achieve in their local school, including those individuals who fall under the acronyms of special educational needs.
So it is a surprise to learn that despite a general fondness for the friendly inclusive ethos, there has been a significant increase in the number of students placed in pupil-referral units; in other words, slipping out of the mainstream grasp.
Actually, it is no surprise at all. The reality of providing inclusive education - as schools and the Government are continuing to discover - is far more complex, challenging and controversial than the dream implies.
A large number of schools have pointed out that, although stepping into the inclusive light, they feel they lack the expertise and resources to cater effectively for pupils with varying and complex needs: an honest response that needs real solutions.
Promises of practical teaching resources, facilities, and improved training opportunities, as alluded to in the Government's strategy paper Removing Barriers to Achievement, may offer hope - a realisation that good ideas are not enough, they actually need to be workable. But what lies beneath this issue is the fact that good ideas also need to be believed in. Not in token, but utterly. Inclusion is not adding a few wheelchair ramps. And it is not a student with profound and multiple learning difficulties being dragged from room to room by a support assistant. A child with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties being repeatedly excluded from lessons, trips and activities because their behaviour does not adhere to the expectations of the school, is not inclusion. We are all different, and complicated. Perhaps I have encountered a few too many "glory" heads who claim the kudos of the philosophy, while allowing back-door exclusions to slip across their desks. The dark heart of inclusion: every child matters, but only if they behave themselves.
For inclusion to succeed, schools have to want it. Really want it. They have to commit wholeheartedly to each and every child that enters their gates, whether that child is spitting in the corridor, tearing down displays, or cursing in front of the school governors.
Inclusion is gritty and raw. It places rigorous demands on those striving for it, and requires compromise, flexibility and acceptance. Unless it is very carefully managed, it will function rather like an ill-conceived communism for schools: everyone is entitled to an equal share of the experience. They all get the same - but, alas, they all get a little less.
Removing Barriers to Achievement outlines a determination to rectify some of inclusion's previous misjudgements. But it fails to acknowledge that the biggest barrier to be removed is the illogical duality of educational principles: the drive to raise academic attainment, while simultaneously addressing the needs of the educationally challenged. It is a conflict of interests: schools that are bound to league table success will be wary of low-achievers, especially those who pose a threat to others' achievement - those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Under such pressures, true inclusion is just myth.
There is good practice out there, much of it springing from the remaining special schools which the Government now acknowledges as a useful source of knowledge and expertise, and the work that they are doing to uphold inclusion through partnerships with mainstream schools. But therein lies another reality: effective inclusion cannot be provided by one big machine.
The big machine will not always notice the details, and for special needs, details matter. Knowing the small things that motivate a pupil who is unable to communicate with language. Having the time to make sure that every minute of a lesson will be accessible - and meaningful - to a child with limited intellectual capacity. Being able to empathise and negotiate with an individual who has just threatened to kill your unborn child. It takes certain kinds of people with certain kinds of expertise to manage these issues. Does every mainstream practitioner have the time, the energy and the inclination to take this on board? And with an increasingly "green" teaching population, will there be enough stability, experience and confidence to cope with the challenge?
This is not defeatist talk: it is realism. As well as commitment, "honest" inclusion requires a balanced approach: an understanding that specialist provision needs to be respected and valued, whether it is supporting mainstream schools or standing on its own. For some individuals, special schools provide the greatest chance of reaching their potential - and surely that is what it is all about?
Louisa Leaman is a behaviour support teacher and winner of the TES New Columnists' competition 2004