Despite legislation and fighting talk, many schools are still not geared up for taking pupils with disabilities. Fran Abrams reports.
All schools believe in inclusion these days, don't they? The Office for Standards in Education confirmed as much last month in a major study of provision for pupils with special needs. Schools were keen to be seen as caring, inclusive places, the inspectorate found.
But, as one observer put it last week, while schools are "talking the talk," they are still not "walking the walk". Ofsted also found that while there was a growing awareness of the need to treat all pupils equally, there was still a huge gap between schools' aspirations and reality.
Two years after the Disability Discrimination Act, fewer than half the schools visited by inspectors had even prepared a proper plan to ensure access for pupils with disabilities. And a revised government strategy on inclusion had had little effect on the proportion of pupils attending mainstream schools.
So are schools still resistant to putting in lifts and other equipment for pupils with physical disabilities? Or is the problem more complex than that?
Could it be that while schools are reasonably happy to accommodate pupils with physical disabilities, they are more resistant to those with behavioural problems? In other words, are pupils in wheelchairs arriving at the front doors of their local schools while their more difficult classmates are disappearing out of the back?
This year, for the first time, the Department for Education and Skills has collected information on what happens to pupils with different types of special needs. It makes fascinating reading. Indeed, it suggests the issues are deeper, and perhaps more intractable, than even Ofsted might have realised.
Only about one in seven pupils with hearing or sight problems is now sent to special schools, the figures show, along with about one in five who has physical disabilities. But more than one in four with autism go to a special school.
When it comes to pupils who are regarded as having emotional or behavioural difficulties, the picture becomes murkier. The DfES figures show that about nine out of 10 pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties are in mainstream.
But that does not include any of the 13,000 excluded children who are taught in pupil referral units - and statemented pupils are four times more likely to be excluded. Nor does it include any of the estimated 15,000-plus who have simply disappeared from the education system. Many pupils in these last two groups, of course, will have recognised behavioural problems.
And then there are the 28,600 pupils who find themselves in special schools even though their special needs are classified as "moderate learning difficulties". It seems likely the real reason for their absence from the mainstream is much more complicated than these figures suggest. Could it be that many are rejected by the system not because of their slight educational difficulties but because their behaviour is difficult to deal with?
Dr Lani Florian, executive editor of the Cambridge Journal of Education and a lecturer in special and inclusive education at Cambridge university, believes that while the overall numbers of pupils in special schools are now quite stable, other trends are discernible beneath the surface.
"While certain types of children are more successfully included, other types are being excluded," she says. "The very stability of the figures suggests it's the type of problems children experience that make it harder or easier at different points in time to include them."
Parents' experiences certainly seem to back her view. A recent survey by the Audit Commission found that the greatest difficulties in gaining access to mainstream schools were experienced by parents of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. They were closely followed by those who had been excluded, and those with autism.
Looking back over the past 10 or 20 years, it is almost impossible to be sure what has happened. Have a greater proportion of pupils simply become unmanageable? Or have schools simply become less prepared to cope with unacceptable behaviour?
There is a general perception that the proportion of pupils with behavioural difficulties has risen, but a lack of official statistics makes the truth hard to pin down. The Prime Minister's strategy unit asserted as much in a recent paper on disability, however. And a study conducted in the London boroughs in the mid-1990s also suggests a growing proportion of special needs pupils with behaviour difficulties.
Although that survey, conducted by the Association of London Chief Education Officers, is not directly comparable with the DfES figures, it does suggest a substantial increase in these types of problems. It found 13 per cent of special needs pupils could be placed in this group. But the most recent DfES figures suggest that proportion has now risen above 21 per cent.
None of this tells us whether pupils' behaviour is worsening or whether schools' attitudes are hardening, of course. And there are some indications that the latter may be the case.
Certain teachers' unions, for example, are no more inclusive than they ever were when it comes to pupils whose behaviour is disruptive. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers still takes an unrepentant line on the issue.
When approached by The TES for comment, the union responded with a statement which left little room for doubt about its views.
"The ideal of inclusive schools is a fallacy which betrays the majority of pupils and parents," it began. And it continued: "There are some, particularly those with severe behavioural difficulties, who experience extreme problems. To seek to maintain such pupils in a mainstream setting, as part of a dogmatic adherence to inclusion, is a betrayal of the entitlements and need of those pupils."
So the attitudes of teachers do not always echo the warm words uttered to Ofsted inspectors by their headteachers and governing bodies. The willingness of the NASUWT to strike when its members want a certain pupil excluded underlines that fact.
Some experts say the underlying reason for the change goes wider than the mere heel-digging of a single teachers' union. They believe the reason for this hardening of attitudes can be placed at the door of the Government.
While promoting inclusion in one breath, they say, ministers are pushing their standards agenda in the next.
In today's market economy, that has to be the priority for schools. And it discourages them from opening their doors to pupils who may prove difficult to contain.
Steve Haines, education and skills policy manager for the Disability Rights Commission, believes it will be virtually impossible for schools to become truly inclusive while they remain under intense pressure to focus on improvement and exam results.
"On the one hand you have league tables, inspection and a performance-raising agenda. On the other there is a lot of rhetoric suggesting personalised learning, inclusion, widening participation.
"We can't see those two things working together. While there have been huge advances made in securing the rights of disabled people, it is clearly not happening for disabled children," he says.
Behaviour pull-out, Friday magazine