Inclusion in theory, but not yet in practice
Despite its ongoing image crisis, it seems that the Conservative party has found itself a crowd-pleaser with its promise to halt the closure of special schools. In today's TES poll on inclusion (pages 1, 4 5), 82 per cent of headteachers and more than three-quarters of classroom teachers involved in the research expressed support for this policy. From a demographic group that is famed for its leftism, surely this is telling the BlairKelly tribe something?
The results of the poll make for interesting, if unsurprising, reading.
Support for the ethos of inclusion is evident, with the majority of teachers and heads respecting the view that most children with special educational needs should be taught in mainstream schools. It is the practice that is proving difficult.
Nearly one-third of teachers interviewed say that one or more children they taught last year have dropped out of mainstream and into special education, and four in 10 teach at least one child whom they believe would be more appropriately catered for in a special school. Perhaps the most unsurprising result of all is that behavioural issues are causing the most consternation, with widespread opinion that pupils with either autism or emotional, social and behavioural difficulties should be taught separately.
So, what does inclusion in England and Wales really mean? That there is a right and a wrong kind of need? Wheelchairs: good. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: bad. Or is it a case of unrealistic expectations and rushed, uncompromising government policies?
Six out of 10 teachers feel that the resources and support they receive are inadequate for their inclusive requirements, with a substantial number taking a dim view of the amount and quality of training related to special needs that they have received.
Findings reveal that teachers with less than five years' experience are more likely to be the recipients of at least two days' training. This honoured group is also, notably, more likely to fly the inclusive flag, with 75 per cent agreeing that current policy is working well. Oh, to be young, green, enthusiastic - and brainwashed by the teacher development agency.
Perhaps the Government should think about lowering the age of compulsory retirement, weeding out the grumbling dinosaurs, and making way for their new generation of inclusively orientated teachbots? Or maybe they should look to secure the confidence of the general teaching population by ensuring that everyone feels well trained and prepared, and increasing the provision of behaviour support teams - a service that is mostly rated as good or adequate.
They should also remind themselves that pupils, teachers and heads alike are all individuals - with individual circumstances, individual values and individual needs. What works for some will not work for others - it's a question of pupil teacherestablishment fit, rather than a one-size-fits-all system.
Significantly, this notion is highlighted in the poll, with interviewees finding it difficult to generalise about the benefits of either mainstream or special schooling, arguing that it depends on the individual case.
Inclusion is about rights, but rights are about having choices.
Teachers need choices, too. The poll reveals that while professionals from all levels of experience find teaching pupils with special needs rewarding, some do not. And when reluctance is met with complications, such as lack of support, excessive paperwork, limited time, and stress associated with challenging behaviour, motivation becomes harder to find.
It seems that there is also some disparity between the opinions of class teachers and heads, the latter being more likely to assert the benefits of mainstream schooling for special needs pupils than the former.
Although the difference is small, experience has taught me that the key to successful inclusive practice is absolute unity. Staff bodies that share the same goal have the greatest chance of sustaining pupils with all kinds of needs. If the generals and the foot soldiers are struggling to see eye to eye, progress will inevitably unravel. Somehow, we need to find a way of pulling together, even if that way is through simply accepting that different people want and need different things.
I find myself imagining a three-tiered system: inclusive special schools, where intensive specialised input is complemented by appropriate opportunities to engage with a mainstream community; inclusive mainstream schools, where mainstream education readily accommodates those who will truly benefit from it; and mainstream mainstream schools, perhaps the most controversial of the three, but at least providing sanctuary for all those dissatisfied non-believers. We already have some fine examples within each genre, not least of all the mainstream mainstream: the domain of the up and coming zero-tolerance superhead.
So, there we have it: the teaching professionals have spoken. There is a need for practicalities: more resources, more training, and more special school places. Most of them believe in the vision of inclusion, but the view is still rather hazy - they want clarity and compromise.
But perhaps we should not lose sight of the fact that the true essence of inclusion is not about funding or environment - it is about attitude, and that is something that belongs to the individual.
Leader 22 Louisa Leaman is the author of Managing Very Challenging Behaviour and won the TES new columnist competition last year