Inclusion through the looking-glass

28th April 2006 at 01:00
An informed debate must include the origins of mainstreaming as a social reform, says Anne Pirrie.

ver the past couple of years, this newspaper has run a number of stories on inclusion - and I use the word "stories" advisedly. First, there are voices that "sing out for inclusion" (Ewan Aitken, January 7, 2005). And then there are those who ask whether "we can't make inclusion work" (Joan Mowat, November 18, 2005).

Basically, there are two types of story. First, there are the stories that we tell other people, and then there are those that we tell ourselves.

Stories about inclusion usually fall into both categories. When it comes to the inclusion story, however, the "once upon a time" of folklore is translated into "every child has a right to mainstream education". That was the starting point of an incisive article published in The TES Scotland early last year, in which Douglas Osler, former head of HM Inspectorate of Education, remarked that "some policies are so rooted in professional correctness that it is hard to question them" (January 7, 2005).

It is not entirely clear what Professor Osler meant by professional correctness. I suspect he just could not bring himself to use the term political correctness in the context of inclusion. That is quite understandable, although it doesn't exactly help to move the story along.

One of the reasons is because it feeds on itself. It inhabits some kind of mystical parallel universe which exists alongside the under-narrated material world most of us live in. As reality bites, and as the legacy of the Warnock report has become clearer, the notion of inclusion becomes more of a chimera and retreats ever further into the distance. Inclusion seems destined always to be a road to travel, and never a place to arrive.

Another reason the inclusion story does not wash is that it is a rather poor sequel to another unfinished grand narrative - namely, the project of redressing discrimination based on class, gender and race. I believe that the inclusion project is a prime example of what the sociologist Steve Fuller has described as the reinterpretation of a first-order political failure as a second-order intellectual virtue. It's one that sells. It's hit the mainstream - and it appears we have to make it work.

It is time now to tell a different story. A story that does justice to the origins of mainstreaming as a social reform strategy, and that maintains a clear distinction between notions of equity and equality.

The term "mainstreaming" first came to prominence in the 1970s in the United States. It described the practice of teaching "handicapped" children in regular classrooms to the fullest extent possible. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975) stated that all such children were entitled to a "free and appropriate" education "in the least restrictive environment". There are few who would disagree with these sentiments.

However, it is also instructive for the current debate on inclusion to consider the evolution of the term "gender mainstreaming". This had achieved great popularity by the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In the lengthy Platform for Action that was the outcome of the Beijing conference, governments were exhorted to promote "a visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes, so that, before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of the effects for women and men, respectively".

The call for greater participation by women in various areas of public life is but one element of gender mainstreaming. In the late 1990s, the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) issued a salutary reminder that "the ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality". The definition put forward by Ecosoc contained the observation that "gender mainstreaming does not replace the need for targeted women-specific policies and programmes or positive legislation, nor does it substitute for gender units or focal points".

There are clear implications here for the place of specialist provision.

And yet there has been relatively little public discussion or recognition of the fact that special schools can also be a locus of inclusion. The reasons for this lack of public debate are complex, and are certainly beyond the scope of a short article such as this. There are likely to be a number of factors at play, apart from short-term collective memory loss.

The growing impact of the market in higher education, the irresistible rise of the professional expert and the power of academic careerism have all served to underpin the authority of educational legislators. And they have focused the attention of academics and others working in the field on the provision of services rather than on the exploration of value systems and ideas.

This has allowed for the persistence of the dichotomous correlation between "segregation" and social exclusion and "mainstreaming" and social inclusion. I, for one, do not believe that such a distinction serves the cause of equality in education. It was Olympe de Gouges who first identified the "paradox of feminism" in 18th century France. Her response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 was the Declaration of the Rights of Women of 1791. De Gouges was operating on the assumption that women's rights were best protected through specific norms that applied only to women rather than by general norms (which in any case only applied to men).

The paradox of feminism - and this applies in no small measure to a much newer "ism", namely disabilism - is that, in acting on behalf of women, feminists had to invoke their difference in order to object to their exclusion from citizenship on the basis of that difference.

It is my belief that the notion of disabilism came into being because of a systemic failure to recognise difference despite, or indeed perhaps even because of, new Labour rhetoric about "celebrating diversity" and a misplaced faith in centralist policy solutions.

Olympe de Gouges was executed in 1793. It is some consolation that, while I too am "a woman who has only paradoxes to offer and not problems easy to resolve", I am unlikely to meet such an end.

Dr Anne Pirrie is a researcher at the SCRE Centre in the education faculty of Glasgow University.

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