Learn from the voices of experience

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Eight-year-old Abdul recently moved from a special school for the visually impaired to a mainstream school nearer his home. The journey to the special school was long and he often returned home late and tired, especially as the taxi frequently failed to pick him up on time. He had difficulty making friends locally and his parents couldn't pop into the school, in fact they found it difficult to visit at all.

And because Abdul was bussed to and from the school he was not learning to find his way around his own part of town. Neither was he being integrated into the local Bengali community.

Abdul is one of many children interviewed for Inclusion in Action, a teacher training pack produced by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, an independent organisation working towards the inclusion of all pupils with disabilities or learning difficulties in mainstream schools. The pack, a set of two audio tapes featuring radio documentary-type programmes, includes interviews with teachers, pupils, heads and parents on their experience of inclusion. An accompanying guidebook looks at six themes mainstream schools should consider - classroom assistance, access to the curriculum and individual planning, specialist skills, listening to parents and pupils, assessing the environment and shared values and teamwork. Twelve cards provide a summary of the tapes' contents and help the user identify and select examples of practice.

Apart from Abdul, the case studies include the integration of a 13-year-old boy with severe learning difficulties into a comprehensive; a middle school that has given much thought and energy to supporting children with behavioural and emotional problems; and a Midlands primary school that is supporting children with autism.

The need to foster independence is an important theme. One of Abdul's new teachers points out that when he arrived, staff over-estimated his needs: "There was a danger that adults would become a barrier between the child and school." So support was gradually reduced and more time and energy was put into preparing materials and keeping an eye on him rather than being with him all the time.

The schools make it sound easy, but inclusion is a difficult path to follow. Judy Sebba of the University of Cambridge School of Education, says: "It is not about fitting the children into the system but re-evaluating the ethos, curriculum policy and structure to increase diversity."

With Mel Ainscow of Manchester University School of Education, she has set up a project with eight secondary schools - Understanding the Development of Inclusive Schools - to study the conditions that allow the successful widening of student diversity.

The word "inclusion" is often used synonymously with "integration", the partners say. But there are strong distinctions. While integration tends to see disability as a "problem" to be fixed, inclusion emphasises the gifts that everyone brings and stresses the value of collaborative working towards agreed and shared values rather than using outside experts. Integration, they claim, is likely to encourage learned helplessness while inclusion promotes assertiveness.

Both maintain that in becoming more inclusive schools can benefit. "You create an organisation that is much more flexible and comes to respond more readily and effectively to everybody's needs," says Mel Ainscow. "Teachers tend to become more reflective."

It is a way of working that would be easily recognised by teachers at Saffron Walden High School, in Essex, a 1,600-pupil school with 28 pupils with statements of special needs and around 135 on the special needs register. Assistance comes from an unusually large learning support team of two teachers and 11 classroom assistants, two of whom are also qualified teachers. The assistants work with teachers as equals in the classroom. The team is an integral part of the school, not an add-on unit.

Members rarely work exclusively with individual pupils. "The teacher sets up the structure of the lessons," says one. "I may then sit with one of the special needs children and plan the day's activities. I'll help the child a bit and then work with anyone who needs help, including the most able."

Jan Moore, curriculum area co-ordinator, says: "We aim to avoid making special needs pupils feel picked out." The school isn't dogmatic about inclusions. It does take children off timetable, and there is setting in some subjects.

Children with severe learning difficulties do extra reading work in a workshop tutored by specially-trained sixth-formers. The workshop, which is held between 8.30am and 9am each day, has the hidden agenda "of improving parenting skills". Language work, however, is reinforced in the classroom in all subjects.

Sandra Lovett, head of learning support at Saffron Walden, sees the Inclusion in Action tapes as a useful introduction for newly-qualified teachers and would use "bite-sized' pieces" of the interviews to illustrate points. She says the use of audio tapes rather than video is a good idea. "I'm tired of watching faces - a video can be distracting," she adds.

The tapes give the child's point of view particularly well and are a good reminder of the need to give children the gift of independence.

But, she says,she would have liked more information on the schools and the children's learning difficulties. She adds: "A tapescript would have been useful so we could have highlighted those parts of most interest."

Carolyn O'Grady Inclusion in Action is available from The Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, Redland Close, Elm Lane, Redland, Bristol BS6 6UE. Price Pounds 20. Tel: 0117923 8450

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