More than just a dream

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Few subjects are as emotive as inclusion. Tim Brighouse reads an impressive collection that brooks no argument

Inclusive Education: readings and reflections

Edited by Gary Thomas and Mark Vaughan

Open University Press pound;18.99

It's not often that a book makes you feel guilty, as this one made me feel.

Beautifully and meticulously crafted, this is a compelling commentary and collection of articles relating to the issue of inclusion. It seems that everyone is in favour of inclusion in principle. But, as the authors sadly demonstrate, many either misunderstand the principle or have no intention of doing anything about it.

There can scarcely be a council or public body without a policy on public inclusion. Nor should we forget that in the first flush of ambiguous ambition, Tony Blair set up a unit at Number 10 which produced 18 detailed reports on various aspects of social exclusion, each with a series of recommendations on how it might be eliminated. The book attempts to trace the antecedents of inclusion with special, but not exclusive, reference to the world of children and the barriers to their learning: to those we may have heard described as the "handicapped", the "disabled", or those with "special educational needs". The authors explain the subtle influence language has on the way we think and behave.

There is a section on ideas and philosophy; another on the arguments that have raged over the past 50 years about segregation; a third on legislation and reports. Each of these is traced chronologically. Finally, there is a section on inclusion in action. All four sections contain some extraordinarily moving and powerful pieces.

Thomas and Vaughan start with the moral argument. We move from an extract from Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man to RH Tawney, from whom I learnt a long time ago the painful truth that we should "want for our own children only what we would provide for the children of others". Here there are some fascinating pieces from his 1931 work, Equality. Following an explanation for non-philosophers of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice comes the most stirring passage of the volume, the whole text of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech: surely the best piece of oratory ever delivered and one devoted to such an incontestably noble cause, that of equality and justice. Reading it again made me decide that it should be on the walls of every secondary school assembly hall.

The next piece in the first section highlights the immense importance of the contribution to our thinking made by Caroline Roaf and Hazel Bines, with their chapter "Needs, Rights, and Opportunities in Special Education".

They were the first educationists to shift the argument on to a more powerful footing just as the word "inclusion" took over from "integration".

The second and third sections are a painful but vivid reminder of the years when "severely subnormal" children were medically assessed as "ineducable" and cared for, rather than educated, in junior training centres. An article on "Asylums" by Erving Goffman neatly exposes the "out of sight, out of mind" warehousing mentality, with all the attendant spurious arguments about focusing scarce professional expertise and how segregation was in the pupil's best interest. How often have I heard such arguments?And that is where the guilt surfaces.

Inclusion stirs strong emotions among those involved in special education.

You need a special blend of logic and emotion to make and sustain the case for inclusion within the mainstream of children with severe barriers to their learning, especially if those barriers involve behavioural difficulty. Unlike those brave educators and politicians in Newham, east London, who have provided such a superb example to the rest of us in replacing segregated schools with inclusive provision, I confess I could rarely carry the day during my time as a chief education officer in Oxfordshire and Birmingham.

The book highlights one isolated example of real inclusion: Bishopswood special school, near Henley, Oxfordshire. This opened while I was CEO, not as a result of my efforts or those of politicians, but through the resolve and determined arguments of headteachers, staff and others in the area, one of the most influential being a parent of a child in the special school.

Built at enormous expense with state-of-the-art facilities in 1980, 12 years later Bishopswood transferred its pupils, staff, expertise and resources into local mainstream nurseries, schools and FE colleges.

It is examples such as this and many others of inclusion in practice that will hearten the reader, especially the practical and important work of Tony Booth and Mel Ainscow with their "Index of Inclusion", which ought to be having more influence than it is. Perhaps it would if inclusion strategies were assessed by Ofsted. But, as the book points out, this government has double standards. All the paraphernalia of the accountable state - the funding, the regulations, the league tables, and parental choice - makes inclusion a distant dream in many parts of the country.

A final word: Thomas and Vaughan have set a new standard for books of this sort. Usually editors settle for topping and tailing a collection of articles with an energetic review and justification of their choices. Here, to their credit, they go much further. Each selection is prefaced by well-argued explanations of its significance and all are assembled so that each logically leads to the next. This book will help those with the courage and determination to put the principle into practice. I just wish I had had it to hand over the past 20 years.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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