My year of inclusion

10th April 2015 at 01:00

Nancy Gedge, a teacher who also happens to be the mother of a child with Down's syndrome, was candid in TES about her experiences of inclusion and why she felt a special school was a better option for her son ("The inclusion illusion", Feature, 13 March).

The piece reminded me of Joseph, the pupil who introduced me to inclusion in a mainstream setting. Joseph was 9 and severely autistic. He was very bright but communication was difficult. He was more or less non-verbal and would shout, scream, hit and occasionally bite when frustrated.

Looking back, I don't think you could describe Joseph's education as truly inclusive. He worked with a personal teaching assistant in a zoned-off area of the classroom and his timetable was divided into short activities that bore little resemblance to what was going on around him. Our pathetic attempts to get him to follow the curriculum were confined to copying out the names of Henry VIII's wives and drawing 2D shapes.

Being included meant having to sit through assemblies; it meant being sent down to the foundation unit so he didn't disturb the rest of the class during assessment week; it meant we sometimes had to evacuate the room until his high-pitched screaming and attempts to scratch and bite those around him had subsided.

I couldn't help. I was his class teacher but the constraints on my time reduced me to an interested onlooker: for more than 90 per cent of the day, he was taught by a teaching assistant (albeit a brilliant one) with no formal training. My overriding emotion that year was one of guilt. Guilt that I couldn't help Joseph enough; that he and the teaching assistant never got a break from each other; that I wasn't moving the rest of the class on.

Inclusion brings other problems, too. The class had 29 other children in it and managers were turning their thoughts to the all-important Sats year. There was a week of meetings: hours sat squeezed into tiny rooms while experts gave their opinions. Joseph's parents reluctantly decided that a special school would better serve his needs.

The professionals filled in the forms and departed. Life in the classroom carried on as normal. But we all felt flat - even though we knew we couldn't help Joseph enough in this environment, he was part of our school and we didn't want to lose him.

Every child brings something to a class, and Joseph brought out the best in all those around him. The other children would send him to the front when queuing for lunch. They burst into spontaneous applause when he got to hold up his work. They were desperate to sit next to him, and when he dropped - or threw - a pencil they clambered over each other to return it.

Teachers aren't supposed to have favourites but he was definitely one of mine. For Joseph, ultimately, inclusion failed, but the rest of us were undoubtedly better off for the attempt.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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