No wonder inclusion is a term of abuse

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Much greater expertise is needed to accommodate special needs pupils within mainstream schools, writes Phil Bayliss

Teachers and teaching assistants often go "beyond the call of duty" to help pupils with special educational need, according to The Costs of Inclusion, a recent report for the National Union of Teachers by John MacBeath and Maurice Galton of Cambridge university.

Professor MacBeath also described inclusion as "a form of abuse" for some children who were placed in "totally inappropriate" schools in which they inevitably failed.

Inclusion is now a global value and is enshrined in United Nations declarations and government policy. So why doesn't it work?

Making inclusion work requires knowing what it is and the professional competence to understand pupils who present major challenges - increasingly, they are children for whom the social environment of school is the greatest barrier to learning.

The problem is growing: more emotional and behavioural difficulties linked to mental health; autistic-spectrum and learning disorders; problems of diversity linked to religious and ethnic conflicts; and more children in special schools with "significant learning disabilities" whose parents would, in an ideal world, choose inclusion for their children?

Inclusion's problems are complex, technical and border on the clinical.

Teachers receive little training in the psychology or sociology of learning. They understand little of the social psychology of classrooms or groups for which inclusion is dependent on schools' social environment.

In mainstream "inclusive" settings, our most vulnerable children have their needs met by the least qualified practitioner:the classroom assistant. It is little wonder that these children may experience a school process that borders on a "form of abuse".

Inclusion should allow a child to develop holistically. A socio-cultural theory of learning, growth and development supports the view that inclusion can provide the optimal learning environment, which can enable pupils to fulfil their potential in ways that specialist, segregated environments do not.

Meanwhile, theories of social justice determine a set of rights for people with disabilities, who increasingly seek inclusive settings. Inclusion is not just about either the individual child or rights: rather, it is located in the interaction between these two conflicting perspectives. Significant learning and support needs can be seen from various angles: psychological, neurological, linguistic, sociological, philosophical (social justice) and educational. As such, they require professionals with the right training and experience.

In this country, training in special educational needs has been diluted into non-existence compared with European systems, which require at least five years' focused training at degree level or higher. Germany's special needs system (sonderpedagogik) and the Hungarian model of "conductive"

education have proven clinical experience with children who present significant learning difficulties. In the UK, such experience is supposed to reside in the work of educational psychologists, speech therapists and physiotherapists, yet their presence in mainstream schools is increasingly rare.

Clearly, inclusion cannot be realised within the "superteacher" model - a classroom practitioner who can teach everybody across the extremities of ability, diversity and disability. At present, inclusion is confined to meeting the needs of those children who do not put pressure on the system beyond given limits. Teachers cannot be expected to know everything and deal with the complexities presented by the minority of children with significant needs. Teachers are supposed to teach, and they cannot be expected to be subject specialists while at the same time being social workers, counsellors, psychologists or therapists.

Inclusion can only be made to work by re-thinking education and seeing it as a process that requires teamwork. Yet existing teamwork models (specifically that of multi-agency working) are fraught with problems, including organisation, communication, resources, and - most problematically of all - in the domains of professional knowledge.

On the other hand, schools are increasingly developing an invaluable resource base: classroom assistants. Recent work at Manchester university has shown that inclusion cannot work without the presence of classroom assistants. But in terms of professional knowledge, their expertise is rudimentary. At the same time, the Government is bent on "remodelling the workforce" and is concerned with training classroom assistants to become "para-educators" who take classes and have the professional competence to substitute for teachers.

In this model, inclusion becomes the worst of all possible worlds - because para-educators have even less knowledge than teachers of how to work with vulnerable children in inclusive settings.

A different approach would be to develop the "special" in special education by having para-professional special needs assistants or inclusion workers who are trained to degree level. They would be people who understand children with special needs and how to work with them in partnership with teachers - in inclusive settings and to the betterment of schools.

Dr Phil Bayliss is senior lecturer in special educational needs and disability at Exeter university. He will be speaking at "What Works? Educating disabled children for life", a conference organised by the charity Scope in partnership with The TES, on June 20. To find out more, go to www.scope.org.uknews

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