Special education has come a long way since the formation in 1903 of the National Special Schools Association one of NASEN's predecessors. Then, the educational needs of these children and young people were only recognised by a few. Today special education is at the forefront of the political and professional agenda.
Over this period there has been a shift from a view of the child's difficulties as being within him or her, to a greater awareness of the systemic nature of educational needs created by schools, teachers and the community as a whole.
With this development has come the recognition that the segregated practices and attitudes which accompanied the "within" child view of special education often exacerbated the difficulties pupils faced in schools. A key theme to emerge in many government and professional documents as the 21st century approaches is inclusion.
However, as in so many previous themes, such as mixed ability teaching, integration, and differentiation, inclusion can be just another slogan used by all, applied by some, but really only understood by a few. It is all too easy for administrators, headteachers, teachers and parents, let alone politicians, to use the slogan without understanding the complexities of the issues.
There is a pressing need to have a wider debate as to what inclusion actually means, how it can allow for choice in terms of placement, why it is a better option in terms of educational outcomes for the individual child and what needs to be in place to enable inclusion to be achieved. This debate needs to face the challenge of how much "diversity" is seen as desirable and how much "sameness" is needed by teachers and schools to enable pupils to achieve.
Since 1972 all children in the United Kingdom have been included within education, and over the past 20 to 30 years we have seen the majority of children within special educational needs being taught within mainstream schools. However, inclusion should not be about place, but about a process which enables children to receive their rights and entitlements.
We may have achieved a form of inclusion for many pupils by placing them in mainstream schools, but are they included on all the terms of being equally valued?
The National Association for Special Educational Needs' policy document sets out the view that inclusive principles highlight the importance of meeting children's individual needs, of working in partnerships with pupils and their parentscarers and of involving teachers and schools in the development of more inclusive approaches.
Without this inclusion will become synonymous with the placement of children in mainstream rather than a process whereby children's diversity and hence their value and achievements are recognised regardless of their special educational need.
* John Visser is lecturer in the school of education at the University of Birmingham and president of NASEN, 45 Amber Business Village, Amber Close, Tamworth, B77 4RP. He will be speaking about recent Government-led changes and their impact on SEN teachers at Special Needs London, an exhibition and conference organised by NASEN and the Educational Publishers Council at the Business Design Centre in London, November 4-6. See pages 22-23.