'There are only winners'
Parents, disabled people and our allies have driven the move towards inclusive education in Britain. It has not come from the Government's notion of "social inclusion" (everybody off benefits), or from a bunch of idealistic academics who have not been near a classroom since the end of the Second World War.
The phrase "inclusive education", which we have adopted, came from Ontario in Canada where it was coined to describe an education system transformed by the redeployment of the entire segregated sector - money and staff - from separate schools and classrooms to the mainstream. The leaders of this change created a new infrastructure to support what they considered to be a different system, working towards a different outcome for its most vulnerable members. The outcome they wanted was an adult community that responded with love, concern and support to those who had previously been shunned, feared and blamed for having physical, intellectual or emotional difficulties.
The core values of inclusion are based on the recognition that it is relationships alone that give our lives meaning and keep us safe in the world. Traditional policies and practices towards disabled or disturbed children consistently attack and break natural relationships between disabled and non-disabled people, leaving both groups unskilled and fearful. In Canada "special education" teachers were equipped with new skills aimed at building relationships and collaborative planning. Tools were developed such as "circles of friends" and teaching methods such as peer tutoring were used to maximise the interactions between the young people. These tools have been successfully adapted for use in Britain in numerous schools, and new ones have been added. Highfield junior school in Plymouth, for example, has woven together the idea of circles, mediation, bully busters and other initiatives into a whole-school policy that turned a failing school into an award-winning school.
Wherever inclusion has been embraced, it is evident that the higher staffing levels, extra planning, and greater range of skills available to mainstream teachers has led to a raised educational outcome for all the children. There are only winners.
The decision to follow the path of inclusion is based on deeply held values and beliefs. In our work in Britain it is absolutely clear that it is the values and beliefs of indivduals, be they parents, headteachers or local education authority officers, that decide whether young people with special educational needs should be part of society or not. It is nothing to do with resources, training or experience. Every day we meet wonderful headteachers who are busy doing what another headteacher has just told us is impossible. One school excludes more and more children while another takes in the same children and succeeds with them. We have confronted mainstream schools which, though additionally resourced and adapted for children with certain impairments, have refused the children on the grounds that they would need too much help, while at the same time totally unresourced, inaccessible and inexperienced schools have welcomed them. We have confronted schools that are barring children from entry on the grounds that they do not have the skills to meet their needs, while at the same time refusing to accept the training that would give them such skills.
As disabled people, the Alliance for Inclusive Education does not think young people's lives should be dependent on the values and prejudices of individuals, but on the principles of rationality and human rights. If inclusion has been done somewhere, then it should be done everywhere. Fear and lack of imagination are the only real barriers to beginning the process of inclusion. The unwillingness to face this fact is causing a frustrating circular argument: "Special schools must be kept because mainstream schools cannot cope because they do not have the resources that are in special schools ..." Where this rationale continues to eternally shoot itself in the foot, only integration is possible. Integration is a much lesser concept than inclusion. It allows a few more children, who might once have been in a segregated school, to attend an unchanged mainstream school as long as they can manage with a ramp, a little bit of untrained support and their mother on permanent stand-by. The resistance to full inclusion makes it hard to build the infrastructure that would make inclusion easier. We in the Alliance can see no alternative to giving all our support to those "idealists"still surviving within the education system who share our desire for a better, more humane world, and who "feel the fear and do it anyway".
Micheline Mason is director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, Unit 2, 70 South Lambeth Road, London SW8 1RL. Tel: 020 7735 5277. Fax: 020 7735 3828