The idealistic philosophy which holds that all children, regardless of special needs or disruptive behaviour, should be educated together, is due for a rethink, according to Heather Du Quesnay, president of the Society of Education Officers.
Speaking at the AEP conference, she acknowledged that in calling for a more pragmatic and realistic approach she was asking the psychologists and others involved in special needs to question the viability of one of their most passionately-held principles.
Ten years ago, she said, there was a broad consensus that inclusion was the way forward; now, with less money, increasing parental expectations of schools, the pressures of a market-led service and increasing deprivation in inner-city areas, a degree of realism is essential if all the elements of the education service are to work together. "Public concern about social cohesion and the massive problems facing the whole of society demand more of us than the rather bland inclusive philosophy promoted in the past . . . we must recognise the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be."
Otherwise, said Ms Du Quesnay, who is also chief education officer for Lambeth, we run the risk of destroying teachers' tolerance. Referring to the dramatic events at The Ridings and Manton schools, she said: "We all get a bit impatient with certain teacher-politicians, particularly the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which seems determined to keep the issue of pupils' behaviour at the forefront of the educational agenda, but unless there is some understanding of the pressures teachers face, they will wash their hands of the problem rather than working with us."
It would be more sensible to concentrate on differentiating more accurately between different children's needs, and breaking down the communication barriers between education, health and social services - a view that was echoed by many delegates. "Health visitors, for instance, could promote early learning as well as physical health," she suggested.
Teachers are being asked to take on too much and need more support from other services. "It's no good closing so many MLD (moderate learning difficulty) schools and expecting the mainstream school to take the children on unless the appropriate resources, teachers and skills are in place."
Social services is a very different profession, with different priorities and diffferent jargon, she admitted, but it is vital that a dialogue is established. "We have no choice."
Reaction to the speech was divided between those who welcomed it as a return to realism and those who saw it as selling out. "Once you use the word 'pragmatism', then that is the death knell for inclusion," warned one delegate.