Welcome to the explosion unit

11th March 2005 at 00:00
There's the girl who can only speak to male teachers in profanities and the boy who settles arguments with his forehead. This is inclusion in practice: the exclusion of the violent minority is the price we pay for the majority to study in peace, writes Peter Jones

The learning support teacher is explaining why he's been off school: "It's just that the cracking sound of the skull going in, made me feel sick. I couldn't face going back into the classroom for the whole afternoon. I couldn't stop shaking."

As the senior manager in charge of inclusion, I've just had a meeting with him to find out why he's been chalking up so much absence since September.

We've been talking about the stress he has been working under for 12 hours a week in the inclusion unit, a place where we segregate about 50 of the most challenging pupils in this secondary school.

The staff who work there have grimly termed it the "containment unit", but an inspector, full of praise for it, recently let out a true Freudian slip and described it most accurately of all as the "explosion unit".

The violence that the learning support teacher has described is all too common in the inclusion unit. Our most disruptive pupils from Years 7 to 9 go there for all or almost all of their lessons. In a sense, we have created a special school within the large mainstream comprehensive, which offers a blend of both inclusion and exclusion.

The rooms are bright and cheery, as is the demeanour of the long-suffering team of teachers and assistants who have learnt to keep smiling while dealing with regular outbursts of anger, volatility and frustration.

It would be nice to think that we always turn failure to success, but very few of these pupils seem capable of being let back regularly to the mainstream, even after a period of nurturing behaviour interventions. The best we manage is to let a few into a couple of lessons a week where for some quirky reason they like the subject, the personality of the teacher or both.

Yet the Government inclusion hype assumes that this kind of provision is usually a temporary re-alignment process for very challenging pupils and that the miscreants then go back to their ordinary lessons.

The vast majority of emotionally and behaviourally difficult (EBD) youngsters have days that oscillate wildly from good to bad and back again.

Seven pupils work with one teacher and a learning support assistant, following the national curriculum in a manner of speaking, interspersed with some of the most gross interruptions. Meanwhile, the majority of mainstream lessons are spared the massive disruption that their presence in a normal classroom usually brings. This gives the rest of the school the chance to be "included", that is to say, to learn with their teachers without constant friction.

In the past, some of the pupils we now deal with were on the mild to medium autistic spectrum and would have been in special schools in larger numbers.

The policy of inclusion has put a larger number into the mainstream with some extra funding but, nevertheless, a level of resourcing that only scratches the surface of the problems they bring with them.

We segregated the head-butting pupil from the others for a couple of lessons, but forgiveness in inclusion units has to be as swift as the punishment, because in the grander scale of things this level of pupil violence is not unusual.

Later in the week another lad went Awol, running around the main school building with a fire extinguisher. Another boy was great in one lesson, but in the next he decided to try to eat the pages of the exercise book that had just earned him accolades. The lesson dived further when his mate decided to hide in the cupboard and refused to come out. The male teacher battled on but a new source of disruption began to build. A girl diagnosed with compulsiveobsessive disorder was now in full eruption, which means she had started to swear and abuse her teacher. She always and only communicates with male teachers by swearing at them.

The policy of inclusion has not solved the problem of alienated, emotionally disturbed pupils, but our local authority has pursued it with fascist-like dedication. We are forced to accept pupils into school with severe emotional problems. We have tried to turn away those with a record of violence or self-harm or with a reputation for starting fires. The law suggests that we can make the case that we do not have the expertise to meet their needs without compromising the good order of the rest of the school. But we are usually overruled by the local education authority.

Once in school, the problems we feared we could not deal with often start to show big-time. However, once they are on the school roll, it is a very difficult process to find somewhere better for these very disturbed children. A bizarrely complex chain of form-filling, multi-agency procrastination and meetings starts. I cannot speak for all local authorities but the people who run our borough special needs department hope that if they ignore all requests for an alternative placement and bury their heads in the sand, the problem will go away. For schools like ours, inclusion often feels like being set up.

Not all aspects of inclusion are as difficult for us. The pupils with physical disability we have taken have fared much better and have usually had lots of positive experiences. We have 15 pupils with significant physical difficulties and three in wheelchairs. They have had a fulfilling time establishing relationships with their fully mobile peers and share the same daily educational and social experience with them.

It has clearly been vastly beneficial for them to get out of a small special school environment and lead broader, fuller and more normal lives.

But they are all well-loved and emotionally adjusted kids and most staff find it pleasurable to work with them even if there are other problems: when the lifts break down or the classrooms have the wrong-sized furniture.

Inclusion does bring some of our physically disabled pupils their own crop of challenging problems. This week, one of the learning assistants was taken ill and Mark, his pupil, needed a male assistant to help him three times a day to go to the toilet. But we haven't got any more male assistants and you can't suddenly call in a male geography teacher and ask him to put on plastic gloves and get on with it. In these situations we have to scramble around with expensive agency staff, which drains the extra money given over to inclusion.

Overall, the dogma has been a very mixed blessing. In our school it has worked well for the pupils with a physical disability. But the levels of disturbance from an increased number of young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties has risen, frustrating teachers, parents and the rest of the pupil population alike. Without our special unit, inclusion of some could mean the exclusion of the majority.

But let's end on a high point, with the best of what true integration can offer. A young teenage pupil with severe mobility and communication problems is in a mainstream history lesson. The teacher is going around praising pupils from for good work and stops in front of Paul. He offers him the inked school merit stamp, next to the writing Paul's assistant has written from Paul's dictation. Despite his very limited speech and movement, Paul barters pluckily and excitedly with the teacher as the stamp comes down for the first time on his work.

"Not one! Not one! Two! Two!" he demands, his eyes lit up with excitement and engagement with the lesson.

Moments like this make up a little for the head butting and hiding in cupboards that are the other side of the inclusion coin.

Peter Jones is a pseudonym for the head of learning support services and inclusion in a large London comprehensive

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