Where Jack is not all right

20th April 2001 at 01:00
The boy in the primary playground who is too slow to catch the ball is being excluded, says John Prior

icture the scene. Jack has special needs - moderate learning difficulties, say. He attends his local mainstream primary. At playtime, he is standing with three other children playing catch. The ball comes to him."Catch it, Jack!" But he can't keep pace with the game and the ball rebounds off his chest. "Oh, Jack!" reprimands one of the boys who retrieves the ball and carries on with the others. Inclusion or exclusion?

Back in the classroom, it is literacy hour and carpet time. Quick-fire questions follow but Jack can't keep up, even with the aid of a learning support assistant. "What does cat start with, Jack?" asks the teacher. But Jack can't answer quickly. "Erm," he stutters. "Who can help Jack?" calls the teacher, mindful of the need to keep a brisk pace. "Cuh," shout a hoard of children. Inclusion, exclusion, integration?

The notion of "inclusion" and "inclusive practice" intrigues me. Where does exclusion start and inclusion begin? Why has the term "integration", a sensible half-way house, been consigned to the jargon dustbin? Is integration not a middle ground between the two extremes?

The drive for inclusion goes on. It sounds like a long road to me. I can't envisage inclusion as an end in itself. Surely it is an on-going process, not a finite state. An ultimate goal, of which integration plays its part and exclusion has no part. When I hear the phrase "in an inclusive setting" I am disturbed. Is it possible to educate schools of children who have hugely differing needs, including severe special needs, to the optimum benefit of all those pupils in one school? The existence of special schools is a testament to the implausibility of the suggestion.

It is imperative that the term "special needs" be assigned the correct amount of gravitas if true inclusion is to be attained. It doesn't just refer to specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, needs that can be incorporated into the mainstream system with less difficulty. It runs the full gamut, from profound and complex learning difficulties to attention deficit, from autism to cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, visual impairment, severe physical disability, epilepsy.

From moderate learning difficulties to sever language impairment, Asperger's to ataxia. The list is long and manifold, the expertise required extensive.

Some of this terminology will disappear with the advent of the new code of practice, legislation incidentally, that will make a clear expectation that special needs pupils will be included in mainstream schools. Since when has semantics been unimportant? So, I reiterate - in the same school? It is quite feasible that all of the listed special needs may fall within one catchment area.

If there is such a school out there, then surely all schools should be thus. It is not valid to have inclusion for one group of pupils but not another. If one child with profound learning difficulties can have access to his or her local school then so it should be for every child with those difficulties. Inclusivists will argue it is a matter of human rights, correctly so. But that must mean for everybody. Are we extending our expectations too far in pushing for an inclusive education system that has little hope of being realised in its purely contrived state?

More importantly, is there the will? Everybody knows what mainstream teachers are burdened with. Special needs input in initial teacher training is woefully inadequate. In-service training is weighted hugely in favour of raising academic standards. Do teachers want inclusion? And do parents? I have a heard a parent describe the failure of her child in an "inclusive" setting as "the worst kind of exclusion".

I believe that where there's a will there's a way. I do not believe at the moment there is the will. I may be wrong. If there is a will, then we need to be shown the way. And that means huge hikes in investment and resources to make schools truly inclusive. If there isn't the will then decision-makers need to get out there and convince people rather than throw out empty and ill-informed rhetoric. There could be a will.

But school practitioners understand the reality and the need there is for reform. I don't want to see barriers for learning. I believe in equality of opportunity and would welcome a truly inclusive education system that benefited all equally. It's what many, many people believe in. But you try telling that to Jack.

John Prior teaches children with speech and language impairments in a mainstream south London primary

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