#InclusionMatters. This was the hashtag for World Down Syndrome Day this year. And inclusion does matter, for all children. It matters because it is set against a historical backdrop of exclusion of people with disabilities, against words like “ineducable” or “educationally subnormal”. Most people would agree it is important that children are accepted in society and not turned away from mainstream education – but how close are we, really, to achieving this reality?
I am the mother of a child with Down’s syndrome and I am a teacher, so I understand the challenges facing our system. According to the pupil census in Scotland, in 2016 24.9 per cent of children were recorded as having additional support needs (ASN). This means that there are, on average, roughly seven pupils with ASN in a class of 30. Five of these children might have mild to moderate learning difficulties, one child could have English as an additional language and one could have a high level of need, such as a significant sensory or physical impairment.
Meeting the needs of these children represents a huge challenge for teachers. How can society expect them to have the skills and expertise to deal with this? The answer is that we already do: we expect teachers to be able to manage this because it is their duty to do so. It is in the Equality Act. It is in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is in legislation. We expect our mainstream teachers to understand Braille if our child is blind, to learn sign language if they are deaf, to have a basic level of medical knowledge of seizures or allergies, to have strategies to manage autism … I could go on. All this while remaining focused on target groups. This is because, as parents, we do all of this.
So, as the majority of children with ASN are in mainstream settings, where does this leave special schools? I work in a specialist school for children with vision impairments, and I’ve had the privilege of undertaking four supplementary years of education beyond my initial teaching qualification to equip me to teach blind and partially sighted children, who often have additional needs. I’ve had to learn Braille, about cane use, orientation and mobility, about how to teach independent living skills, because these children have a right to these skills and knowledge.
This has been incredibly enlightening and it has given me strengths I would have found very useful when I taught in mainstream settings. It has taught me that working with children with ASN does not have to be scary and, with the right support, it can be one of the most rewarding and creative experiences for a teacher. Yet pupils find it difficult to get a place in specialist schools owing to the presumption of mainstreaming: there are only 29 pupils in my school.
Our daughter is 2 and we have had a positive journey so far, but I worry for her future. She has eight professionals working around her, meeting her language, physical and medical needs. We have regular meetings and her nursery staff are learning Signalong, a sign language used for children with language delays. Although we have recently been lucky enough to secure funding for an additional staff member from the council, unfortunately it is common for families to wait a long time for such funding, if it comes at all. The great partnerships that have been established between families and their nurseries to ensure children make good progress are damaged by a lack of money.
As I look to the future, I understand the challenges but I sadly agree that it would be difficult to meet the needs of my child in a class of up to 30 with little or no specialist support. I want her to go to her local school, but I also want her and her teachers to have access to specialists who have in-depth knowledge about how best to teach my child. I want her teachers to be excited about the prospect of learning new skills and feel that they can do it. I want choice if mainstream education isn’t right for her. Access to specialist knowledge, along with the right attitude and flexibility in the system, is exactly what she needs to grow and achieve her potential.
Scotland has a history of comprehensive education and progressive legislation, but we cannot achieve the inclusion ideal without the expertise and knowledge of our specialist teachers, who are not being used in special schools and whose services are being cut in the community. Visiting teachers can have up to 70 pupils on their caseload, which amounts to very little input per child. The quality of provision for my daughter relies heavily on the strong collaboration between specialist and mainstream teachers.
I am delighted that we live in a world where children are not turned away from mainstream education but I recognise that the inclusion ideal comes at a cost, both financial and human. It requires a real understanding about barriers to learning and strategies to overcome them, which can only be gained through experience and training. It therefore requires strong links between mainstream and specialist schools so that teachers feel supported.
And, perhaps most importantly, it requires a positive, can-do attitude on the part of the school and its teachers to uphold the right of all children to not only be present in the classroom but also participate and achieve in all areas of their lives.
Lauren Eliott Lockhart is a teacher working with children with visual impairments and mother to Trudy, who happens to have Down’s syndrome