What’s wrong with the idea of mainstreaming?

6th July 2018 at 00:00
Lack of specialist staff and resources highlighted in government consultation

Over three days last week, the long-awaited Education Bill was shelved, a new HE and FE minister was announced in a cabinet reshuffle – and that same minister was then told to step away from the job a day later. Amid all the brouhaha, a report on mainstreaming in education was published quietly. We look at why teachers should seek it out.

What exactly is the report about?

Draft guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming in Scottish education was published in November. The latest report analyses 362 consultation responses, largely from teachers, charities and education bodies. Many looked beyond the specifics of the guidance to comment on additional support for learning (ASL) policy and practice more generally.

What was the overall picture?

The presumption of mainstreaming for children and young people with additional support needs (ASN) provoked “polarised” and “passionate” opinion, both for and against. There was also a common misunderstanding that inclusion always means going to a mainstream school, rather than children being included wherever they are.

What was the most common concern?

The main concern raised was a lack of staff and resources to support mainstreaming.

How bad is this?

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition tells Tes Scotland that many children with additional support needs (ASN) are not getting the specialist support they require. It says that, despite a 55.5 per cent increase in ASN pupils between 2012 and 2017, the number of ASN teachers fell by 12.6 per cent over the same period, from 3,840 to 3,358.

The coalition highlights the fact that, while in 2012 each ASN teacher was supporting an average of 31 pupils, by 2017 this figure had risen to 55.

Did the respondents to the consultation agree with mainstreaming in principle?

Most did, although often with caveats about the problems they face in practice.

Aside from the lack of resources mentioned, what else is making mainstreaming difficult to pull off in practice?

University of Edinburgh inclusion expert Professor Lani Florian, in her submission, highlighted the difficulties for teachers as they try to deal with both the “rights-based notion of inclusion” and “the competitive context of standards-based reform and its focus on greater accountability for teaching, learning and raising the performance of students as measured by international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa)”. She said that this “puts pressure on the system and consequently we see inconsistencies in how the presumption of mainstreaming in Scottish schools is being applied”.

Are the difficulties of any particular groups of children highlighted?

Yes. Deaf children, for example, are “very isolated” in mainstream education, according to Avril Hepner, of the British Deaf Association Scotland. Even if they have a specialist support worker or interpreter to help, “they are still unable to communicate with their peers on a day-to day-basis, in the playground or socially” and “cannot be fully engaged in the life of their school”.

What were some of the responses from teachers?

One said: “In my school, there are a handful of children who are now influencing the entire building’s mood and learning experience. They shouldn’t be allowed to make other children feel scared coming to school, and staff should not be completing violent incident forms daily.” An acting headteacher wrote of seeing P1 children with autism or learning difficulties “waste” a year trying to settle in a mainstream school, with a “demoralising” effect on staff.

What tends to happen, ultimately, when a school feels unable to cope with the needs of a certain child?

According to the charity Scottish Autism, in schools where the right support cannot be counted upon, “many of our children in mainstream education are being excluded, offered alternative specialist provision or becoming school refusers”.

Setting aside concerns over lack of staff and resources, did organisations for children with ASN at least agree that Scotland is philosophically heading in the right direction?

Not quite. Enable Scotland, the country’s largest voluntary organisation for children and adults with learning disabilities, for example, did agree with the broad principles of the presumption of mainstreaming as set out in Scotland. But it feared that there was too much emphasis on what children cannot do, rather than what they can do. Enable said there was a risk of a “negative focus purely on making adjustments to address pupils’ needs”. It called for “a positive focus on delivering inclusion to unlock and realise the talents and potential of all children and young people”.

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