The Government wants it. The experts want it. Many parents of children with disabilities want it. The inclusion in mainstream schools of children with special needs is widely seen as desirable in principle. Yet in practice the number of statemented pupils in the mainstream, after rising for several years, actually fell in 1997. And only last week, delegates at the conference of the NASUWT, the second biggest teachers' union, unanimously voted for a motion criticising the Government's policy of trying to keep disruptive children in their local schools.
Inclusion is working well in many places. Teachers experiencing it say that an inclusive ethos benefits mainstream pupils too. But these successes are overshadowed by increasing tensions between equity and excellence as judged in competitive league tables. A recent Manchester University study in 12 local authorities shows that inclusion does not fit easily in a culture which measures excellence through "narrowly focused" exam and test results.
Some schools are reluctant to take special needs pupils because of the effect it could have on exam results. "The problem for heads is that league tables don't tell the full story and don't always show the value and the achievements of inclusion," says Linda Shaw, spokeswoman for Centre for the Study of Inclusive Education.
League tables will have to change, according to Paul Rangecroft, head of Studfall junior school in Corby, Northamptonshire, where 8 per cent of the pupils have a statement. "Our place in the tables is affected by our inclusive practice, but what is worse, the tables don't reflect the huge success of a child with considerable learning difficulties who achieves a level 2 or 3 in the SATs (national curriculum tests)," he says.
People agree that one of the most important ingredients in successfully implementing the policy is simply the will to make it succeed. Dr Lani Florian at Cambridge University, who is researching the conditions for successful inclusion in secondary schools, says the practice demands new policies throughout a school and good support to help teachers develop new skills. You can't just tell practitioners that inclusion will happen simply by wanting it, she says.
Professor Mel Ainscow's research team at Manchester found that the policy was making most progress in authorities and schools where there was "a commitment to permeate the principle of inclusion within allI policies and processes". Where it is seen as a bolt-on extra, students who have been moved from special to mainstream schools often remain somewhat isolated.
Yet the most successful schools are finding that inclusive approaches improve the quality of education and the behaviour and the attainment of all pupils. Some inclusive schools have gone as far as to extend the individual education plans, legally required for pupils with statements, to all their pupils - sharpening individual targets, and improving communication with parents. Good practice for children with special needs turns out to be good practice for all.
The work of learning support assistants is crucial to successful inclusion. Richard Rose, senior lecturer in special education at the University College of Northampton, has found that assistants are sometimes given too much responsibility, particularly in top primary classes. The Government has announced new initiatives to create a coherent training framework and career structure for classroom assistants, but provision is patchy.
Glenys Fox, the principal educational psychologist in Poole, Dorset, and a member of the national advisory group on special educational needs, says:
"There is a hotch-potch of courses for assistants, some of them run on the cheap and some with no involvement by special educational needs coordinators, educational psychologists or speech therapists."
"Some of the more vulnerable children are being helped primarily by unqualified staff. What does that say about our value system?" asks Dr Peter Farrell, senior lecturer in education at Manchester University, who is leading a research project into the management, role and training of classroom assistants. Stephanie Lorenz, an educational psychologist, has found that many assistants who are assigned to help individual pupils sit beside the child for most of the time instead of encouraging them to be independent. There is a real danger that an over-protective assistant can actually prevent the child forming relationships with his or her peers, she says.
Another thorny area is the inclusion of pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties - one of the most worrying issues for teachers and parents in mainstream schools. Prevention could be the best solution here. Merton in south-west London is an authority that has helped develop whole-school behaviour codes, trained teachers to improve their classroom management skills and provided specialist support for individual pupils. It has a peripatetic team of experts made up of special needs teachers, youth workers and educational social workers to support schools. As a result, exclusion rates have plummetted and Merton has been able to close an off-site behaviour support unit and a primary special school.
There are concerns about the role of special schools in the inclusive equation. In some areas, they are seen as a barrier to inclusion, says the Manchester study. "The existence of relatively well-resourced special schools sometimes appears to encourage parents and others to see this as the 'safest' option for their child," the report says. Local authorities must ensure "a positive role for special schools and services in supporting the deep changes in attitudes and practices that will be required. Otherwise it is likely that the issue of inclusion will become marginalised..." the study warns.
Inevitably, one of the biggest headaches is funding. "Too often pupils are moved from special schools into the mainstream without the funding accompanying them. Education officers are left to scrabble together whatever resources they can," says Gary Thomas, professor of special education at Oxford Brookes University.
Faced with such daunting challenges, it might comfort schools to remember that inclusion is gradual. Many of the most successful inclusive schools started in a small way by taking one or two pupils with special needs and gradually building up expertise. "Inclusion evolves slowly. Teachers need time to feel they can figure it out for themselves," says Lani Florian.
'Effective Practice in Inclusion and in Special and Mainstream Schools Working Together' by Mel Ainscow, Peter Farrell, Dave Tweddle and George Malki. DFEE publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 ODT. (Tel: 0845 6022260 Fax: 0845 6033360.) Price pound;4.95 (Ref RR91)