This week, to approving noises, Ofsted announced plans to reward schools for inclusive practices.
This followed a recommendation in the Commons Education Select Committee's Forgotten Children report on alternative provision and "the scandal of ever-increasing exclusions", published in July.
The Department of Education and Ofsted should, the report said, "introduce an inclusion measure or criteria that sits within schools to incentivise schools to be more inclusive".
Rewarding schools for being inclusive
There is, on the face of it, much to like about this idea. Children and young people with SEND are not only six times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, compared with their non-SEND peers, but they’re also particularly vulnerable to "off-rolling" (the practice of removing pupils from school rolls in order to boost league table positions). Any effort to make schools rethink these practices for this particular group should be up for consideration.
For some time, SEND commentators have called for a recalibration of the accountability framework, so that schools are rewarded for being inclusive, rather than "punished".
Appearing before the select committee in July, Baroness Warnock – who led the UK’s largest inquiry into special education in the 1970s – suggested that Ofsted "ought to be giving acknowledgement to those schools which are genuinely inclusive, and take real pride in what they do for children with special needs".
Encouragingly, then, the early indications are that Ofsted’s new inspection framework will involve more carrot. We don’t yet have any detail on what the proposed inclusion measure will look like, but the devil will inevitability be in those details.
There are, however, a couple of things worth raising early on about its construction and its use.
A reliable test?
Firstly, the inclusion measure needs to be reliable and valid.
Schools need assurances that it’s being applied consistently across a range of settings and circumstances, and parents will need to know that it’s telling them something meaningful about inclusion. It mustn’t rely on poor proxies; for example, where a pupil with SEND is in the classroom working one-to-one with a teaching assistant but entirely disconnected from the main teaching and curriculum coverage.
Given the commonness of the inspection framework, identifying the components of the inclusion measure will be a challenge for developers. Helpfully, we needn’t start from scratch; the Index for Inclusion provides a values-based framework for school self-evaluation and improvement.
It’s useful, of course, to know how inclusive an individual school is for the pupils that attend it, but it shouldn't end there.
Implicit in Baroness Warnock's comment above is the idea that the schools that do the hard work of inclusion should be rewarded. Undoubtedly, some schools work harder than others, and this is apparent in a practice the education secretary himself has labelled "pre-emptive exclusion": where parents are actively or subtly discouraged from applying to a particular school.
A relative 'inclusion score'
These important observations show that inclusion has a relative dimension. The inclusion of pupils with SEND is not just about full participation in school life. It also means being accepted wherever that child or young person is. It’s not a place across town to which you commute. For this reason, the "within school" nature of the recommended inclusion measure imposes a constraint.
To form a rounded judgment, inspectors will need to know whether a school is admitting its fair share of children with SEND within the local community. For that, they need comparable data on the inclusivity of its nearest schools. To make sense of a school’s "inclusion score", we need to see how it matches up against its neighbours.
One person who understands this is teacher-turned-MP Emma Hardy. She floated the idea of regional accountability at September’s Labour Party conference. This localised view of assessing education quality and access is not only likely to encourage cooperation between schools and potentially alleviate some of the pressures of individual school accountability, but it also offers a way of judging inclusivity reliably and validly.
We already have a mechanism for local area inspection for SEND, so potentially the development of a "between-school" measure of inclusion could be drawn into this process.
Seeing things in relative, rather than just absolute, terms widens our appreciation and adds value. When it comes to developing a fit-for-purpose, school-level indicator of inclusion, context really is everything.
Rob Webster is an associate professor in the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education