Teaching children across the autistic spectrum requires a special kind of person. I have a great deal of respect for people who dedicate themselves to teaching children with special needs. I know I am nothing but an amateur when it comes to dealing with even mild cases of Asperger syndrome. But the Government is asking all teachers to take on the mantle of the special needs teacher in their day-to-day duties. Is this really the best way to educate young people with particular special needs?
The ideal of social inclusion has been on the educational agenda for the last 30 years, ever since Baroness Warnock produced her influential report that advocated moving young people out of special schools and into mainstream education. According to the BBC, the last 20 years have seen the number of special school places fall by 29,600, with the closure of 400 special schools.
This turn away from segregation and towards inclusion was a cause Labour wholeheartedly adopted on gaining office. With the publication of Removing barriers to achievement in 2004, Charles Clarke, the then education secretary, made a commitment to ensure that even more children with special educational needs would be educated in mainstream schools. Social inclusion remains an ideological touchstone for this government.
But how does social inclusion work in practice? Recently, attention has been drawn to behavioural problems associated with the inclusion of SEN pupils into mainstream classes. The National Autistic Society quotes the prop-ortion of children with autism spectrum disorder who have been excluded at least once as 21 per cent. Pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are equally likely to cause behavioural problems in the mainstream classroom. This has caused the teachers' union NASUWT to question the inclusion agenda in schools. At the recent teachers' conferences the issue was raised again, as it was in a survey of the profession carried out by The TES last year.
The truth is, it takes particular sensitivity to the needs of SEN pupils to be able to cope with them as a classroom teacher. And from the SEN child's point of view, a normal classroom can be a daunting place. Frustration and isolation can result from the stress of being placed in a large, fast-paced environment.
Besides behaviour, the issue of how to approach the learning difficulties of SEN pupils presents a major challenge. Bright children who find it difficult to think abstractly and to communicate ideas are not easy to teach in a normal classroom. It can seem an insurmountable challenge to spend the time needed to work out a particular child's problems during the course of a lesson. This necessarily leads to a conflict between dealing with the well-being of the child and the desire to educate the class.
Even with the support of an active special needs department, it is difficult to envisage how some SEN children can engage in a full curriculum and receive the extra attention warranted by their condition. Children with SEN can drift through mainstream school making little progress. The amount of personal contact available from specialist teachers is just too fragmented to make a substantive difference to them.
Would it not be better to place some children in special schools? I don't envy parents faced with such a decision. But how are they supposed to make the right choice for their child?
The Government's emphasis on social inclusion has resulted in exaggerated expectations of what is on offer in mainstream schools. Lady Warnock made the point last year that "governments must come to recognise that, even if inclusion is an ideal for society in general, it may not always be an ideal for school".
Instead, we face a situation in which it is the ordinary classroom teacher who is asked to deal with any child that comes into their care. We are all special needs teachers now, expected to attend case meetings on "statemented" children in order to learn how to cope with their circumstances, and develop strategies to help make lessons accessible to them.
But apart from the time and energy put into SEN pupils, slavishly following a policy of social inclusion has a wider cost to education. The Government's flagship agenda for school reform, Every Child Matters, asks teachers to focus their efforts on the child as a unique individual. The introduction of personalised learning and a curriculum designed to suit the unique qualities of each child will result in every child being treated as a special needs pupil. This approach is antithetical to the notion of asking children to reach for universal standards of academic achievement.
There is a choice facing us. We can accept the empty rhetoric of social inclusion pushed by this government, or we can address the realities of trying to educate all our pupils to the highest standard possible.
David Perks is head of physics at Graveney school, in Tooting, south London