The school that I serve is non-inclusive, very non-inclusive. We are unable to effectively educate the overwhelming majority of children in this country. This is a statement of the obvious but some schools seem reluctant to admit that they are non-inclusive for fear of appearing elitist, slopy-shouldered or less than outstanding at something.
97.5% of school-age children in this country do not require a statement of special educational needs or education, health and care plan (EHCP). Of those that do, approximately 60% are educated in mainstream schools. Interestingly this picture is variable across the country. In Surrey, where I work, only 40% of children with statements or EHCPs are educated in mainstream schools.
1.1% of all school-age children in this country are educated in special schools and this is a statistic that has been relatively stable for over twenty years. The discussion about inclusion has, I’m sure, persisted for far longer. It surfaces with predictable regularity and polarity. Two Canadian colleagues commented to me a while back that they are astounded at the stratification of both our society and of our education system. We are content to segregate children by age, the religion of their parents and gender without any real resistance. We continue to maintain a mainstream state system in parts of the country that segregates children beyond a certain age by ability. This meets with far more resistance but, equally, far more support for expansion.
The ideal for inclusion is that all children should be taught well in their local mainstream school and have their associated needs met. It is their basic right and anything different is to deny them at least some part of their entitlement. This is not something that I believe is possible. This opinion has brought me a fair amount of criticism and I have been accused of being an apologist for segregation, low standards and low expectations. It is not possible because there are some children whose needs are so complex and/or require such specialist skill and knowledge from staff and/or some specialist equipment and/or can exhibit extreme behaviours that they cannot be meaningfully included and well educated in a mainstream school. To pretend to include them in the life of a mainstream school is far more damaging and, in my view, robs them of their entitlement.
I claim to have a wide perspective on schools. I taught science and physics, amongst other subjects when the timetable demanded, in a comprehensive school. I taught physics and ICT in a selective boys’ secondary independent school. I taught maths and science and was the deputy headteacher in a secondary special school for boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I taught science and communication, language and literacy and was the deputy headteacher in a large 2-19 special school for children with moderate, severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties or autism. I am now the headteacher of an 11-19 special school for students with moderate learning difficulties and associated conditions such as autism and/or Down syndrome. Each one had its own niche. Some had students with a very wide range of needs, others did not. Each school had its own natural limits, largely set by the ethos of the school. There were students that each school would consider were outside of its typical range.
In the comprehensive you clearly had to be of a certain age, no problem there. Apart from Peter in my tutor group, of course, who was allowed to progress to secondary school a year early on account of his ability. No furore there, despite the fact that he was clearly segregated from the rest of Year 6 who were still hammering away at those SATs papers (he dodged that bullet at least). All departments set limits on who could do A-Level; grade C for us in science, but grade B if you wanted to do maths. We had a fair number of students with statements (we were considered “inclusive” locally) but I now know that we did not do a good job for most in educating them. They were included but not meaningfully and at a cost to their academic and social development. And they all had moderate learning difficulties, Asperger’s syndrome or, rarely, Down syndrome. We couldn’t possibly have taught a child with severe or complex difficulties.
In the independent school gender, academic ability and the ability to pay were the deciding factors. Gender ceased to become an issue in the sixth-form when we saw fit to admit girls. The floor was reached at GCSE grade C. My next-door neighbour would proudly announce that students below grade C were unteachable. Entry to the sixth-form provided another opportunity to thin the flock further.
When we claim to be inclusive what exactly are we including the students in? How are they being included? What are you trying to teach them? Is the way you are trying to teach the way they learn best? Is this appropriate for their stage of development whilst being age-appropriate? To be clear, working on your initial letter sounds with a teaching assistant whilst the rest of the class are going through a mock SATs paper is not inclusion.
So who is it that I claim cannot receive their basic entitlement in their local mainstream school?
It’s Shona. Shona is profoundly disabled, blind and breathes through a tracheostomy. She is tube fed and incontinent. Nearly all interactions with Shona are fully prompted by the adults that work with her. She is considered to be working at P3i. If she’s in your history lesson then what are you going to teach her? How? How does Shona know who you are, or what lesson she is in? How does she get to your classroom on the first floor? How does she catch up on the classwork she misses for feeding or changing? How do you enforce the school’s rule that all students have their top button done up? Do you even know what P3i means and would you recognise P3ii when you saw it?
It’s Joe. He has foetal alcohol syndrome. Joe will usually try to avoid work at all costs and can be violent towards both students and staff. He will normally enter your lesson announcing “I ain’t doin’ any ******* maths today.” He may rip up his worksheet, exercise book or textbook. He won’t have done your homework because the reading age of the text on your worksheet is likely to be far above his own. Joe is likely to leave your lesson at some point or he may not arrive at all. He once tried to enter your room by the fire exit with a scaffold pole.
It’s Abdul. Abdul is academically only slightly below the level expected of his age but has significant physical difficulties. Abdul propels himself in a walking frame but cannot navigate by himself. Abdul has very poor fine-motor skills, cannot pincer grip and his speech is virtually unintelligible. How do you communicate with Abdul? He can follow your work but how do you assess his progress? How does he catch up on the work he misses for his speech therapy? Occupational therapy? Physiotherapy? Changing? How does he meaningfully take part in your science investigations or PE lessons?
The students I describe (all real people I have known and taught by the way) are well educated in special schools. I haven’t even tried to describe some of the needs of some students in PRUs, hospital schools or secure children’s homes. I also haven’t bothered to list all the facilities and equipment you’d need, the staff training or the adaptations required to your buildings. “Piped oxygen? A hydrotherapy pool? Hoisting? Changing beds? Really?”
In my experience most schools and most teachers accept this. Any claims of full inclusion that I have come across do not stand up to much scrutiny. I applaud those that are committed to meeting a wide range of needs. I see some exceptional practice out there and this tends to permeate the whole school and is often driven by a moral conviction and strong leadership.
The challenge becomes harder the older the students are. Differences and delays in academic and social development are harder to spot in the youngest students. Some students naturally talk earlier/later, become continent earlier/later or cease having temper tantrums or meltdowns (I dislike either term I’m afraid) earlier/later. Primary schools have advantages in other areas too – usually one class teacher who can get to know the student and parents well, often single-storey, usually relatively small. When all of those things disappear at secondary school the wheels can, and do, come off. It is no surprise that 25% of my students initially went to a mainstream secondary school but had to leave as their schools, rightly or wrongly, felt that they couldn’t meet the needs of that particular child.
I reject the assertion that any school can be fully inclusive. I am concerned that there are schools who, having mistakenly become slaves to a framework, are becoming less inclusive. The local headteacher, now thankfully retired, who stood up at open evening to announce “If your child has any form of additional needs then this is not the school for them”; the headteachers who quietly suggest to the prospective parents that they look at the neighbouring school because “they’re better with your kind of child” or the school that describes itself as academic (as opposed to?) all contribute to this.
In 2009 I was watched for an hour by the lead inspector in an inspection. “You lead on teaching and learning so I want to see if you can walk the walk,” she proclaimed as she walked in. She graded my science lesson as outstanding. It wasn’t. It was mediocre at best. I had nine students in Year 9 in my class with four specialist support assistants (SSAs) working with me. Their level of ability ranged from P3ii to Level 5 and by trying to meet the needs of each student in such a diverse group we met the needs of precisely no-one. Corey slept for ten minutes of the lesson. The inspector was just content that they were all doing something.
It’s time we stopped talking about inclusion and started talking about entitlement. Can you provide what these students are entitled to? If so, great. If not, don’t waste their time and yours pretending that you can.