Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

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.


24 thoughts on “Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

  1. Great blog Jarlath. I can identify with almost everything you have said-without your extensive experience within the special school setting. As HT in a mainstream LA faith school I have had the pleasure of working with children with profound visual, hearing & physical impairments, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome as well as extreme behavioural difficulties. There have been many successes and some failures too. What is success and what is failure though? Often these parameters are set by parents who can frequently be demanding (& why not) or just happy that their child is enjoying the social fruits of a ‘normalised’ education in a mainstream setting. Enjoying, over decades, a very good reputation within our district for SEND generally has brought much to our school. In a vast majority of cases-frequently those with severe physical impairment including cerebral palsy and sometimes Aspergers- these children grace our school and give more to our community than they receive. In a very small number of cases-most frequently behavioural-we are unable to cope with extreme cases who not only damage others’ learning but create a cycle which makes them prisoners to their own needs. I have long argued for standards to be equalised in mainstream so that each school is fully accessible with expertise spread across the system. Too frequently these parameters are set by the school ethos or “mission” (incidentally this is not the preserve of faith schools for I know some that impose restrictions which appear to contradict any such mission) and not imposed by external standards. Our LA works very hard on this but a huge amount of influence is in the hands of HTs and Governors. A wider debate is necessary. I know you will keep promoting the issue. Well done-Phil.

    • Hi Phil,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I am going to link in my feed to this comment because I think it’s a very important contribution to the debate. I realise that my views and opinions are heavily weighted in one direction. I am always surprised and disappointed when people don’t share my view that SEN is the centre of the universe!
      Keep up the powerful work.
      With best wishes,

  2. We were discussing this the other day so I’m glad you’ve blogged! Inclusion is a double – edged sword. Yes, there are children out there who are excluded from certain establishments for the flimsiest of reasons and these are well documented in my blogs. However there are others who genuinely cannot cope in a conventional school setting, and the reasons are numerous…..size, shape and layout of buildings…large numbers of children….insufficient adult ratios….SEN….the list goes on! This is before we consider children who access your setting with severe medical and behavioural issues!
    Whether the ‘inclusionists’ like it or not, we do need separate provision for some children; anything else is downright cruel in my opinion! If they saw the relief on some of the children’s faces when they come to our PRU they would realise that a small, nurturing setting is just what some children need! Not just the kids….the parents too! They are tired of fighting ‘the system’ and it’s a relief for them to see their children happy and settled and making progress in their behaviour and education!
    I’m going to, at some point, expand this into a longer blog but wanted you to know I am right behind you!

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  7. So interesting to hear bout the concept of inclusion from the perspective of someone with such diverse experience but, in particular, from a special school perspective. I agree with everything you’ve said – inclusion is the enterprising of ensuring all children receive equal quality of education, it is not the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building. I believe that inclusion CAN be achieved if we look at education as a network of schools in a particular area and those schools need to offer a range of different options for an outstanding education for a range of different needs. Mainstream, special and specialist schools; each with an identity and USP, non with a stigma attached, or the label of being ‘uninclusive’. That said, and to be clear, I do believe that the local comp should be able to meet a diverse range of needs and the vast majority of children… and i believe that this is what will, ultimately, lead to a more inclusive and fair society for people with disabilities of all kinds. However, the entitlement to the best education for them, for each individual child, remains paramount; what parents/authorities/schools/outside agency specialists need is genuine choice. I think satellite units, DSP’s and resourced schools have a role to play in this, and i think that collaboration between schools of all types needs to increase, but ultimately i think we are building on current successes as opposed to a complete overhaul. There’s great work going on in special schools… and there’s great work going on in mainstream schools!!! If we just start looking at education as a team effort across the authority, instead of schools competing for status, then we might just be able to provide a top rate education for every child. 🙂

  8. Sensible and sensitive.

    I’ve seen these conflicts as both a teacher in a mainstream school and as the parent of a child with hydrocephalus. Rosie loved her primary school but fell further and further behind. She is now appropriately placed in a special school. (Perhaps a year or two later than might have been ideal.)

    This deserves to be widely circulated

  9. The worry I have for my child who has moderate complex needs is that he will be different due to the fact that he has been segregated. The trouble with segregation is that some behaviours are learned. My child is very sociably and comes alive when he is with other people. He looks different and he is delayed but he needs to be with other children of similar age to learn about normal life. The other children also need to see him as normal. At the moment he is educated in an unit in a mainstream school. This allows for him to have what he needs educationally plus the mainstream interaction. The mainstream interaction hasn’t been handled well. I feel that this could have been better. The trouble with segregation is that it continues. My training and work before having my children was with adults with learning difficulties. It is tricky and sometimes segregation can be the best for the child. BUT I think that it is an easy solution. I also have recently walked into a segregated children s playscheme and the amount of children with disability all in one place took my breath away. I think that it is wrong that I felt like that. it should be so normal to be among people of all abilities. My other children struggle to interact with other children who have disabilities who are around the same age as them. How can this gap be bridged? Young children often don’t see the differences. I do know that from my observations that often it is the adults around the children who create the problems. If we are serious about integration what we need are teams of people who are good at integrating children into setting. At the moment we have teachers who become head teachers who are expected to be money managers!! If you have good teacher it doesn’t mean that they understand how good inclusion looks! Parents need to be more involved too.

  10. Very pleased to read your post Jarlath; I have been making similar arguments for a while. I wear two hats; as a Principal Lecturer in Education, particularly in a Dept with a focus on and commitment to promoting inclusion, I can feel under pressure to support what is without doubt the dominant discourse in education. As a parent, however, I am quite clear in my own mind that the only place my son (now nearly 21) could have received the provision to which he was entitled was a specialist (NAS) school. Happily my LA recognised that no mainstream schools within the city could meet my son’s needs and funded a place for Dylan. Not everyone is so lucky; the drive for inclusion (partly philosophic, partly economic) denies many children their entitlement.

  11. Wow, I love this, thank you. As Mum to a girl with autism currently coping (there’s the key word) in Primary school, I have great fears about secondary level – not least because I have for the last 3 years been searching for a school suitable for her (there does not appear to be one in our county. My time is running out. Here’s a post of mine about that http://www.stephstwogirls.co.uk/2013/10/schooling-for-high-functioning-autistic.html ). I don’t think all schools should be forced to include her – what I’d like to find is someone who can really teach her in the manner she needs to be taught. And yes, I know that is specialised teaching and costs more money, but I’d honestly sell my house if I thought I had found it. Inclusion in society is something to aim for, but inclusion in mainstream schooling just doesn’t sit right with me 😦

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  13. Thank you for this. I thought perhaps I was the only one who was having serious doubts about the ability of mainstream schools to educate my daughter.

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  15. Interestinng post, from a dad with an Aspie son and a wife who works as a TA in a “special” school with kids with a very wide range of conditions. Infant and junior schools (especially Junior) were not good with my sons needs, they wouldn’t statement and because of this the start of mainstream secondary school was very fraught as the staff “learnt” about his needs. Eventually after threatening us that new how he’d end his torments CAHMs got involved – and finally some staff started to take us seriously. The default in many cases seems to be “it’s the parents fault” and this made the situation worse…. It has taken a huge amount of effort from us as parents and the “inclusion team” at his mainstream school, but he is now finding his way. Your perspective on all this was a very interesting read. Thank-you for thinking about the situation as true inclusion requires sensitivity and training and knowledge and maturity and I don’t think all of our teachers and wider educationalists have enough of these qualities.

    • Hi Gary,
      Really interesting comment, thanks. I see a lot of inclusion that I would class as superficial. You are right that it takes sensitivity and a real understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. It has to be more than just doing the same thing as everyone else.

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