Segregation – a call for evidence

The inclusion debate is now well and truly up and running. I am delighted that contributors are airing their views and sharing their experiences but I am struck with the thought that we are short on evidence. We need evidence which firms up our views or challenges us to rethink.

I read physics at university and am well used to drawing conclusions based on the evidence available. “When the facts change I change my mind” as Keynes never actually said. Given all of that studying and training my opinions are shaped and formed by the evidence available. If it can be shown that students with learning difficulties generally make better progress, as yet undefined, in mainstream schools than in special schools then it’s time for me to change my mind. The position of most of us in this debate is heavy on ideology, opinion, anecdote and experience and short on evidence.

It must be true that…” “It’s blindingly obvious that….” “Common sense tells you that…..” never got me anywhere when studying special relativity or quantum mechanics so I am hesitant to pronounce in such bold terms on inclusion.

It has been stated by at least one colleague that segregation (their word) of students into special schools is a human rights violation. A bit heavy for me, but you may have a general preference for students with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream schools because it must be better, again as yet undefined, for them to be with their peers.

As stated in an earlier blog the school system in this country segregates all the time with very little fuss, grammars and special schools notwithstanding.

When and how did we decide to arrange the primary/secondary system in to the way it is now? Randomised controlled trial? I doubt it. A combination of the need for subject specialised teaching at some point and the unwillingness of 30 soon-to-be-teenagers to remain in the same room all day long may well be the reason. Did we test it extensively, gather evidence and decide that 11 was the optimum age to radically change the way our children are educated? Again, I doubt it. Someone, somewhere tinkered and we ended up with some regional middle school systems too. In the future will we test this, respond to the evidence and change our entire schooling system based on the results? No.

When did we decide that it was sensible to let organisations that have nothing to do with educating children, namely churches, to run some of our schools? Randomised controlled trial? I doubt it. We are content to let the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church run a large number of schools in this country. Is there evidence that shows that educating children in groups based largely on the religion of their parents is more effective than the mixed gender mainstream model? If so, then why are we not doing this all over the country? If you object to segregation based on special need then why do you not object to segregation by parental religion?

The same questions stand for gender. If segregation by gender is more effective then surely we are hindering children’s progress by maintaining a mixed gender model. Where is the evidence? If you object to segregation based on special need then why do you not object to segregation by gender when they are educated away from 50% of their peers?  My hunch is that there is no evidence that either model is more effective and that it boils down to choice. Some people prefer to have their child(ren) educated without the presence of the opposite sex. We’ve inherited this and will never remove single gender schools as it’s politically impossible to achieve.

There is more evidence available on the relative effectiveness, or otherwise, of grammars. This is the example that challenges my position most. My intuitive position is that grammar schools inhibit social mobility and maintain class divide. I am, though, as stated earlier, prepared to change my view in light of evidence that disproves my position. I have yet to see this but have seen evidence that supports my view. My in-built tendency to remember and be attracted to evidence that backs my own position must be noted.

So, with the current increase in research in education I make a call for evidence. Is there evidence out there that shows that students with learning difficulties make better progress/have better outcomes/lead better lives when educated in special schools than in mainstream schools? Or the other way round? In the UK? Abroad? Given the difficulties in coming to agreed definitions for “better progress”, “have better outcomes” or “lead better lives” I suspect it is a task fraught with difficulties and incomplete and contaminated data. I look forward to reading any papers that are out there.


7 thoughts on “Segregation – a call for evidence

  1. Hi Jarlath,

    A vital question to which I suspect the evidence is limited. I think that there would be value in breaking the question down a bit and consider variation between Residential and non-residential Special school settings, co-located and separate Special schools and Resource base provision. These are all used to a lesser or greater degree and are likely to have variations in cost, inclusive opportunities (not always as obvious as you’d expect) and outcome, both short and long term. It would be fascinating to look at comparative data in this area, considering mainstream and Special and what kind of Special setting and find out if the evidence is used to support local decision making processes.

  2. Interesting post, Jarlath. A tricky area to research and so I think I’d agree with Simon – the evidence will be limited. It will be interesting to see what (if any) papers are identified. Having worked as a mainstream secondary teacher, SENCO and now teaching in a special school, there are so many differences between the two types of school. A fully inclusive mainstream school (especially secondary) is a rare thing and so it would be almost impossible to find examples of mainstream best practice to compare with special schools. Also, there are so many “softer”, subjective benefits for high need pupils in special – again it would be a nightmare to compare the two.
    This post by @nancygedge from earlier today: highlights many of the issues and rings true with my experiences.
    Looking forward to reading what comes up.
    Best wishes.

  3. Hello Jarlath – I have only just found your blog so forgive me if I go back over ground you’ve already discussed. Here are a few quick reactions to some of the points in your post. Firstly, as I’m sure you’re aware, we are governed by rigorous ethical guidelines when doing educational research which mean that we tend not to use RCTs or experimental design; ‘evidence’ is therefore usually from small scale studies which use qualitiative (often narrative) methods and provide illustration and illumination rather than ‘proof’ or scientific evidence of the sort you seem to refer to. When we do have quantitative evidence from statistical data sets this is based on things which are measurable such as examination performance, reading age, attendance etc. These measures can be helpful – in response to your question about gender, for example, we know that girls tend to do better in single sex than mixed sex schools whereas boys tend to do better in mixed sex than single sex schools (no ref as I’m at home – would have to look it up at work). We also know that working class pupils who attend grammar schools do better than their working class peers who don’t attend grammar schools – though not as well as their fellow middle class pupils (at school and subsequently in the workplace). One of the difficulties of comparing the progress of pupils with SEN in mainstream and specialist settings is that examinations will often be irrelevant so we don’t have this easy ‘hard’ measure of progress. Certainly there are no easy measures for the progress made by my own son, who has severe autism, severe learning disability and through his entire school life was classed as ‘non-verbal’ (at nearly 21 he is just beginning to develop some echolalic speech). In a specialist NAS school, however, he had access to the resources he needed (small class size, specialist staff, environment and curriculum etc) which he certainly wouldn’t have had access to elsewhere. Dylan was happy at school. Since leaving at 19 he has had to manage on wholly inadequate social care. Within 6 months he became anxious and unhappy; I feel as if, on a daily basis, I am trying to stop the reversal of all the progress made while Dylan was at school. I’m afraid all I’m offering you is another anecdote based on personal experience. There is no scale for happiness or lack of anxiety. Perhaps education researchers should start using one? 🙂 Best wishes, Liz

    • Hi Liz,
      Your professional points about research in education are extremely valuable and much appreciated. I was being slightly provocative about RCTs – my point, badly articulated, was that most of the infrastructure in our system is based on no evidence whatsoever. We inherit a system, C of E and RC schools, for example, and maintain that. Others are irreversible, single sex schooling being one example, whether it was detrimental or not.
      My intuition and experience, which is wide, tells me that the design of the school is less important than the quality of the teaching that goes on within it.
      Research and how it informs our practice as individual teachers and how it influences system design is going to be exciting to be part of but also full of dead-ends, white elephants and surprises.
      Thanks again,

  4. The justification, for inclusion, that I hear the most in mainstream schools is that children without special needs benefit from socialising with children who have special needs so that they learn about ‘them’. This supposed ‘exposure’ will help them be more tolerant, accepting etc. My view however is that this is often tokenistic inclusion at the expense of a personalised education for SEN children. They in turn are expected to ‘ learn about their peers’ by osmosis.

    This is the picture of inclusion that i have seen in the North East.
    In my experience, as a Primary school teacher and now a SNSA ‘for’ a child with ASC, I see many of SEN children’s needs not being met. All children need effectively trained professionals planning meaningful and well resourced learning experiences. General B.Ed or PGCE trained teachers are still not being equipped to accurately identify, assess and plan for the range of needs that are now in mainstream schools. Training isn’t available nationally to remediate this shortfall: staff are expected to learn on the job and so SEN children are often left to be ‘looked after’ by TAs and LSAs. Too often the National Curriculum is just tinkered with as an attempt to adapt/modify it for Quality First teaching and make a bit of time for SEN interventions. For many SEN children though the pace and complexity of learning is still inappropriate. Opportunities for overlearning and breadth can not be staffed and furthermore, specialist outside agencies cannot provide even adequate levels of support or appraisal of Statemented/ EHCP provision. This means that some schools are struggling to keep up the facade of coping with the weight of expectation that a mainstream education, in itself, is inclusion.

    I concur with the above contributors about the difficulties of comparison and data selection collection, I’m not sure that the standard measures of progress that Ofsted use are relevant. Mainstream and Special schools meet different needs because children are different. Every child should be entitled to a curriculum that is rich, ambitious and relevant to them (Do we have the range of schools to offer this?). Until this is what schools are judged on then judgements about them will not be relevant. Maybe this is the real human rights violation?

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