There has been much debate in recent years over how well inclusion in schools is working, or if it is working at all. Arguments against inclusion are mounting but while it has room for improvement, the concept of inclusive schooling should not be abandoned. There are many benefits to placing SEND children in mainstream education that need to be acknowledged and with a balanced approach to inclusive practice in schools, inclusion need not be an “illusion”.
Addressing the myths
Tes reported earlier this year on the ‘myth of inclusion’ in which inclusion in schools was described as being “pockmarked with separation, segregation and unintentional outcomes”. The report pointed to Rob Webster’s study at the UCL Institute of Education which questioned the extent to which mainstream schools fulfil the aims of ‘inclusive’ education. Their main criticisms of inclusion in schools were that SEND students in mainstream schools were getting less interaction with the teacher than non-SEND students, less peer interaction and too much TA contact. However, the problem with analysing the features of an inclusive school in this way is that it ignores the benefits of inclusion and misses the point of what ‘inclusion’ means realistically.
Inclusion in schools does not mean dropping a child with SEND in a school and expecting them to swim; it means guiding them through a mainstream school, while allowing them the extra support they need- a hand beneath them should they start to sink. Inclusion is about including a child in the mainstream while still enjoying some of the benefits of alternative provision outside of the mainstream. This is not ‘segregation’, but managed support. This often means that, as Webster’s study found, SEND children may get less interaction time overall with the teacher, because they have extra support outside of the classroom, including 1:1 support, speech and language therapy, counselling, etc. The teacher interaction that they miss out on does not in fact equate to a loss in their education, or provide evidence that inclusive education has failed. This is where a lot of the debate around inclusion is misinformed: just because a child may receive less classroom teaching than their non-SEND peers does not mean they are not benefitting from the system and nor does it mean that inclusion is therefore not working.
DISCUSSION AROUND INCLUSION IN SCHOOLS IS MISINFORMED
What about specialist support?
Another article in the past from Tes on the ‘inclusion illusion’ recounts the experiences of a teacher who found that special school was better suited to her son with Down’s Syndrome than mainstream school. She explained that mainstream teachers were not trained to deal with the “profound needs” of her son’s Down’s Syndrome. But this does not mean that inclusion is therefore, as Tes named it, an “illusion” and not realistic in mainstream schooling. In this case, many mainstream schools may struggle to provide the specialist support needed for a child with profound needs, in which case a special school may be more appropriate. However, it would be unfair to deduce from this case that inclusion has therefore failed. Inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all formula, it has to be tweaked and adjusted according to the individual child’s needs and wishes and it may not always be the right option for every child with SEND. It is a case of firstly asking ‘could a mainstream school provide the support this child needs?’ And if so, ‘how much support do they need and in what areas?’ It is a question of individual needs and differences; each child is different so don’t expect the solution to be the same.
It may be that, for example, Matthew has Asperger’s syndrome and while he is intellectually very capable, he struggles socially with peers and has some behavioural issues. In this case, he would benefit immensely from inclusion in a mainstream school. As is often the case in mainstream inclusion strategies, Matthew would begin year seven with a certain number of support hours in class as well as, for example, weekly social skills sessions outside of class with a speech and language therapist. This would be reviewed throughout his time at school and his support hours would change depending on progress or need. This is what inclusion means and is actually successful in many cases.
INCLUSION IN SCHOOLS IS NOT A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL FORMULA
Benefits of inclusive education
SEND encompasses such a wide array of conditions, from ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to dyslexia and SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) issues, that it would be impossible to say that inclusion within mainstream school is not an appropriate solution for many of them. There are many high-functioning SEND pupils who hugely benefit from a balance of mainstream and specialist support and there are many classroom strategies that can be adapted to support specific conditions better. It is also important to point out that non-SEND children can equally benefit from inclusion which can teach them awareness, empathy and greater understanding of people with learning difficulties or social, emotional and mental health issues.
ALL STUDENTS CAN BENEFIT FROM INCLUSIVE EDUCATION
I am not, however, going to ignore the problems yet to be addressed in mainstream SEND provision, but rather, add some balance to the predominant negativity around the subject. To go back to the Tes ‘Inclusion Illusion’ article, Nancy Gedge stated an important fact. She pointed out that it is not the fault of mainstream schools when inclusion fails, as they are too “tired and under pressure”, mainly due to poor funding and the immense stress teachers are under. The main problems yet to be addressed in mainstream SEND provision are inadequate training and poor funding, neither of which are the fault of schools themselves.
The future of inclusion in schools
For inclusion to improve, there must be more training opportunities for teachers to gain a better understanding of SEND, even if it were in the form of extra CPD, where they could learn strategies for SEND pupils in their class. Secondly, there are also very high demands on TAs and LSAs who work with SEND pupils, often through classroom or 1:1 support. These people are often passionate with good intentions but are not always given enough training and are generally not paid well enough. This often means that they are not able stay in the job for long, which can be hard for some pupils to deal with who come to rely on their help. These problems within the inclusion issue are exacerbated by poor funding in the sector. There is a great need and importance of inclusive education but for it to work, we can not blame schools but must first address the critical issues of training and funding.