A recent European report highlights the benefit of inclusive education. It specifically links inclusive education to improved inclusion within the wider community both during school years and beyond school into adulthood. A lot of previous research focuses on either inclusive education or social inclusion; there is a more limited range of research that links the two together. This report analyses over 200 peer-reviewed papers that make that link.
First, of course, the analysis has to handle the wide range of definitions of both inclusive education and social inclusion. Inclusive education is articulated as a right in UN Conventions, both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities but requires action by all of us to realise this right. Definitions often include these key elements:
- Valuing all pupils equally
- Responding to the diversity of needs of all children
- Reducing and eliminating exclusion from and within education
Some of these processes are challenging. On valuing all pupils equally: there has been encouragement from senior figures in government, in the recent past, to see the only valued outcome from a child’s education as being admission to one of our top universities.
The difficulty with this view is that it constructs most of the school population as a disappointment and, for the individual pupil and the school, it sets no value on the considerable achievement of attaining, for example, one GCSE by a pupil with a learning difficulty, an achievement that might open the door to training and employment. This attitude risks turning into pupils themselves being undervalued, being of less worth than a pupil who will bring glory to the school’s academic record. How can we make sure that all students feel valued?
Discourse about responding to the needs of all children tends to start from the premise that all children are different and all children learn differently. This can lead us towards thinking that, in an ideal world, we would plan individually for every pupil in every lesson. In broad terms, this can overlook the shared purposes of education and, in practical terms, is simply not manageable, but neither is it efficient or effective.
By way of a compromise, we often address the shared element by focusing on the middle cohort of pupils and then adding something for those who are ahead and subtracting or modifying something for those who are behind that cohort. But there are trip wires here too, with inherent inequalities in the ‘additional’ and ‘modification’ tension that has played out in messages from senior political figures who have focused on the importance of, and I quote, ‘stretch and challenge for our brightest pupils’ and ‘support for those who struggle with learning’. Yet, for that pupil with a learning difficulty, it was stretch and challenge that secured that one GCSE. To achieve that, how many schools can say, with confidence, that pupils with learning difficulties have equal access to experienced, subject-expert teachers with high expectations?
The third core element in many definitions of inclusive education, is about reducing and eliminating exclusion from and within education. On this point we are not doing well: there are increasing exclusions, in numbers and proportion; increasing special school placements, in numbers and proportion; an increasing number of pupils out of school awaiting placement in a special school; and an increasing number of parents educating their child at home. The Children and Families Act did not set in law the intention to ‘reverse the bias towards inclusion’, which had been advertised in the Green Paper that preceded the Act. Instead the legislation reflected the parental choice embedded in earlier legislation. But are all these trends a genuine reflection of parental choice?
There is a growing concern in government about the upward trend in exclusions. Reflecting this concern, in March this year, an enquiry into exclusions was announced, led by Edward Timpson who was, until last June, children’s minister at the Department for Education. In addition to the overall rise in numbers, there is concern about the significant variation in the use of exclusions from area to area and school to school, as well as among groups of children. While many schools are not excluding at all, others are excluding higher than average numbers and we know that exclusion affects the most vulnerable groups disproportionately, with pupils with SEN among those worst affected.
With all schools subject to funding constraints, high stakes accountability and the same high level messages from government, what enables some schools not to exclude or to include more pupils in a mainstream school education? A key determinant is a school’s ethos and values: valuing of all pupils equally; recognising and valuing difference; expecting, planning for and welcoming all pupils; and having high expectations of all students in the school.
And perhaps such schools also already knew what the European research found, that inclusive education leads to greater social inclusion. Schools aren’t the only agency affecting social inclusion, nor is inclusive education the only factor, but schools can and do exert a powerful influence and I don’t know a single person who went into teaching who didn’t want to use that influence to improve children’s life chances.