Jarlath O’Brien has decided to be all big and brave and nail his colours to the mast regarding his beliefs on inclusion. In doing so he has started a huge discussion on the topic. You can read Jarlath’s post here. Also see @JulesDaulby’s thoughts here, @nancygedge here and @jordyjax here. This is a small selection of the growing number of posts on the topic.
I’m quite late to this discussion due to personal circumstances so I apologise in advance if I repeat what has been said by others.
I am of the opinion that admission to a mainstream school for children with additional needs should not be automatic. That benefits no one. Not the child with additional needs, not their peers and not the teacher and TA. Placement of a special child should be carefully worked out on an individual basis after considering all relevant factors.
I’ll start with the child with additional needs. Is mainstream school always best? I think not. Quite often the child with additional needs is attached to a TA. A very skilled, highly trained TA, but an adult nevertheless. At the beginning of compulsory schooling, age 4 years, young children are happy to play with special children. They may not notice a difference if it is not obvious and they like the presence of the adult. An adult will structure their game, stop arguments and play with them. As the child progresses up the school there is a growing reluctance to play with the child with the adult in tow. The adult may be there for medical needs and it is not possible to remove them. Under these circumstances it is difficult to form friendships. Alternatively there is now a group of girls who want to mother the child, look after them and baby them. Is this real friendship? Would any parent want that for their child, probably not.
Moving in to the classroom there is little need to dwell on the fact that there is little in the way of inclusion in PE. The child in the wheelchair can only watch while their peers play football or tennis. How does that make them feel? Would you like it for yourself I wonder. What about trips to the theatre with no wheelchair access? Do we then stop the whole class from going because one child can’t go.That would be inclusion gone too far. At this point I am only discussing physically challenged pupils.
Moving on to poorly children now. In a mainstream school is it fair to be administering oxygen or tube feeding or manipulating Mickey buttons in front of the other children? The poorly children do not need an audience for these intrusive procedures. Children will be children and will stare. In the special school all these procedures are common place. Many children have to endure these things. No one bats an eye lid or even glances in their direction. That’s inclusion. There are TAs everywhere. It is not unusual to have 5 TAs in a class of 7 children. That’s inclusion. Everyone is the same. In PE lessons different games are played. Boccia and fencing are the ones my school favours. All can play, wheelchair or not. Such is the skill of our staff that even VI children can play. No one feels, looks or is treated any differently in our school. That’s inclusion.
On a slightly different note I do wonder if inclusion in to mainstream school is sometimes the start of a self fulfilling prophecy. “I can’t do this because I haven’t got my TA with me’. I see this sometimes in mainstream schools, the child with additional needs won’t do anything without their TA. Similarly behaviour can go wrong when a child is wrongly placed. A child displaying challenging behaviours can be encouraged by their peers to behave inappropriately by their peers as this is entertaining for them. They are blissfully unaware that they are being laughed at, not being laughed with.
I could write for ever about the disadvantages of placing special children in mainstream schools but that would give the wrong impression. I am not against it. If it is right for the child and right for their peers and right for their teacher then the decision is a good one. Quite often children thrive well until they are around Year 5. At this time the gap widens too much and the child and teacher both begin to struggle. Until that time many placements are successful and the special children benefit from their mainstream placement.
Teachers should also be considered. Mainstream teachers have chosen to work in their schools. They have chosen the fast pace, they like children who want to learn and they enjoy shaping the lives of the voters of tomorrow. Special school teachers have chosen to specialise. They like the slower pace, the individualised learning, the differentiation and making a small difference to special children’s lives. With the best will in the world mainstream teachers are ill equipped to deal with 25 plus children and one or two more with extra cognitive, medical or behavioural needs. They are not trained for this and it causes further stress to already very busy people. Special teachers enjoy taking the time to get to know the child. They find out what motivates them and what works for them. Mainstream teachers do not have the luxury of time in this way.
In my school we have had some success stories. We had a young school refuser who came to us as a last resort. The calmer, quieter atmosphere put this young man back on track. He stayed with us for 2 years, went on to A Levels and is now in a responsible job. Another young man came to us in Year 10 from mainstream school. He was allocated 2 adults just for his behaviour. Two! Cognitively he was much lower than his mainstream counterparts and this contributed to his behaviour. After some time with us he began to improve until he had no TA with him at all. He responded to the smaller cohorts, the individualised learning and the never ending patience from the staff. His self esteem was slowly built and he made major improvements. This young man also holds down a full time job in the retail sector. No one would have believed this when he had two TAs just to keep him under control.
To bring my thoughts together inclusion has to be right for all concerned. The decision shouldn’t be money driven. The decision shouldn’t be to satisfy the latest DfE/political whim. The decision shouldn’t solely be that of the parents. The decision should be a combination of all factors affecting the child. Whatever is best for the child is the way forward.
My bigger worry is that special schools themselves are showing signs of slowly becoming less inclusive. Children’s needs are ever more diverse and special schools are ever more generic. Is it ethically right to have a delicate tube fed or oxygen fed child in the same classroom as a child who mistakes an ipad for a missile? Why is this allowed to happen? That is for another debate.