by Jarlath O’Brien (@JarlathOBrien)
Headteacher, Carwarden House Community School
Inclusion of children with special educational needs is one of the most emotive subjects we debate or argue about as teachers and, unusually for our profession, is even more emotive for parents, for obvious reasons.
It is considered by many to be a basic human right and the ideal is that all children should be taught well in their local mainstream school and have their associated needs met. Anything different is seen to deny them at least some part of their childhood that others take for granted.
This is not something that I believe is possible. It is not possible because there are some children whose needs are so complex, or require such specialist skill and knowledge from staff, or some specialist equipment, 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.
We rarely, if ever, have this discussion about other forms of segregation. We celebrate the diversity of a system that allows some children to be educated apart from the opposite sex. We are content for religious organisations to play a major part in running some of our schools, and for religion to be a factor in how some schools select their children. We are in love with our selective independent schools and, having heard this myself, breathe a sigh of relief that those sons or daughters don’t have to mix with the other 93% of the population. Despite the evidence, many in this country bemoan the lack of expansion of grammar schools who, presumably, are single-handedly churning out soon-to-be management consultants and hedge fund managers who otherwise would have been chimneysweeps or match girls. We regard segregation by all of these methods as a positive choice for parents. It is not seen as a zero sum game – their presence or absence does not disadvantage other children. Not so for children with special educational needs whose presence in a school in the name of inclusion can be regarded as lowering the average, making it harder for others to learn or dominate the attention of adults to the detriment of other children.
No school is inclusive. My school is highly exclusive in that sense. We cannot admit 97.5% of the school-age population because the possession of an Education, Health and Care Plan is a condition of entry. Every school has limits on who they can educate well. Those limits are flexible, and the degree of flexibility depends on the Headteacher and the institutional confidence of the school. I have seen the ripples that spread through a school that admits a child with Down syndrome when no-one in the school has worked with a child with such a condition before. If the values of the Headteacher and school are strong enough and they are willing to learn they will be successful. If they simply expect the child to fit in with how they operate then the road ahead will be long (or short) and rocky. The special school that used to state brazenly on its website that it didn’t admit children with either learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural difficulties is one such sad example. This is where the tension arises.
The difference between a school reasonably and correctly saying that, hand on heart, it cannot meet the needs of a particular child, no matter how much support or money is offered, and a school meaning that it does not want to meet the needs of a particular child is a fine one. How our culture of accountability and performativity influence the behaviour of Headteachers will have to wait for another blog.
When I hear inclusion it sometimes comes with a subtext of compromise, dumbing down, doing things that a school shouldn’t have to do, stifling the clever ones or of risking its academic status, or an exact quote which is my personal favourite
“He cannot keep up at the pace we teach.”
The parents at our school are very strong advocates for their children – wouldn’t you be? They tell us in very clear terms that they want us to relentlessly focus on their child living and working independently. Think about that for a second and reflect on the last time you questioned whether that was possible for your own children. That is not too much to ask, but the bald statistics show dire life outcomes for people with learning difficulties. In my job those numbers are a professional context, but for the parents it is on their mind and in their gut the entire time. If attempts at inclusion do not directly work towards improving those life chances then it is not working. It may well make the adults involved feel better themselves as they see a child superficially experiencing the same curriculum as their peers, but in reality that child is losing touch with them at a rate of knots. It is this kind of veneer of inclusion that leads to Nicky Morgan stating that
“every child should study maths, English, history or geography, a language and the sciences up until the age of 16.”
Inclusion is the wrong word. I prefer to talk about a child’s entitlement. An entitlement that drastically improves their chances of being an independent and successful adult. If that’s not what my school is about then I’m in the wrong job.