I’ve been mulling over the UK inclusion agenda which argues that because everyone has a right to be included, a place for every child should be provided within mainstream education, giving every child a sense of belonging by celebrating and encouraging diversity. (Note: this article is written from a UK perspective but may be relevant in other contexts. I have not researched approaches to inclusion in other countries so it would be interesting to hear any responses to this if practice is different.)
Gone are the days when we automatically segregated children who didn’t seem to ‘fit in’ and put them in schools where teaching was tailored at a lower level, qualifications were sometimes not even offered and children’s life chances were quite honestly, seriously limited as a result. I have heard stories from adults who feel they were failed by an education system that dismissed any ability they might have had, which is likely the reason why the system in this country was changed.
However, it seems that neither of these approaches solve the issue of how to give every child an education with equality of opportunity as they are two opposite extremes. Children who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia or coordination issues such as dyspraxia can still thrive within the mainstream environment given a little extra support and there are many schools which have special support units for children who need this. This is a good argument for the inclusion agenda and it is easy enough to see that these children would benefit from being in the mainstream environment.
However, trying to include all children in mainstream can actually provide barriers to some, particularly those with sensory processing issues who find the environment so overwhelming and distracting that they are unable to engage and concentrate on their learning. Children with autistic spectrum conditions often have sensory processing issues alongside and the combination of these issues make the mainstream environment, particularly at secondary school, too much of a challenge to manage. These children are referred to as ‘high’ or ‘complex’ needs, primarily because they do not necessarily present with learning difficulties, but the demands of a mainstream school can often lead to high anxiety and sometimes even emotionally-based school avoidance.
The inclusion agenda in the UK began with a report by Baroness Warnock (1924-2019) in 1978 which spoke out against segregated special schools and argued for a more inclusive approach to education. This was followed by many changes in education policy and in 2002 we had the new SEN code of practice, showing us how to include all children by having learning support and pastoral care as part of every school. However, in amongst this policy shift, because children were moved from specialist settings into mainstream, a lot of the specialist settings closed down. We were left with only special schools for the most profoundly disabled children, sometimes including those with blindness or deafness, who would not be able to physically attend or learn within a mainstream environment.
Baroness Warnock herself spoke about how the inclusion agenda had gone too far in 2005. She argued that this extreme had led to issues for children such as those described above, with social, emotional and mental health challenges. It is clear to see the point she is making if you try to find a school for a child with said issues.
On a personal level, this has been very evident in the search for an appropriate school for my teenage son who has autism and sensory processing disorder. He managed primary school, which is a much smaller and friendlier setting with fewer transitions throughout the day. As soon as he started secondary school, it became obvious very quickly that he was not going to cope in this busy, constantly shifting environment with hundreds of people swarming around him.
If you can imagine for a moment that every sound feels uncomfortable in your ears, every movement distracts your eyes and every brush of clothing against your skin is painful, you might be able to understand a little how some children can find any school environment overwhelming. School can be such a bombardment to all of the senses. It is very difficult to adapt a school to the point which these triggers are minimised enough for affected children, yet still provide a good and thorough education for large groups of children and young people. There is no easy solution when trying to include all children in the same environment, making the inclusion agenda impossible to accomplish for all.
When my son decided enough was enough and refused to put himself through the discomfort of going into school again, we had to fight for a long time to get him into an appropriate setting where his needs would be met. One of the reasons why the fight took so long – about 16 months – was because there were no appropriate specialist secondary schools in the area for children with sensory processing issues and social, emotional and mental health needs. There are state funded schools for children with profound learning difficulties which have small class sizes, but they wouldn’t take him because he was ‘too intelligent’. Unfortunately, this left us with no choice but to ask for independent provision, still nearby but far more expensive. As a result, my son was moved into the ‘high needs’ category, equating the cost of the provision with his level of need.
While the system is broken, it is up to teachers to support children and young people, which may mean going above and beyond their official responsibilities and showing an immense amount of flexibility for those children who struggle in a mainstream environment. Another way of supporting children is to document their struggles and provide this as evidence of the child needing a more appropriate environment for their needs. All evidence written by someone working directly with the child provides a very strong case if the local area authority disagree with the need for special needs support or specialist provision.
However, I feel that there is a solution to the broken inclusion system in the UK. What we need now are a mixture of schools for children with different levels of need who cannot access or cope with a mainstream environment. If the state could understand that the inclusion agenda shouldn’t require children to fit in to schools, but that schools should fit the children, we could work our way out of this conundrum and provide happier, healthier environments for all children from the start.