When everyones special, no one is: how
inclusion went sour.
What do we mean when someone has special needs? And why do
we get it so spectacularly wrong?
Pupils with statements of special educational needs are
being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, prompting fears
that many of the most vulnerable children are receiving a poor education.
Part of me can't see the controversy. Given that many
statemented needs revolve around behaviour, it's not surprising that many SEN
pupils spend time outside of the classroom. That isn't an indication of failure
itself, but simply a recognition that removing a challenging student to a less
crowded space is often the most sensible strategy. It's also not surprising
that students with learning difficulties are removed to nurture groups. In
fact, in my experience it's not removal that's the problem, but not removing.
Inclusion; thats the
pivot around which this all revolves. When I started teaching in 2003, I was
amazed that classrooms often contained students so badly behaved, or with
learning needs so pronounced, that I knew I could never provide for them
adequately. What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesnt speak
English, but has no interpreter in the class? With a pupil who frequently
assaulted or insulted teachers? With a student in a GCSE class with a reading
age of seven? More, why were such pupils packed into the same classroom as
everyone else? Inclusion, I was told.
Inclusion was treated
very seriously. I received several lectures and tutorials on it when training.
Every lesson plan I made had to include awareness of inclusion issues.
Differentiation was supposed to be the catalyst to this magic process; if I
planned the right lesson, it seemed, everyone would be caught in the gravity of
the lesson. This was a complete lie.
Plato spoke about Noble Lies- untruths that were useful,
like the belief in Gods, which he claimed kept people moral. Inclusion was and
is an attempt to generate a contemporary Noble Lie, only instead of conjuring
goodness through the threat of divine retribution, we imagine that wishing for
inclusiveness creates it.
But it doesnt. Instead, inclusion, handled in the most
knuckle-headed manner, has created a vale of tears where everyone loses:
children with special needs dont get the support they need- instead having to
cope in classrooms for which many are not ready- and the mainstream class has
to suffer and starve due to the disproportionate focus that challenging or very
needy students require. And somewhere under this enormous pyramid of toil and
chaos, is the teacher, unable to meet the needs of his class, harrowed by
A second issue is the designation of statements themselves.
Many children are statemented for reasons that, decades ago, would hardly have
been seen as a special need at all. We have all worked with children who are
statemented for behaviour, yet who are perfectly capable of behaving well for a
certain teacher, or their parents. This makes a mockery of the whole system-
Old Andrew calls it the SEN racket- as it shows that we have medicalised many
perfectly normal parts of the behaviour spectrum and redesignated them as
pathologies. This reductivist approach to human nature leads to a joyless form
of determinism, where the human being is lost and replaced with a series of
triggers and causes and cues. How depressing.
There are some
children with clear difficulties- like Tourettes- where they have little
control over themselves. But the surly teenager who is persistently rude to
teachers because she cant be bothered, isnt helped by a label of ODD; in
fact, it infantilises them, and gives them a reason not to amend their
behaviours. And this isnt a fringe issue; this is at the heart of the SEN
liturgy. I have read many well-meant Individual Education Plans for statemented
pupils that go along the lines of Let them run around the room punching people
in the Charlies if they want or similar. Try and run a room like that for five
minutes and see how much learning gets done.
1. Inclusion doesnt
mean in the class with everyone else. This is inclusion at its most witless
and barbaric. It is also the default definition in many, many mainstream
schools: youre included if youre geographically present. You might as well
say that the waiters at Buckingham Palace are guests at the garden party.
2. But all this does
is to create pressure-cooker classrooms where the few drain the attention of
the one, to the detriment of the many. The teacher is spread thin as marmalade
and lessons are carpet bombed. Learning over.
3. Inclusion like any
value, cannot be intrinsically good. It must be balanced with other values,
such as the rights of the class, the teacher, and the good of the child.
4. For some children
that can be achieved in the mainstream classroom; modifications that can be
done with relative ease: task that differentiate for different abilities;
seating plans that accommodate children with hearing issues etc
5. For some children,
inclusion needs to mean special provision. Overwhelmingly, this means smaller
groups, separate classrooms and specially trained staff. That way they can get
the attention they require without dominating the classroom. When did we forget
that mainstream kids have needs too?
6. Staff trained in a
meaningful way. I feel sorry for TAs. Often they are the least trained, the
worst paid and the least valued members of staff, and yet the demands on them
are Herculean. Work a miracle with this pupil they are told, without being
told how. Their salaries are shocking. Children with special needs dont just
need a warm body nagging them, or writing out their answers; they need
teachers, trained in specific areas: EAL; Autism; reading strategies; extreme
spectrum behaviour. And they need subject knowledge too, to teach meaningful
content. I know many TAs who do a fantastic job. But there are some TAs who,
through little fault of their own, are little more than tall buddies for their
7. For inclusion to
be meaningful, it has to exclude meaningfully. Good internal inclusion units
are a joy: a school within a school, a Russian Doll of focus and care. Others
are holding pens; three goes on the Rollercoaster and the pupils are dropped
back into the circus.
Inclusion, as it
stands is worse than useless in many schools. It is actively harmful. It serves
no purpose other than to meet its own criteria. Were bad at identifying
special needs, and were terrible at meeting those needs. If we crack this, the
value and efficiency of what we already do will sky rocket, I guarantee it. But
we spend all our cows on magic beans.
Now that is special.
What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesnt
speak English, but has no interpreter in the class?
This illustrates the issue. It's not inclusion, per se,
that's the problem it's the fact that it's not adequately resourced, or it's
not resourced at all.
Which doesn't mean that all children should be in all
classes eg a pupil who frequently assaulted or insulted teachers.
As I understand it one motivating factor for
"inclusion" was that young people excluded from the school grow up
excluded from society, and the behaviour persists into and throughout
adulthood. Fine: "include" them, but resource it properly.
All of this reminds me of a judge sentencing an offender to
prison with the idea that they will be rehabilitated but the reality that they
As for who's to blame, I think as a society we're pretty
good at allowing ourselves to be lied to and comforted whilst denying harmful
realities. (See house price bubbles and the like.)
Also, and this is a really serious point: since, say the
early noughties over the course of ten or twelve years, hundreds of thousands,
possibly even millions of children and young people have had their education
blighted, by "included" pupils. Thousands of teachers stand in front
of their classes confronted by this the most obvious and damaging issue. They
say what they see...and nothing is done about it. Why not? And that's not a
moan, that's a question.
If I recall Channel 4's
Undercover Teacher attempted to
address this issue and, as usual, the
whistleblower was disciplined.
Caz12 February 2013 05:37
Tom, this is - as ever - spot on. The way that most schools
deal with this issue is not fair on anyone; the staff, the pupils themselves
and the rest of the class. More and more have I become convinced that
"inclusion" actually means" EXclusion" for the rest of the
class, and in these days of mixed ability classes for almost everything, even
I've worked in tough schools, from one in special measures
to those that just about scraped through the old "satisfactory"
barrier - and they, of course, tended to have a higher proportion of SEN than
other schools. I regularly had classes where the number of kids on the SEN
register was greater than the number who weren't - and had no classroom support
When I raised issues like this, I was ignored and I often
got the feeling that I was then looked on as someone who just wanted an easy
life. But that wasn't it at all -I felt bad that I could often do NOTHING for
those kids, because some of them just weren't able to access the lessons, no
matter how carefully I differentiated. I mean, try teaching a 13 year-old pupil
with a reading age of 6 about cognates in MFL - you're on a hiding to nothing
because he's got so few reference points in English!
My husband has recently become one of those TAs you talk
about, and indeed, he's already wondering how on earth he is supposed to help
some of the pupils to whom he's been assigned. (And he works in a top-end
I read the TES article and was very surprised about the part
you have quoted. I'd have thought parents would be glad to think that their
child was getting some one-to-one attention.
Nic Price13 February 2013 05:34
You have correctly described the poor implementation here.
And you do, eventually, recognise how well 'good internal inclusion' works.
Part of the problem is the binary nature of the language
(it's either inclusion or exclusion) which gives people some very fixed ideas
of what it should be. Sadly, it leads many to the conclusion that 'inclusion'
doesn't work. To me, inclusion is not a strategy, it's a principle. It's the
idea that schools need to reflect society so that we don't segregate children
on any basis. Notice that I say 'schools'. The same does not necessarily apply
to 'classes'. Classes are merely sub-groups within a school that should be sized
and composed appropriately for the children's needs. The best inclusion I have
seen ensures that pupils with SEN are always notionally attached to the
mainstream (e.g. as part of tutor groups and year groups) even if most of their
learning occurs apart from their (social) peers.
BTW, I never actually encountered a SENCO that endorsed the
'let-them-be' approach (even if the IEP may have implied it). This was much
more likely to come from SMT who didn't want to deal with the behaviour issue.
Ken Lastimer13 February 2013 13:10
This is a good article which I think does an admirable job
of summarising the issues from a teacher's point of view. However, I wonder if
you are conflating statements with medical diagnoses. A statement for a child
with behaviour problems does not need to come with a assumptions about the
origins of their difficulties. The statement should simply detail what their
difficulties are, the objectives for their development and the provision that
is required to meet those objectives. A statement of SEN also carries with it
funding for support from the local authority so they are often very desirable
for schools. In my experience the prevalence of statements for exclusively
behavioural issues vary greatly from area to area, in some authorities they are
almost exclusively issued to children when they go to a special school. Whether
a child gets a statement appears to have more to do with how local funding is
organised and prioritised in many cases.
I think that the problem with the Inclusion that you
describe is that it is simply a soundbite, a weasel word, a piece of marketing
for a oversimplistic idea (when people say words like "Inclusion" or
"Academy" I often think of the Monorail episode of the Simpsons). The
fact remains that being included is a social experience which has little to do
with the room you are educated in. I have seen some of the best examples of
inclusion in special school settings or in mainstream schools which operate
specialist units. However the prevailing state of affairs has been unwittingly
concocted by a combination of management money counters who see a cost saving
and naive idealists who have a fervent beliefs that it is a right for all
children to be educated in the same classroom, no matter how impractical,
unworkable or unhelpful it actually is to do so. I agree that this state of
affairs has undermined effective education for many troubled children and their
peers. However, I believe that there is an increasing recognition among those
who work in this area that troubled children need to learn increasing peace
with the world before they can be properly educated in the conventional sense.
7 February 2013 00:49
Wonderfully astute commentary Tom. The more I think about it
these days, and when I read an intelligent, experienced analysis like yours,
the more I want to jab the finger of blame not at the politicians,
techno-zealots or ideologues but at the...English teachers.
If English was taught in schools well. Not the naive
politics or social engineering NATE exemplifies, and children left schools aged
16 with the kind of linguistic skills commonly found in other countries
(Germany, Russia...)maybe we wouldn't as a nation be so vulnerable (as Ken
notes) to the deployment of marketing when we have the right to expect intelligent