Inclusive Education and inclusive society – A fundamental rethink and the role of academics.
Louise Arnold, Senior Lecturer in the Early Childhood and Education department at the University of East London, asks: Has the UK government made inclusive education and movement towards inclusive societies a priority?
Inclusive education is well-embedded in the international rights treaties and documents we have signed and ratified on the world stage, but our government has not enshrined these in national policy documents. We must ask ourselves – has the government made inclusive education and movement towards inclusive societies a priority?
If we accept the rights outlined in international documents such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and UNRCPD, we should be moving away from debating inclusive education as if it is optional and instead working to find solutions at all levels – creating a system of inclusive education that serves the community rather than trying to force students into a system of education that excludes and marginalises. As academics, our role holds responsibility in contributing to shifts in thinking, language, representation and elimination of barriers in disability and inclusion, alongside Disabled people, children and Young people.
‘SEN’ (special educational needs) is a term that is still used because of its place in policy and legal guidance documents (most recently the Children and Families Act 2014 and the accompanying Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice, 2015), but it is not without controversy. The issue that many have with this terminology is that it is no longer considered to be neutral or appropriate for policy.
Arguably, we should be considering children’s ‘educational rights’ (Runswick-Cole and Hodge, 2009) rather than special educational needs. The construction of the child as having ‘needs’ that are ‘special’ (special in this case meaning different and additional), rather than recognising all children as having unique qualities, preferences and experiences and considering what it takes to support every child to have a meaningful and fulfilling education, creates a narrative that it is extra work to support and engage them, that including them is above and beyond, rather than expected practice.
The language itself creates the idea that there are groups of children that are ‘other’ to society’s idea of what children should be (Griffiths, 2019). This has been in turn used to create negative stereotypes and narratives, and ultimately deny children access to education, services or inclusion in wider society.
It can also create homogeny, the idea that all children with ‘SEN’ are the same, and benefit from the same interventions or support, rather than considering the individuality of all children. The discussions we have on our degree programmes at UEL begin with identifying the kind of language we are using, and considering how this can deepen divides. We then consider the basis for discussing inclusive education- what is it and why is it important to discuss across our programmes?
The right to inclusive education has been made clear through international agreements, including the combination of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (though not mentioned specifically) and later the UNCRPD (2007), which calls for ‘an inclusive education system at all levels’ (24.1). It also states that Disabled people should not be ‘excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability’ (24.2 a) which can be interpreted under the social model of disability as excluding a person on the basis of impairment. ‘Full and equal participation in education and as members of the community’ (24.3). The UK government made reservations on ratifying the UNCRPD, stating that they understand that special (segregated) schools and colleges are allowed as part of an inclusive system, and that the right is reserved to send Disabled children and Young people outside their community to receive education, if it is seen as more appropriate (2009). This is in contravention to the clauses outlined above which champion a fully inclusive system of education and has been raised by many rights campaigners and organisations including ALLFIE [https://bit.ly/3t26X6Q]
In more recent legislation, Section 33 of the 2014 Children and Families Act gives schools, settings and colleges the option to say that to include a Disabled child or Young person would undermine the effective education of other children and Young people (DfE, 2014). These reservations and clauses show the unwillingness of the Government to commit to implementing or progressively realising a truly inclusive system of education, along with blame placed on the child for why inclusion is not being implemented.
Unsurprisingly then, the most recent updates on the implementation of international rights documents suggest that progress towards inclusive education and more generally progress towards an inclusive society in Britain has not been as expected or hoped for by many families, scholars and activists. Our students consider two updates in particular, one that focuses on the implementation of the UNCRC and one that focuses on the UNCRPD:
The Children’s Commissioners’ UNCRC mid-term review (2019, with an update due this year) reported grave issues with education including ‘a worrying level of use of seclusion and internal exclusion’ (p.3) and reports of children and young people, particularly those who attend segregated settings ‘being subject to restraint which causes pain’ (p.3). Segregated education then, is not meeting the needs of those excluded from mainstream education, or indeed keeping them safe.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC, 2017) in a report to parliament raised many concerning issues, including the impact of reclassifying SEN and moving from a statement of special educational needs to the Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) which is only for those with ‘more serious need’ (p.25). What this reclassification means is that children who have previously been labelled as having ‘lower levels of SEN’ (p.25) are not classed as having ‘SEN’ under the new classification and therefore not seen as a priority for support. Reducing or removing support in this way, by moving the goalposts for who qualifies for it means that children in the system have been failed, by the system that is supposed to be there to support them.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC, 2017) showed that children who areclassified as having SEN tend to experience poorer outcomes in education and they are ‘significantly more likely to be temporarily or permanently excluded’ (p.25), again painting a picture of a system that is failing children and young people. This report also found that:
- Disabled Young people (aged 16-18) are twice as likely not to be engaged in employment, education or training
- Less than half of Disabled adults are in work
- There is a significant disability pay gap
- Disabled people are more likely to be living in poverty (EHRC, 2017)
These are not issues that can be placed at an individual level- there are systemic issues that keep Disabled people out of these spaces. For example, if a Disabled Young person goes to university, the EHCP finishes and does not go with them.
The importance of discussing these systemic issues as part of our courses is because many of our students hold dual roles; as parents, teachers and other educational professionals. They have their own views and opinions about inclusion based on their experiences within schools and settings, but this may have based on a version of inclusion in schools that does not include all children.
Another part of our role as academics can include linking together these key ideas – inclusive education and inclusive society. When linking these issues together, the EHRC states, ‘Education is a fundamental human right that enables people to access other rights, including an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health’ (p.24), and UNESCO (2015) adds ‘segregated education can perpetuate negative attitudes and discrimination’ which compounds the experience of Disabled children and adults who are more likely to experience exclusion from school, poverty, unemployment, health inequality, exclusion from politics and access to justice (EHRC, 2017), symptomatic of an unequal, non-inclusive society.
This must change. In 2005, Thomas stated ‘brave decisions are needed from policy makers about funding’, and this is still the case, but the drive for inclusion cannot be led solely from the top; parents, children and Young people and communities must be included so the drive comes from within (UNESCO, 2020), led by Disabled People’s Organisations- Nothing About Us Without Us (Charlton, 1998). Academics must play a role here too; challenging language used in discussions and publications and the ableism it represents, recognising the status of disability issues alongside race and gender, and not an optional ‘add-on’ for those with a particular interest, and creating research projects alongside Disabled people that speak to the experiences and concerns of Disabled people and work to eliminate barriers in research and academia.
We should be considering intersectionality as a human rights issue- disability not as a distinct experience, but interwoven with for example race, class, gender, sexuality, contributing to a person’s experience. Academics should use their platforms to amplify the views and voices of Disabled people and children and Young people, influencing policy-makers, and contribute to shifts in thinking and practice around disability and inclusion.
Academics must recognise that they are accountable to the people they are discussing and ensure their work is aligned with the priorities of Disabled people and rights-based models.
We must all broaden our understanding and definition of inclusion to include everybody, for the benefit of not just the education system but for society as a whole.