The Road to Inclusive Education: My Review of ‘Your Ideal School’ Project
To mark Disability History Month 2020, Yewande Omoniyi-Akintelu reviews Jess Starns’ research project 50 years on from the Education (handicapped children) Act, asking how inclusive do you feel the system is – what would your ideal school look like?
My name is Yewande, and I am an Office Volunteer for ALLFIE. I was asked by our Campaigns and Policy Coordinator, Simone Aspis, to review interviews which are part of a research project, ‘Education (handicapped children) Act 1970 – your ideal school?’, comparing the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970 with how inclusive and accessible the education system is today. The project is by a Disabled student named Jess Starns, and was done in July 2020. Several people were interviewed such as Disabled people of different ages, and parents of Disabled Young people.
Education (handicapped children) Act 1970 – your ideal school? – YouTube (please note, there is swearing in the audio)
I will be highlighting the key points and themes that emerged from the interviews.
The Act granted all children of compulsory school age the right to an education, where previously Disabled children with certain impairments had been denied that right. It transferred responsibility of Disabled children’s education from health authorities to local education authorities (LEAs). The Act is 50 years old in 2020.
One of the first points made is that it should be acknowledged that some changes have been made to the education system to improve the education provisions for some Disabled children and Young people since the Act was passed. However, many of the people interviewed said that there is still a long way to go until today’s education system is fully inclusive. An interviewee mentioned that pupils with diagnosis such as autism are at an increased disadvantage, because often their diagnosis gets missed and they do not get the support that they need. One of the main themes running through the interviews is what the participants’ ideal school looks like. The majority of the interviewees said that an ideal school would focus more on the arts, sports, and vocational subjects. Many people also said their ideal school would be smaller and more child focused, with no performance streaming and setting. An ideal school would allow people to follow their passions. One person mentioned that the National Curriculum does not give children space to grow.
Another common theme in the interviews is that Disability Rights and the Social Model of Disability should be taught in schools.
I definitely agree with this, as I believe that it creates a good foundation for schools to be inclusive. Another point raised was that schools do not encourage full inclusive practices because they hardly have any Disabled teachers and staff. One person mentioned it is important for Disabled children to see people like them represented in the education system. The lack of differentiation in the curriculum was also highlighted, and the exam system being too rigid. A Disabled Young person mentioned that they struggled with exams, and that there should be more opportunities to do coursework instead of exams.
The differences in special schools and mainstream schools was also talked about by various interviewees.
One person with learning difficulties spoke about the low aspirations that the teachers in special schools had for them. However, they are now studying for a PHD. Another theme that I noticed was that several people mentioned that they were bullied in mainstream school so they were moved to special school, in the hopes that things would get better. One person said that when they started attending special school in the year 2002, they had a good social experience, but not a good experience academically.
I have met many people that say special school is a better option because of issues such as bullying in mainstream. I believe that things such as bullying and lack of academic support happens because mainstream is not fully inclusive yet, not because inclusive education does not work. The point was also made that the resources available in special schools (such as sensory rooms) should be available in mainstream schools to make them more inclusive.
Another interviewee was asked about their experience of special school in the 1970s, and their lack of access to exams and qualifications at the time. They said that they can’t believe that the same thing is still happening to special school students today. They believe that the current ASDAN qualification is not good enough, and that there is no proper route to employment once someone leaves special school. They also mention their experience of not being taught sex and relationship education when they were at special school, and that they believe the same thing still happens to some students today. In their opinion, parents do not always realise the bigger impact of segregated schooling.
The theme of integration vs inclusion is talked about in the interviews, also the debate surrounding the definition of inclusive education.
The definition of inclusive education is constantly debated, and many people still confuse integration for inclusion. Jess mentions that the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE) has one of the more comprehensive definitions of inclusive education, but also mentions that we are not there yet with schools fulfilling that definition.
One person also said that attitudes towards inclusive education from educational professionals also need to change. Another person explained that it is too much of a legal fight to get inclusive education, which is why many people give up on it.
Transition to post-16 education and higher education was also discussed.
An interviewee said that Young Disabled people need more support when transitioning to post-16 and adult services. Another person said that many Young Disabled people are still not accessing higher education and, in their opinion, higher education is still based on the medical model.
Another interesting point from the interviews that stood out, is the issue of labelling and “special needs”.
One interviewee mentioned that 40 years ago when they worked in education, there were less labels. In their experience, pupils were treated more as individuals. There was more opportunity to participate in group work in the classroom, and people were rarely diagnosed as autistic. They also said that it was not common to talk about not being able to meet a child’s needs, like there is now. I do believe that the Special educational needs and disability (SEND) system can be disabling, because it focuses more on what a Disabled child and Young person cannot do. It can unintentionally make the child or young person feel like they are a problem, that needs to fit into the system, rather than addressing the barriers in the education system itself. To quote a participant from the interviews:
“Being different is great, being made to feel different is not okay”.
One of the interviewees said that segregated education means that people will not learn from each other. They said we need to learn that Disabled people experience oppression, but to also learn to celebrate us and our achievements.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed listening to the interviews by Jess. It was good to hear a wide range of views about Disabled people and education from people of different ages and backgrounds. The resource did a really great job of capturing the themes that always come up when talking about inclusive education, and the barriers that we face trying to make inclusive education a reality. It is true that things have progressed since the Handicapped Children’s Act in 1970s, but we still have a very long way to go. However, it is important that we keep having these conversations, regardless how uncomfortable they might be. Hopefully there will be one day in which inclusive education is a right, and not a struggle.
By Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi