Mapping the way ahead
Following on from our article in the last edition about the current assault on inclusion, Richard Rieser and Tara Flood look at what needs to change in the education system.
There is considerable evidence from research in the UK and around the world that including disabled children and young people with the full range of impairments is successful, particularly where well planned and funded and staff are well trained. I have been observing and filming inclusion working across the UK and beyond for the last 30 years and I have witnessed children with multiple impairments being successfully included. It boils down to attitudes and where there is a ‘can do’ attitude it can happen in all sorts of environments. But even where this does not occur, disabled students do better in all ways compared to those segregated into special schools. This is the case for those with cognitive, social, emotional and mental health impairments, as well as those with physical and sensory impairments.
From 1997 to around 2004-2006 the Labour government had a policy of inclusive education but they did not defend it and allowed it to be undercut. The pressures of the Tories’ Standards Agenda, reduction in central support teams, high stakes testing and the wish of special schools to expand, all undercut the policy and the Labour Party did not know how to develop and defend it. The Coalition and Tory governments had a commitment to end the ‘bias to inclusive education’ and a moratorium on special school closures.
Whilst the Conservatives remain set on turning the clock back on inclusion, Labour in their 2017 manifesto committed to developing a National Education Service based on inclusivity. Considerable work needs to be done both within the Labour Party and with the general public to raise understanding and commitment to inclusive education. The current cuts in school budgets are hitting inclusive practice towards disabled young people particularly hard with cuts in teaching assistants, small groups, reduction in bought-in specialists and growing class sizes.
And yet despite the doom and gloom about the turning back of the clock on inclusion, ALLFIE continues to hear about schools that are developing inclusive education practice and enriching the lives of their pupils and students, such as Eastlea Community school in Newham, Emersons Green school in Bristol and Blatchington Mill secondary school in Brighton are all bucking the trend away from inclusion by continuing to value each and every one of their students.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), ratified by the government in 2009 must become our roadmap for inclusive education. Article 24 of the UNCRPD and the follow up General Comment No.4 set the tone for the paradigm shift required to get us to a place where inclusive education is not up for discussion, but is a reality for every pupil and student. The General Comment No. 4 sets out the requirements for change which include:
- A process for addressing and responding to the diverse needs of all children.
- A recognition that all children can learn.
- Identification and removal of barriers.
- Presence, full participation, accessibility, attendance and achievement of all students, especially those excluded or marginalised.
- The building of positive relationships, friendships and acceptance.
Interestingly these are not dissimilar from ALLFIE’s seven principles for inclusive education.
Last summer the UN Disability Committee scrutinised the UK government’s implementation of the UNCRPD. Their Concluding Observations document highlights that the UK government’s approach to disabled people, including disabled children and young people, is causing a ‘human catastrophe’. The phone calls ALLFIE receives from parents almost everyday confirm this to be true. The committee have set out a number of recommendations that if implemented would deliver a truly inclusive education system – placing the rights and support requirements of all pupils and students at its heart.
The key recommendation for ALLFIE is the committee’s requirement that the government develop a comprehensive and coordinated legislative and policy framework for inclusive education and a timeframe to ensure that mainstream schools foster real inclusion of children with disabilities in the school environment and that teachers and all other professionals and persons in contact with children understand the concept of inclusion and are able to enhance inclusive education.
Such a framework would need to focus on building real aspiration for all our children and move away from sticking with what we know in terms of existing and traditional practice and policy that sees Disabled children & young people as the problem.
We need to reach out to parents, particularly those parents who are gathering together locally across the country to challenge the cuts to vital SEND support services.
Developing a legal, policy and practice plan that takes us from existing education arrangements to a system that is based on human rights and inclusion is the firm foundation to this transformation, and at the heart of that is the work that needs to be done to develop confidence in inclusion among teachers and support staff, parents and young people. That plan should include:
- The removal of the UNCRPD Article 24 reservation.
- Developing and implementing a National Inclusion Strategy with a commitment to make education settings fully accessible in 5 years.
- Developing a longer term financial and organisational structure that incentivises the development of inclusive education practice at all levels of education.
- Replacing league table culture with moderated teacher assessment.
- Setting up a teacher-led national curriculum and assessment review based on principles of inclusive education.
- Challenging disablist bullying and exclusions. Introducing disability equality into the curriculum for all.
- Mandatory competencies on inclusive education on all Initial Teacher Training.
- Requiring all serving teachers to undertake twin track training on the inclusion of disabled children/students.
- Developing and funding more inclusive approaches to 19-25 education and training, linked to concrete measures for preparing for adulthood.
- Restoring and developing the Disabled Students Grant in higher education.
We will need to convince staff and parents that another inclusive way is possible and practicable. We need to convince government and local authorities that running both a special school and mainstream system is not cost effective. It is also wasteful of young people’s potential. As we transition from the current situation to an inclusive system, capacity building will be crucial. Many more resources and expertise can be released to make inclusion work, provided high stakes testing is dismantled and children’s happiness is put at the heart of learning, with a curriculum for all.
We need to move away from schools competing against each other and instead celebrate good inclusive practice and share the learning. We need to learn from the aspiration in other education systems such as Finland where a belief in the value of all children hasn’t damaged their PISA ranking because they value academic and vocational learning equally. Also many areas of Canada which have not had special schools for decades…. there are many other countries that are embracing the possibility of inclusive education. The UK needs to take a deep breath and do the same!