United Together for Inclusion
Richard Rieser interviews Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretaries of the new National Education Union (NEU) about their interest in inclusion.
Q: Since 1996, the NUT has supported inclusive education. With a rising number and proportion of children with EHC plans attending special schools, what are the current threats to this policy?
Kevin: ‘The NUT takes into the NEU a serious intention to make the experiences of children and young people with SEND a significant policy and campaign focus. There are serious threats to the ability of schools to develop inclusive practice, and this is directly because of government policy, so it’s high on the list of what we want to work on.’’
Q: Tell us about ATL’s commitment to equality and how that includes inclusive education?
Mary: ‘’The ATL has a longstanding policy focus on children with SEND and their rights. I share Kevin’s desire to make sure the NEU shapes the future of education. We want success and respect for every child; we want barriers to access taken away; we want a curriculum that enables every child to reach their potential and to reform the accountability system which currently undermines inclusion.’’
Q: Many disabled children and young people stand to be negatively affected by school funding changes (eg AWPU and the removal of ring-fencing). What can the NEU do to challenge and change this?
The NEU is proud to be concentrating on an urgent funding campaign, started by the NUT and the ATL before amalgamation, which has brought parents, communities, MPs, and unions together to call the government out on its damaging cuts. We put education funding on the map in the general election and we’ve kept the issue high on the agenda ever since, securing an extra £1.3 billion for education from the DfE budget. But the cuts continue, and the huge under-funding for SEND is becoming apparent. We’re making the SEND cuts a major focus of our campaign, as too often SEND provision is the first thing to be cut. We urge all your readers to get involved at SchoolCuts.org.uk.
Q: 91% of schools will experience a budget cut this year. Many heads will be in a difficult position: not wanting to lose courses or teachers. Too often choices made have a disproportionately negative impact on support for disabled pupils. What can be done to counter this trend?
You’re right that head teachers are being put in an impossible position – to cut staff, courses, outings, clubs or enjoyable music and sport activities. Heads have been speaking out in growing numbers within our Funding Campaign. The risk for children and young people with SEND is immediate, and terrifying. Without the funding needed, children with SEND won’t access the curriculum; they won’t get what they should be entitled to; they will get a narrower range of experiences, and they will lose the chance to reach their potential. It’s not fair; which is why parents of children with SEND are joining teachers, heads and governors to speak out. We want to build an even bigger campaign.
Q: Exclusions have been rising, including a disproportionately high number of disabled children. The government has announced an inquiry into exclusions. What recommendations can NEU make to address this problem?
If teachers aren’t given professional freedom to make the curriculum interesting and engaging; if schools aren’t given budgets for pastoral support and mental health counselling; if schools are forced to teach to the test and drill students for numerical targets, then schools simply won’t be accessible for many students. Disaffection, exclusion, school phobia, self-harm, child poverty are all on the rise. The government is proud of its over-testing; in denial over its funding cuts and ignorant of the link between high stakes accountability and rising exclusions. Exposing the impact of cuts to SEND provision on individuals and families is a priority for the NEU – we released figures about the 4,000 children with SEND with no education because of the cuts imposed on LAs and have been highlighting the stories of “invisible children” lost in the system.
Q: There appears to be a structural conflict between the “presumption” that disabled children will enter mainstream education and the perception of some heads that this may adversely affect their targets and results. How should targets and school success be recalibrated to improve the rates of SEND?
The way we hold schools to account undermines inclusion. Schools should be accountable to children and their parents/carers but we need to value, and capture, all the ways schools contribute to children’s lives and development. The high stakes system turns children into numbers. The huge pressure to get every child to fit a standardised system means schools are driven to focus on the demands of the tests rather than the individual needs of the child. Children with SEND, summer born children, children with EAL – all lose out disproportionately in the exam factory culture conjured up by Government policy. The inquiry recently launched by the Education Committee into SEND gives us an opportunity to push for investment in children with SEND, professional development for staff and a collaborative system based on schools working together, not in competition. Children must not be denied the education they are entitled to due to institutional self-interest.
Q: We know disabled children and young people are a focus of bullying which can contribute to them transferring to special schools. What can teachers, schools and the Union do to address this problem?
There’s no magic bullet. Schools need clear policy, real commitment to support every child and space to develop strategies like restorative justice and cross curricular projects. Relationships between staff and pupils are so important. If we value welfare and inclusion we should reduce class size, and invest in counselling and pastoral systems. These are all casualties of funding cuts. Many schools have developed effective approaches but it gets much harder to share this practice if you fragment the education system. The plans for a National Education Service could be the way forward on reversing this.
Q: The government is far from meeting its human rights commitment under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. How can the NEU be part of making them implement their commitments in this area?
The UN Convention on the rights of disabled people gives life to some deeply important principles. It places expectations on national governments that can be very effective lobbying tools. They remind us that the goal must be independent living and respect for the human rights of disabled citizens. Trade unions must promote the social model. We must negotiate with government and employers to take away the barriers to disabled people’s full participation in work, in society and in trade unions.
Q: My final question has to do with disabled staff, many of whom are experiencing increased pressure. Very often, when they approach the union for support, the outcome is that they leave the profession with some sort of financial settlement. What could the NEU do to support staff in ways that will help them remain within the profession.
The current situation for NEU members is serious. Funding cuts, targets, testing and excessive workload are making too many question whether they can stay in education. Workload levels are directly jeopardising teachers’ mental health. It is getting harder to develop a diverse profession or to retain disabled teachers. Teachers with pyhsical or mental health conditions pay penalties because of discrimination; many don’t progress fairly in terms of pay and promotion. The NEU will continue to work hard to represent disabled workers. In order to challenge harassment and discrimination, the NEU needs a representative in every school and members working together collectively. That is our vision – to bring members together, collectively, to make change happen in their school, but also, to connect them together to make change happen nationally. The National Education Union is well placed to reclaim the promise of education: that working in education should be, and can be, the best job in the world.