National Policies on Inclusion in England: How well are we doing?

by Tony Booth

Inclusion in education is about increasing access to, participation within, and reducing exclusion from, local centres of learning. It is about creating inclusive cultures, policies, curricula and approaches to teaching and learning. It is concerned with the careful fostering of a mutually sustaining relationship between local centres of learning and all members of their surrounding communities in which there is a sense of shared ownership of the resources and activities of education. Possibilities for, and barriers to, inclusion are shaped, therefore, by all aspects of education and social policy not just by policies that carry an inclusion label. To what extent do central government policies in England encourage local community participation in education and the development of inclusive centres of learning?

The UK Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s were determined to reduce local government control over education. This had a cumulative effect. It provided central government with a spiralling number of opportunities for intervention in the content and administration of education. Some people thought that the new Labour Government of 1997, might reverse this trend. This has not happened. For example they opposed the mandatory force of the National Curriculum, when in opposition but in government only limited it to make room for other initiatives from the centre, of which there were soon a considerable number. Some, like the literacy and numeracy strategies, specify in minute detail what and how teachers will teach. Others, more directly limit the power of local politicians and their administrators to determine how much money is raised for education and how it is spent. The present government has followed the instincts of their predecessors to determine the direction of education by making money available from the centre, through a bidding system, for projects in schools, which match centrally determined priorities.

In addition policies have been retained which make schools compete against one another for learners and encourage parents to select schools on the basis of their position on league tables of examination results. Schools are free to draw on students from a wide area and hence such policies undermine the relationship between a school and its immediate neighbourhood. It discourages schools from welcoming learners who experience difficulties who may be perceived to undermine their league table position. In many cities this also has an effect of exacerbating ethnic segregation. The Secretary of State for Education has made a passionate defence of the school inspection system he inherited, whereby failing schools and teachers are publicly shamed. He and his colleagues have reinforced the orthodoxy in the inspection system, that learners from the age of eleven and preferably before should be grouped for teaching, according to their attainment in particular subjects and that there should be an emphasis on whole class teaching. This is at a time when many countries throughout the world are questioning the effect that such approaches have on the capacity of schools to respond to all learners.

A visitor from South Africa, witnessing the extent of grouping by attainment within English secondary schools (for learners over the age of eleven) was horrified by such a degree of exclusion within the system. Yet, central policies encourage trends rather than determine all local practice. Thus a London school, which one learner described as 'a good school whoever you are: black, white, disabled, non-disabled' prides itself on its mixed attainment teaching for all its learners aged eleven to sixteen years. The head teacher deliberately trained as a school inspector in order to ensure that she knew the inspection ropes. Her school was given a glowing report.

The exclusionary pressures within the education system, and it should be added, the widening gap in wealth between the richest and poorest communities, provide some of the contexts within which the government policies, more explicitly concerned with inclusion, have to be understood. Such inclusion policies may provide an opportunity to counter these exclusionary pressures. Thus the 'Programme of Action' for 'Meeting Special Educational Needs' says that the government 'will encourage all schools to develop an inclusive ethos, for example by involving all staff in training activities to promote a greater understanding of inclusion'.

Certainly within this document and elsewhere there is a more open support for 'inclusion' than has appeared previously within government documents. A climate had been created in which a range of projects on inclusion are beginning to flourish. Inclusion is described variously as the 'keystone' and a 'cornerstone' of the government's strategy. The report argues that 'an increasing number of schools are showing that an inclusive approach can reinforce a commitment to higher standards of achievement for all children'. They suggest that schools less able to respond to learners who experience difficulties must learn from others: 'we will work and provide ensure that the high quality provision for children with complex needs which some mainstream schools are already making, is available much more widely.......It is not good enough simply to say that local mainstream schools have not previously included a child with such difficulties'. The emphasis on precedent can be a powerful new pressure for increasing inclusion since practice varies so widely from one local area to another. Yet there is also a determined defence of the future of special schools which 'should continue to play a vital role as part of an inclusive local educational system' albeit one whose inclusiveness is expected to 'increase'.

Every local education authority must demonstrate annually, through its Education Development Plan, what it is doing to increase inclusion in general and has to have a specific mainstream behaviour support plan. These authorities can bid for money to make schools physically accessible and to support inclusion within schools. However some schools complain that this bidding process can create unsustainable interventions which, however successful, may be terminated when the money runs out. There is also a government initiative to tighten up the Disability Discrimination Act which could have an effect on promoting access to the mainstream both for an increasing number of disabled learners and disabled staff.

To outsiders and insiders alike, the number of new initiatives, the directions from which they come, and the terms in which they are expressed, can seem bewildering. The Programme of Action was the government's response to its consultation on the 'green paper', Excellence for all Children: meeting special educational needs'. Further documents emerging from the government 'special educational needs division', included suggestions for the revision of the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs. Then from the 'school inclusion division' there was a document entitled 'Social Inclusion: Pupil Support; from the Teacher Training Agency, there were Standards for 'special educational needs co-ordinators' and 'specialist teachers; and from the social exclusion unit, based outside the Department of Education and Employment within the government's Cabinet Office, a report on 'truancy and school exclusion'. Only within this latter department is exclusion from education related clearly to exclusion in society more generally.

However, the discussion of one document appears to be carried out in isolation from the discussion of others. The degree of fragmentation between policies was brought home to me when I rang the 'Special Needs Division' and found that the people working there had never heard of the 'school inclusion division' even though, I later discovered, they all work on the same corridor of the government building. Within the English system divisions persist between policies about behaviour and others about disabled learners or those who experience difficulties with curricula or approaches to teaching which are seen as due to their 'special educational needs'. These are conceived separately from further issues, for example in relation to learners whose home language is different from the language of instruction.

Many of the concepts used for understanding educational difficulties have remained unchanged for more than twenty-five years. Yet an emphasis on seeing educational difficulties as due to the 'special educational needs' of learners is itself a barrier to inclusion. It discourages the reflection on changes in organisation, curricula and teaching approaches which might contribute most to increasing the quality and extent of participation of learners within local centres of learning.

However, some of the suggestions represent new thinking from government. The linking of truancy and 'school' or 'disciplinary' exclusion encourages centres of learners to see reluctant attendance as a form of exclusion. The document on social inclusion highlights the barriers to learning and participation experienced by learners in 'families under stress', children looked after by the state, ethnic minority learners, travellers, learners who have responsibility for the care of other family members and those moving between centres of learning. Such a broad examination of groups vulnerable to exclusion might help to link all learners who experience barriers to learning, within a common policy framework.

Tony Booth
17th May 1999

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