Post by: Jill Porter, Honorary Research fellow, University of Oxford.
There are good indications that mainstream schools are excluding children through both formal and informal mechanisms (Daniels et al. 2022) and that some groups, particularly those with special educational needs (SEN), are disproportionately represented. The question considered here is whether the proposals set out in the Government consultation on the SEND and alternative provision (AP) system in England: Right support, right place, right time (Department for Education (DfE) 2022) will bring about a more or less inclusive education system?
Inclusion and inclusive are descriptors used throughout the Green Paper, and inclusion is used as a badge for a number of proposals: Local Inclusion Plans, Inclusion Dashboard, and SEND Inclusion Fund. However it is not clear how inclusion is being defined or conceptualised. Those with long memories will know that inclusion is a process rather than a state and not simply about being placed in a mainstream school. A frequently used definition is that of Sebba and Ainscow (1996:9), which makes a clear distinction between inclusion and integration:
Inclusion… is conceptualised not as how to assimilate individual pupils with identified special educational needs into existing forms of schooling [i.e. integration] but, instead, as how schools can be restructured in order to respond positively to all pupils as individuals.
Thus, the focus is on the school being adaptive, with flexibility in the curriculum and pedagogy. An inclusive school values diversity, and recognizes that every child has unique characteristics and needs, rather than singling out particular children. Inclusion calls for whole school change and the development of inclusive pedagogies. Black Hawkins (2014) presents four key elements: participation and access (being and staying in the class and using those spaces and places to access the curriculum); learning and working together collaboratively; participation and achievement; and recognizing and accepting difference. Additionally, no understanding of inclusion would be complete without reference to the experience of the young people themselves, or as Goodall (2018:1285) phrases it: ‘Inclusion is a feeling not a place’. It is belonging and feeling valued. Pupil voice therefore lies at the heart of an inclusive system.
Given these qualities, does the rhetoric in the Green Paper stand up to closer scrutiny? At the centre of the proposals lies ‘a local inclusion plan,’ namely provision that is available where specialist support can be found; this then will form the basis of a tailored list for parents following a needs assessment. Inclusion here clearly means something that is additional and different, provision that can be itemized and located.
Further the aim is for the additional and different to be recognized earlier:
… an inclusive system, starting with improved mainstream provision that is built on early and accurate identification of needs… and prompt access to targeted support where it is needed. Alongside that, we need a strong specialist sector that has a clear purpose to support those children and young people with more complex needs who require specialist or alternative provision (DfE 2022:13).
We can see quite clearly how it is the young people who have ‘needs’ that require assessing and targeted treatment, it is they who need fixing, rather than some aspects of schooling that require change. This approach is to apply to more young people, as AP is now swept under the SEND umbrella. Incrementally we have seen more and more young people falling into this group. Disability was added to the acronym SEN in 2014 without due recognition that many of those disabled young people do not experience a difficulty in learning. Now we have similar assumptions applied to young people in AP.
No questions are asked about why an increasing number of young people are seen to require something additional or different from what is currently available in mainstream; nor about the ways in which the cultures of schooling may be contributing to the exponential rise in mental health figures. The latest NHS statistics suggest that 1 in 6 children (17.4%) aged 6-16 have a probable mental disorder in 2021 (NHS Digital 2021) and are twice as likely to miss more than 15 days of school than their peers. How high do the figures need to be to prompt a more adaptive and flexible approach to meeting the needs of the whole school community?
On the contrary a uniform standard is being proposed, based on the belief that ‘consistent standards will facilitate a more inclusive system’ (DfE 2022:25). These will set out what support will be available in mainstream, what specialist provision should be available, and how it will be funded. There is a move here to one size fits all, a belief that pupils, schools, MATs, LAs, have sufficient homogeneity to fit the same formula.
Here we also start to see in the Green Paper that the location of provision starts to shift between the local (mainstream schools) and the regional (low incidence SEND), and with this the notion of being part of, or indeed included in, a community.
The introduction of uniformity runs counter to the definition and understanding of SEN introduced in the 1981 Education Act, as one which is contextual and dependent on what is generally available in that school. It shifts the definition to one where SEN is a fixed category of difference and linked to an assessment/diagnosis of individual need, a costly and bureaucratic procedure.
So, I have a real concern that the Green Paper legitimises seeing more young people as having SEN and needing something additional and different, rather than valuing diversity and promoting mainstream schools where all children experience a sense of belonging. Without addressing fundamental systemic, structural and cultural factors we will have a less inclusive system and at greater cost. The interested reader might like to look at Black’s (2019) vision of the school of the future; an alternative vision of an inclusive community school.
- Black, A. (2019). Future secondary schools for diversity: Where are we now and were could we be? Review of Education 7(1), pp.36–87. DOI: 10.1002/rev3.3124
- Black-Hawkins K. (2014). Researching inclusive classroom practices: The framework for participation. In: L. Florian, (Ed). The Sage handbook of special education. Vol 1. London: Sage.
- Daniels, H., Porter, J. and Thompson, I. (2022). What counts as evidence in the understanding of school exclusion. Frontiers in Education. DOI: 10.3389/feduc.2022.929912
- Department for Education. (2022). SEND Review: Right support, right place, right time. Government consultation on the SEND and alternative provision system in England. [Online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/send-review-right-support-right-place-right-time. [Accessed: 30.06.2022].
- Goodall, C. (2020). Inclusion is a feeling, not a place: A qualitative study exploring autistic young people’s conceptualisations of inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(12), pp.1285–1310. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2018.1523475
- NHS Digital. (2021). Mental health of children and young people in England 2021 – wave 2 follow up to the 2017 survey. [Online]. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2021-follow-up-to-the-2017-survey# [Accessed: 30.06.2022].
- Sebba J. and Ainscow M. (1996). International developments in inclusive schooling: Mapping the issues. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26(1), pp.5–18. DOI: 10.1080/0305764960260101