Is Inclusion Over?

‘Inclusion’ seems like an easy idea to quantify when placed next to ‘exclusion’. Trying to explain the term without doing so is a little harder but, as Anita Kerwin-Nye said in her introduction to the Is Inclusion Over? Conference, if they don’t, education sector specialists end up just talking to themselves (for more on that go here).

Exclusions are on the rise – in Barnsley and Middlesbrough exclusions rates have risen by as much as 300% in the last three years. The consequences of these rates are clear too. Only 1% of excluded pupils leave school with the skills and qualifications they will require to successfully enter the working world. A child in a Pupil Referral Unit is four times more expensive as one in an ordinary school. The cost of high exclusion rates to the student and to the system are enormous and their number is growing, but does the focus on exclusion lead us to think less about what inclusion means? Is Inclusion Over? discussed what inclusion should and does mean, and whether it’s a thing of the past.

Jarlath O’Brien’s experiences as head teacher at Cawarden House Community School form the backbone of his new book Don’t Send Him In Tomorrow and were the basis of his presentation at the conference. He expressed his frustration with the way inclusion in many school is still a synonym for tolerance within the existing framework, rather than meaningful integration of SEN children into the life of the school. Many parents worry that special schools are a second-class choice for their children precisely for this reason – because special school pupils may be seen not as children seeking support to progress but as children unable to behave well enough for mainstream schools.

One of the fundamental problems with attitudes towards SEN pupils is the feeling, Jarlath said, of being “totally deskilled”, particularly as part of the results-driven assessment that head teachers face. Instead of seeing progress as an academic measure, we should view it as broader- and further-reaching – to understand that the function of education is to make successful adults and that a qualification is of no use to an eighteen-year-old who has not developed the skills, whether social or practical or emotional, to achieve without the support of a school environment.

The greatest uptake for outreach services from Cawarden House are from school which already have outstanding SEN provisions and this tendency for schools to become Sen “hubs” was echoed by many other attendees. The understandable preference of parents for schools with a strong SEN reputation is reinforced by other “more academic” schools which recommend them, saying that they do not themselves have the necessary support.

Timo Hannay, the creator of SchoolDash, ran us through a huge array of school demographic statistics presented in his signature infographic style. Though the picture is a complex one there are some evident trends, chiefly that the poorer parents are, the less advantage they are able to get for their children from a choice-based system. As Timo said, even basic geographical decisions mean less to affluent parents, as the richer you are the more likely you are to move around, just as you are more likely to be confident in navigating the education system. As Anita Kerwin-Nye said in her conclusion, “as soon as you introduce choice, the most affluent benefit the most from it”.

As Timo put it, while it cannot necessarily give us simple answers “data can help us pose better questions”, and the events final speakers were certainly evidence of this, and of the presence of the will to change these trends and bolster inclusion. Both awardees of Inclusion Trust Legacy Grants, Kiran Gill and Helen Saddler are founders of programs working to develop in-depth classroom support of the kind that reduces exclusions and increases inclusion.

Kiran Gill’s program focuses on intervening to help pupils vulnerable to exclusion earlier in their school careers – in Year 7, not Year 9. Teaching mental health skills and promoting good practices school-to-school will form the heart of the program, which was developed from Kiran’s experiences in teaching and education policy.

Helen Saddler’s Inclusive Classrooms evolved from her experiences as a new teacher and works to improve and promote the work TAs do – particularly their importance in creating classroom environments where pupils can access teaching. The average TA does 11 roles during the day but very few are clearly established and even fewer are taken into account in pay scales and staff cuts. Helen’s program works to improve the partnership between teachers and TAs, to make the social inclusion and pupil support TAs do a visible part of teaching strategies. She is also developing a Primary Teaching Assistant’s Handbook as a concrete guide to these ideas.

There was also overwhelming agreement that collective voices were needed on questions of inclusion and that building networks of similarly-minded people can act as an antidote to the feeling familiar to parent-carers that the practical expertise they have accrued and their experiences of accessing the system is unappreciated by professionals – in fact that a parent’s emotional relationship with their child must make them a hindrance rather than an asset.

Hearing the broad range of experience – from parent-carers, from teachers, from the leaders of targeted programs and established trusts – helps education sector professionals to see the common themes. Attendees gave examples of schools with practices that put a really inclusive definition of inclusion at the heart of their classrooms by ensuring their intake reflected a mixed demographic or making signing or brail normalised parts of all pupils’ experience. Making best practice visible is an important part of developing it elsewhere, and data on best practice does not only come from professionals but also from users – from parents, carers and pupils.

So is inclusion over? Fortunately not – but it needs people to fight for it, and it needs the people who fight for it to work together.