This essay critically evaluates the success of policies to promote the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities since 1997. The essay reflects critically on recent legislation in the field and the implications of this for development, showing an understanding of how to resolve conflicting viewpoints.
The essay first outlines the legislation, and policy documents, that have been enacted or published since 1997 and then critically analyses these policies in terms of answering the question of how successful these policies have been in terms of meeting special educational needs and disabilities through a review of the impact of these policies on the teaching of special needs children in mainstream schools, and the impact of this on the pupils with special needs, on the ‘normal’ children being taught alongside special needs pupils and on the teaching staff involved in teaching in classrooms containing mainstreamed special needs pupils.
Special education is defined, generally, as education that is modified for students with special needs, whether these be special physical needs due to a disability or special mental needs, such as mental health problems or giftedness. The Education Act 1996 defines special educational needs thus, “children have special educational needs if they have a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for them”, and children can be identified as having a learning difficulty if they have a significantly different ability to learn than the majority of children the same age as them and if they have a disability which prevents them from making use of facilities that would normally be used within that setting by children of a similar age.
Students with special educational needs and disabilities have been catered for through a number of legislations since the late 1990s. The Education Act 1996 outlines the various roles and responsibilities of all those involved in the process of educating children within the UK: teachers and parents, for example. The Education Act 1996 contains statutes that are directly relevant to the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities, building, as it does, on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
One of the requirements of the Act is that local authorities publish ‘disability statements’ at regular intervals, detailing the facilities provided by the local authority with regards to accommodating children with special educational needs and disabilities because one of the main requirements of the Act was to identify, assess and meet children’s special educational, or physical, needs in terms of meeting these needs within a mainstream school. Part Four of the Education Act 1996 was revised and was enacted as the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001.
The Government launched their publication entitled Excellence for all children: Meeting Special Educational Needs in 1997, which set out a coherent strategy for dealing with students with special educational needs and disabilities. This was enhanced through the 1998 publication of the document Meeting Special Educational Needs – A Programme of Action which, when implemented in conjunction with the 1999 Disability Task Force report entitled From Exclusion to Inclusion, reinforced the necessity of considering the rights of students with special educational needs and disabilities.
Essentially, the New Labour Government wanted to extend the educational provisions for students with special educational needs and disability by placing educational provision in the broader agenda of social inclusion, within the framework of rights for individuals with special educational needs and disabled individuals (MacBeath et al., 2006)n.
Following these publications, and as has been seen, Part Four of the Education Act 1996 was revised and was enacted as the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is divided in to three parts, two of which are of particular relevance for those with special educational needs and disability: Part One which made changes to the existing Special Educational Needs section in the Education Act 1996; and Part Two which deals with disability discrimination in education, amending Parts Three and Four of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Part One of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 strengthens the rights of special educational needs children, in particular the right of these individuals to be schooled in mainstream schools. Part Two of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 makes it illegal for schools and Local Authorities to discriminate against disabled people for any reason that is related to their disability: schools and local authorities have a “reasonable adjustment” duty to provide for the special needs of any individuals under their care.
Since the enactment of this Act, a revised Special Educational Needs Code of Practice was developed (in 2002), which provides practical help and advice to all those involved in providing education to students with special educational needs and disabilities. Then, in 2003, a Green Paper was published, entitled Every Child Matters, which outlines the Government’s commitment to partnership with all those involved in educating students with special educational needs and disabilities, under the framework of the Children’s Services proposals.
In 2004 a strategy document was published by the Government, entitled Removing Barriers to Achievement – The Government’s Strategy for SEN, which focuses on providing guidelines for early intervention, and for the provision of special educational needs. In terms of the Government’s approach to the education of students with special educational needs and disabilities, as outlined in their 2004 document Removing Barriers to Achievement – The Government’s Strategy for SEN, the Government sees it as important to remove barriers to learning and to raise both expectations and achievements, all within a framework of ensuring the application of the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
In terms of the impact of all of this legislation on the education of students with special educational needs and disability, the proportion of such students being ‘mainstreamed’ (i.e., taught within the framework of a ‘mainstream’ school, not a special school) has not been significantly affected by the legislation as many parents are still choosing to send their children to special schools, although the legislation has increased the awareness and appreciation of mainstreaming (OFSTED, 2004).
From 1999 to 2003, for example, the portion of students with special educational needs and disability that were schooled in a mainstream setting remained steady, although reports from the Audit Commission have reported an increase in students with behavioural disorders being mainstreamed; conversely, since 2001, in fact, there has been a 10% increase in the number of students sent to special schools (OFSTED, 2004).
Whilst the Government seems to think that mainstreaming is the best possible solution for special needs children, a recent report has suggested that school inclusion can actually be a form of abuse and that the recent policies that have been enacted to cover the education of special needs children are badly failing these children (MacBeath et al. 2006). As reported by the BBC, MacBeath has been quoted as stating, “Physically sitting in a classroom is not inclusion.
Children can be excluded by sitting in a classroom that is not meeting their needs”. As reported in MacBeath et al. (2006), there is massive variability across the country as to how inclusion, and mainstreaming, is accommodated, with many schools having unresolved problems regarding inclusion of students with special educational needs and disabilities.
A recent (2004) OFSTED report, which looked at the issues of special educational needs and disability and inclusion in mainstream schools found that the Government’s revised inclusion framework has promoted increased awareness of the benefits of inclusion and has led to some level of improvements in practice, but that the framework of inclusion has had little effect, as yet, on the number of pupils within mainstream schools or on the range of needs for which mainstream schools can cater, even though most mainstream schools are committed to mainstreaming special educational needs and disabled students.
However, the report found that only a minority of mainstream schools meet special needs well, with expectations of achievement not well enough defined with progress in learning slower, for a vast majority of pupils, than it should be (OFSTED, 2004). Few schools were found to objectively evaluate their provisions for students with special educational needs and disability with not enough use being made of the potential for adapting the curriculum so that such students have suitable opportunities for improving their education (OFSTED, 2004).
In general, classroom teaching of students with special educational needs and disability was of highly variable quality, with many lessons having many shortcomings with teaching assistants, especially, contributing to a lack of organization with regards to students with special educational needs and disability (OFSTED, 2004).
Shockingly, over half the schools that were visited during the course of this report had no disability access plans and few schools liaised with special schools in order to develop better educational content for the subsequently mainstreamed pupils (OFSTED, 2004).
In sum, the OFSTED (2004) report recommended that the Government and local education authorities start to work together in order to ensure that the ability of mainstream schools to teach pupils with special educational needs and disability in a better way, in terms of working closely together with special schools to forge productive links for mainstreamed special educational needs and disabled pupils, such that pupils with special educational needs and disability are enabled to play a full and active part in school life, receiving a curriculum that is relevant to their needs.
Whilst noble in its aim, therefore, in terms of the actual numbers of students with special educational needs and disability being mainstreamed, and the education these children are receiving when mainstreamed, inclusion remains a significant challenge for many mainstream schools, and the education received by students with special educational needs and disability within a mainstream school setting is perhaps not as optimum as it could be in many cases, with provisions for their special educational needs and disabilities also not being as adequate as they could, or should, be (Henry, 2004).
MacBeath et al. (2006) identified shortcomings in the issue of inclusion, with schools admitting they often had problems with mainstreaming of special educational needs and disabled pupils, due to issues related to resourcing and financing, admissions and capacity, balance of needs, recruitment and retention and expertise and professional development.
This does not mean that inclusion policies do not work, as MacBeath et al. (2006) found that inclusion policies are often seen to work when a number of essential conditions are met, namely that staff are enthusiastic and committed, with strong teamwork across staff at the school. In addition to looking at how mainstreaming affects pupils, MacBeath et al. (2006) also looked at how teaching staff are affected by the mainstreaming of students with special educational needs and disabilities.
It was found that teachers, in principle, welcome mainstreaming, but that the realities of mainstreaming in practice are very different, due to the fact that the needs of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are very different from those of ‘normal’ children, and that this can cause problems when deciding how to allocate one’s time as a teacher; that often special needs and disabled pupils are allocated to teachers who lack the necessary skills to be able to handle these pupils; that the nature and quality of support for teachers with special needs and disabled pupils is often not present, all of which impact negatively on the ability of the teacher to teach all of their pupils, i.e., those with special needs or disabilities and the ‘normal’ children (MacBeath et al., 2006).
Thus not only do policies to promote the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities affect those children with special educational needs and disabilities, when such children are mainstreamed, these policies also affect the ways in teachers are able to carry out their job, in terms of being able to teach all children in their care equally and with equal attention.
This has been noted to be of special concern when the pupils with special educational needs are children with behavioural problems (whom, as we have seen, have been steadily increasing in numbers in mainstream school settings), as these children are very demanding of teachers time, which, if the teacher pays a great deal of attention to managing these pupils behaviour can lead to the teacher having less time to dedicate to the ‘normal’ children in their class.
This leads to the argument that special educational needs and disabled children should not be educated in mainstream classrooms. Seldom is the level of training sufficient for mainstream teachers to teach these children adequately, and to care for these children well enough, so that the basic care needed for these children is often not present. Conversely, if the teachers are well versed in teaching and managing pupils with special educational needs, and concentrate too much on these pupils within their classroom, this leads to the ‘normal’ children in the class missing out on the teacher’s time and attention.
There is, thus, a delicate balance to be struck when a teacher’s classroom includes children with special educational needs or disabilities, between caring for that individual child and accommodating their needs, and also having adequate time for the other pupils in the class. For this reason, many educators, and many parents, argue against the idea of inclusion and mainstreaming, arguing that these policies serve no practical purpose, other than fulfilling the Government’s idea of how inclusion should ideally work.
The MacBeath et al. (2006) report addresses this issue, when they ask ‘is inclusion working?’. Whilst inclusion provides social benefits for special educational needs and disabled children, in terms of them feeling more accepted by their peers, the viability of the whole concept of inclusion is brought in to question when one studies what has been happening in classrooms over the period when mainstreaming has become more commonplace.
For teachers who have taught special educational needs and disabled pupils in a mainstream setting, it has been found that children with special needs often feel they have a lack of entitlement to learn and develop emotionally; that there are restrictions on learning for ‘normal’ children being educated alongside special needs children because a disproportionate amount of a teacher’s time is given to special needs children; that mainstreaming special needs children can generate feelings of inadequacy in teachers without specialized expertise in dealing with such children; that there is a great increase in the workload of teachers dealing with special needs children within their classroom and that there are massive pressures on teachers in terms of inadequate funding and resourcing by local authorities (MacBeath et al., 2006).
The MacBeath et al. (2006) also addressed the impact on pupils of inclusive policies, finding that mainstreamed special needs children can benefit from interactions with their peers, but that, in the majority of cases, lack of training of teachers, and lack of resources mean that special needs pupils are not adequately dealt with and end up struggling in mainstream schools because there is a general and significant lack of expertise on the part of teachers as to how to properly and adequately deal with special needs children in a mainstream school setting.
Following these conclusions, the MacBeath et al. (2006) report recommended that the implementation of policies of inclusion should not rely on individual schools to handle all the responsibility of teaching these children, rather that this should be based on a collaborative effort between special schools, mainstream schools and local authorities, and that this enhanced collaboration should ensure the best service for all children, i.e., those with special needs who are being mainstreamed and ‘normal’ children in classrooms containing pupil(s) with special needs who are being mainstreamed.
It is clear that policies of inclusion, and mainstreaming, will only work, and will only continue to be suggested and developed, if this collaborative effort is strengthened and if teachers involved in teaching mainstreamed special needs children receive adequate training, allowing them to handle their special needs pupils in a way that is advantageous to those individuals, and also to simultaneously manage their ‘normal’ pupils, so that accommodating pupils with special needs does not come at the detriment of ‘normal’ pupils.
For fear of a lack of adequate training and understanding, perhaps, many parents of special needs children still choose to send their children to special schools: as we have seen, the proportion of special needs students being ‘mainstreamed’ (i.e., taught within the framework of a ‘mainstream’ school, not a special school) has not been significantly affected by recent legislation, as the vast majority of parents of special needs children are still choosing to send their children to special schools and not to send them to mainstream schools (OFSTED, 2004).
In terms of the success of policies to promote the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities since 1997, then, as has been seen, these policies were introduced as a way in which to further the New Labour Government’s ideas about social inclusion, but have, in practice, been ill thought out, in terms of the actual provision of support and training for teachers and teaching assistants who are actually involved, on a day-to-day basis, with teaching mainstreamed special needs pupils.
Thus, whilst there is a case to be made for inclusion with regards to special educational needs and disabled pupils, particularly in terms of the social benefits of this practice for the special needs children, there have been insufficient resources devoted to making these policies work in practice, in terms of generating a collaborative atmosphere which would foster sharing of resources and expertise, between mainstream and special schools, for example.
Both MacBeath et al. (2006) and OFSTED (2004) found that when mainstreaming does works, it works only because of the extreme dedication of the individual teachers involved, not because there is a framework in place to ensure that inclusion works in practice. Such was the gravity of the situation as recorded by MacBeath et al. (2006) that their report concluded with an urgent need for inclusive practice, including a “radical re-appraisal of…the contradictions inherent in the interface of standards and inclusion agendas”.
BBC (2006). School inclusion ‘can be abuse’. Tuesday 16th May 2006.
DfES (1997). Excellence for All Children – Meeting Special Educational Needs.
DfES (1998). Meeting Special Educational Needs – A Programme of Action.
DfES (2001). Inclusive Schooling.
DfES (2002). Special Educational Needs Code of Practice.
DfES (2003a). Every Child Matters.
DfES (2003b). Together from the start: practical guidance for professionals working with disabled children and their families (birth to 3 years).
DfES (2004). Removing Barriers to Achievement – The Government’s Strategy for SEN.
Disability Rights Task Force (1999). From Exclusion to Inclusion.
Dyson, A. (2003). Special needs, disability and social inclusion – the end of a beautiful friendship? In Norwich, B. (ed.) (2003). Disability, disadvantage, inclusion and social inclusion.
Henry, J. (2004). Inclusion policy fails children with special needs. The Telegraph 25th September 2004.
HMSO (1995). Disability Discrimination Act
HMSO (1996). Education Act
HMSO (2001). Special Educational Needs and Disability Act
HMSO (2005). Disability Discrimination Act
MacBeath, J. et al. (2006). The Costs of Inclusion. University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.
Norwich, B. (ed.) (2003). Disability, disadvantage, inclusion and social inclusion.
OFSTED (2004). Special educational needs and disability: towards inclusive schools.
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