How far English schooling includes learners with disabilities

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This essay evaluates whether the English schools system successfully includes learners with disabilities or special educational needs and what measures are in place to correct any imbalances, there might be? The right of every citizen, to an appropriate education regardless of race, colour, religion or gender was enshrined in 1945, by The League of Nations, in a resolution adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This essay seeks to answer the question, whether English schooling is living up to the guarantees of Article 26. This right to be educated, is written into the constitution of all independent countries.

Miller and Katz (2002) presented a common definition of 'Inclusion', where they said,

"Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others, so than you can do your best work."

Wikipedia (2011) defines 'Inclusion' as a term used by people with disabilities and other disability rights advocates, for the idea that all people should freely, openly and without pity accommodate any person with a disability without restrictions or limitations of any kind.

The debate relating to inclusion or exclusion in schools is far reaching and extremely diverse. Following the League of Nations resolution a World Conference on special educational needs (SEN) at UNESCO June 1994 indicated that:

"All those with special educational needs must have access to mainstream schools which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting their needs".

Simone Aspis [1] who describes herself as a 'special school survivor' believes that;

"Inclusive education should create opportunities for all learners to work together". She believes that education is improved, when individuals of different abilities, aspirations and skills can work collectively in a joint enterprise.

In 2001, The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) was introduced providing an enhanced right for pupils with special educational needs to a mainstream education. This Act amended the Education Act 1996 and changed the statutory framework into positive support of inclusion. It plainly signalled that where parents wanted a mainstream education for their child, everything feasible should be done to provide it. Equally, where parents wanted a special school place, their wishes should also be taken into account.

In 2001 a new British Standard (BS 8878) was finalised and published, the contents covered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 legislation. This standard established legal rights for disabled students in pre and post 16 education in the United Kingdom.

SENDA established the rights of all disabled students, not to be discriminated against in any form whatsoever, whilst participating or seeking to participate in education, training and any other service provided for students. This new British Standard applies to schools, further and higher education institutions, sixth form colleges and any other 'responsible body'.

The Standard not only covers education in school, but out of school activities such as school field trips, visits to libraries, work placements, short courses and learning resources

In practice SENDA means that it is unlawful, for any educational establishment, to treat a disabled person 'less favorably' than a non disabled person, for any reason related to that person's disability. If it is established, that an institution places a disabled person at a 'substantial disadvantage', then they may be required to take steps to prevent that disadvantage. This may involve major changes to policy, the building, delivery of courses and course material.

The law requires educational bodies, to not only ensure implementation of the standards laid out in BS8878, but to anticipate disabled people or students requirements and make appropriate adjustments for them. BS8878 suggests that this should be done by holding regular staff and implementation reviews.

The question as to what is a reasonable adjustment however, depends on the factors affecting the case. The cost of alterations, health and safety, relevant interest of other users, practicality, the size and nature of the institution, the type and nature of the service being provided and the effect of the actual disability on the individual disabled student or person. These are all elements which have to be taken into account and which may have to be examined and judged on by the courts, if a satisfactory outcome to an issue is not established at the time.

The debate relating to inclusion and the treatment of SEN students, also involves the basic structure of education provision. The government, in the early part of this decade, attempted a major revision of policy relating to mainstream inclusion involving the closure of special schools. The arguments for and against this policy are very emotive and quite far reaching. On the one side it could be argued that special schools are currently seen "As places of last resort" Warnock (2005), where children with SEN were hidden from society. Oliver (1995) argued that special schools could and did not "prepare disabled students for living independent adult lives in normal society". He went on to argue that inclusive education could be effective, if the philosophy of inclusion and the promotion of understanding of people with SEN, could be established in all levels of education and society. The opposite view Allan (2008), is that current inclusive practice towards SEN children in mainstream schooling causes humiliation and segregation and leads to bullying at all levels, but especially in secondary education.

In her report, Warnock highlights the problems of segregation and bullying in mainstream schools. She believes that children in primary school can be "very accommodating to the idiosyncrasies of others", but this attitude can change totally in secondary education. Briony Moore (2009) looks at this element, but argues that in her practical experiences, bullying related to students with SEN, takes place in primary schools and equally in mainstream and special schools.

Booth and Ainscow (2000), think that the concept of 'Inclusion' should be viewed as not just applying to students with SEN, but it should have a much wider span. They go on to argue that it should value all staff and students equally, that schools should be improved for their staff, as well as the students. They believe that participation of students should be increased and exclusion reduced from the curricula, culture and communities of all local schools. They suggest that barriers to learning should be removed for all pupils, whether they have SEN or not. They further argue that all classes of students, should have the right to be educated in their own locality and that this attitude would foster better understanding within the community. They believe that the difference between students should be viewed as a resource to support learning, rather than as a problem to be overcome.

One example of the problems relating to inclusive education is the handling of dyslexic students; Dyslexia is a "difference in the wiring of the brain" (Juggins 2001) [2] . He argues that dyslexic students can be as talented, intelligent and creative as any other student but tend to be socially disadvantaged and misunderstood. He argues that dyslexic students are segregated in education, but he also believes that this is not necessarily a disadvantage for the student. The class size may be smaller, computers with word processors and spell and grammar checkers, can replace the incorrectly working brain function and the teacher may be better qualified, but most importantly they may have more time to spend with each individual student. Juggins believes that changes must be made to the system to match teaching methods to learning styles. He says:

"It is no longer acceptable to place the pressure (blame) on the individual dyslexic student to always adjust. What we need is less fixing of the unbroken and more nurturing of the dyslexic's strengths by providing them with a suitable learning environment.".

He finishes his article by saying "Throw them a chance to succeed and not another spelling test!"

In the Queen's Speech (25 May 2010) this statement, potentially changing the whole structure of English education provision, was made:

'Legislation will be introduced to enable more schools to achieve academy status and give them greater freedoms over the curriculum'

Once again a new piece of legislation was introduced into the debate relating to inclusion. Parents with children with special needs were unsure what thousands of new independent schools might mean for their children. Would they be able to get places in the new academies and who would be monitoring the help given to those children? After a slow start Academy status schools numbered two hundred [3] in early 2010. By April 2011, they passed the four hundred mark, with an expected target of two thousand over the next few years.

It is important at this time to define what group of children is covered by the definitions of inclusion and inclusive education. The simplistic designation, that brackets students who are disabled, either mentally or physically is outdated. Inclusive education transcends 'special educational needs': it relates to all learners who, for what ever the reason, might find themselves at risk of exclusion or marginalization.

In this essay inclusion means the process of educating children with special educational needs (SEN) alongside their peers in mainstream [4] schools.

David Bell, The Chief Inspector of Ofsted defined, in a recent report on inclusive education, that SEN pupils are children with any condition that might have an effect on their learning. They could be dyslexic, they could have physical disabilities, which could mean they are wheelchair users or have attention disorders.

However, Bell believes that the even bigger problems, for teachers, were the pupils who had behavioural or social difficulties. After a number of inspection visits, the Ofsted inspectors found that teachers struggled to resolve the rights of the individual child with these problems, with that of the rest of the school or class, which the inspectors believed, would suffer, if appropriate attention was not given to the child involved.

It is generally recognised that most people today, still define a person with a disability as being ill and in need of some form of treatment. Much of today's law is based on this misconception and probably relates to the historical segregation of disabled people. The Disability Discrimination Act defines disability as:

"A physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day to day activities."

The two models which are aplied to disability are termed 'medical' and 'social'. The medical model, historically, has most influenced our thinking towards disability. This defines disability as being caused by a physical or mental impairment, which becomes the focus of attention rather than being caused by evil behaviour. The alternative to the Medical Model is the 'Social Model' which sees the disabled individual as a valued member of society, who should have all the rights afforded to the non disabled. In an article published on the internet by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) they suggest that in the Social model "The disability is seen as the common oppression, brought about by the non-disabled world". They believe that the term 'disabled people' is related to the long term belief that disabled people are different and not normal. From these two models the Medical Model maintains the belief of isolation, segregation and exclusion for disabled children, with their future determined by the medical profession. The Social Model alternative, suggests that inclusion should be brought about by environmental, attitudinal and organisational changes within today's society. The LSC believes the embryonic move towards inclusive education, is an example of this fresh philosophy working.

The contrast between the two models is defined by Rieser and Mason, (1992, p 15) who drew up a table to illustrate the differences. The first two items sum up the variables. In the Medical Model, the child is faulty and requires diagnosis. In the Social Model the child is valued and their strengths and needs should be defined by themselves and others.

Set against this historical perception of disability is the conflict of interest between parents and children's rights. The 1996 Education Act put even greater responsibility on a childs parents, in the decision making process, relating to their childs education. The Act:

"Elevates the principle of parental choice at the expense of the child's right to inclusion and specifically absolves local education authorities from their duty to educate children with special educational needs in ordinary schools if to do so would be 'incompatible with the wishes' of their parents."

In the United Kingdom it is the parents who are given all rights to participation and decision making, the child has none. In direct breach of Article 12 of the Unite Nations Convention, the UK makes no provision for a child to be heard, when choice of school, special educational needs, placement or exclusion are made

Having had the legal responsibility for their child's education placed on the parent, many of them feel that they are ignored when decisions have to be made, especially relating to SEN. They feel their views are not listened to and the communication between themselves, the schools and local authorities is, at best, poor and quite often non existent. Network 81 [5] , an organisation dealing daily with parents of children in a SEN situation, recently published a report saying that they were very concerned about the lack of involvement of parents in the education of their child. They also questioned the lack of understanding of the skills of many of the parents, who, by nature of their involvement, had become 'experts in the educational/medical/physical/mental/ emotional needs of their children'. A recent DfES memorandum discusses 'partnership with parents', but gives no indication how this might be achieved.

On the teaching side, the situation appears to be rather disjointed. A Times Educational Survey [6] showed that only 12% of all head teachers questioned thought they had adequate resources for children with special needs. The survey also found that 55% of the teachers sampled had no, or less than 1 days training in dealing with SEN children. Radio 4 recently ran a phone-in programme on Special Educational Needs. One teacher called in to say that they had never met any teacher or learning support assistant who had received training to look after children with SEN. A GP phoned in to say there was a 3 year waiting list for a child to be assessed for possible autism and to get a diagnosis. He believed that this seriously affected the child's early years development.

Looking at the statements, reports, Green Papers, Acts of Parliament it is obvious that the definition of inclusion and inclusive education is no longer just related to a specific focus on disability. Inclusion now encompasses students from minority linguistic or ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who repeatedly fail to attend lessons. Inclusive education is a framework for all children, whatever their gender, ability, language, cultural or ethnic background. In essence it is about equal opportunities for all.,

How far is English schooling successfully 'including' learners with disabilities or special educational needs'? The Chief Inspector of OFSTED, recently indicated that despite most schools being convinced of the benefits of inclusion, most of them in England had failed to improve their provision and the proportion of pupils with special educational needs accepted into those schools, had not changed despite all the legislation.

The newly published Green Paper on special needs schooling suggests an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for children with SEN, until adulthood. However the recently announced budget cuts, due to lack of funding, does bring into question the implementation of the scheme.

The green paper was based on Ofsted's evaluation of SEN support, published last September, which said that thousands of children are wrongly labeled as having SEN. Ofsted reported that 20% of all school attending children had SEN but only a small percentage (2.5%) of them received the correct care and attention.

In that OFSTED report, looking at Inclusion in English schools, they even indicated that the term 'Special Educational Needs' was over used. Rather interestingly in the UK, although the words inclusion, inclusive education, integration and mainstreaming are used extensively in government documents, they do not appear anywhere in primary legislation [7] .

In essence inclusive education should not focus on individual deficits, but on the barriers to learning those individuals and groups of pupils might face. Every child should be treated equally. It is not the fault of the student, but the fault of the system that has failed. Inclusive education is about standards, it should assume that different groups of pupils are of equal worth and therefore have a right to be included and to learn from each other.

To answer the question posed by the title of this essay it would be difficult to ignore the rhetoric and the negative results of surveys and reports. Ofsted repeatingly talk about inclusion and inclusive education lacking organisation and support. Papers have been written about the lack of communication between, parents, teachers, schools and local authorities. Government legislation is passed, ignoring the rights and opinions of the children involved. The forming of the new Academy structure, at the same time as severe funding restrictions are implemented, over the next 5 years, could have dramatic effects. The perceived lack of training, leaving un-qualified teaching assistants in charge of SEN's. All these point towards a lack of success in including learners with disabilities or special educational needs, in mainstream schooling. Yet Government statistics indicate that one in five children are classed with SEN and although, on the surface, it might appear that the schools are failing these students, that is a considerable number of children moving through the system, no matter how flawed it is.