The need to provide an inclusive environment for students is ever more pressing in the modern world. It is therefore crucial for educators and policy makers to understand how opinions and views about those with Special Educational Needs (SENs) have changed, and continue to change, in order to accommodate the ideal that "the teaching, learning, achievements... and well-being of every young person matters" (Ofsted, 2000, p4). Australia slowly started integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms during the 1970s after almost a century of segregating students with disabilities, however the speed of this transmission varies from state to state. This move was in response to research findings about the effectiveness of 'special education facilities' and a change in attitudes in the Western world about how people with disabilities should be educated and live their lives. The aim of this essay is to illustrate how the understanding of SENs has developed over the past 40 years, how that understanding has enabled a more inclusive model of education for all students and the impact such inclusion is having within mainstream secondary schools.
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Booth, Ainscow, Black-Hawkins, Vaughan and Shaw state that "...inclusion involves the identification and minimising of barriers to learning and participation and the maximising of resources to support such learning and participation" (2000, p13). Within education this means valuing all in the school community equally, adapting school policies and structures to accommodate the diversity of individuals, reducing barriers to learning for all students and regarding the differences between students as "resources to support learning, rather than as problems to be overcome" (Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education [CSIE], 2008, Para 2). The move towards these values has been viewed by some as a gradual process at best, but by others as a painfully slow realisation of, and subsequent action to address, prejudice within the education system and society in general.
Historically there were two significant periods in the understanding of SENs; traditionally the collectivist 'medical model' which emphasised the condition, illness or disability, rather than the person themselves (Burke and Cigno, 2000, p8) and the more individualistic 'social model' which proposes that society defines disability and places restrictions on people. The medical model notion that there is a problem that needs to be cured or catered for justifies the way in which disabled people have been systematically excluded from society (Open University, 2006(i), Para 2). Previously humanitarian ideologies and Christian reformist principles rationalized "the removal of [the] defective, [the] handicapped, or those in need, to a special education sector" (Tomlinson, 1982, pp173-174). Those with disabilities of any sort were educated away from the mainstream until their "retardation had been overcome" (Haskell and Barrett, 1993, p186) and labels such as 'educationally subnormal' (Topping and Maloney, 2005, p3) remained in use in the UK until publication of the Warnock Report in 1978.
The Warnock Report (1978) looked at the needs of individuals and suggested that rather than being educated in isolation, where students were, at best, pitied and, at worst, feared, mainstream schools were to cater for those who had SENs, as far as was possible, aided by additional funding packages. Many of the recommendations of this report became statute in the UK's Education Act 1981, with the stance becoming stronger in 1996 with the government stipulating that it was compulsory for authorities to accommodate those who had SENs in the mainstream unless the parents of the child did not wish to take advantage of this provision or if there would be any adverse effect in the long term on other students. These changes in policy illustrated the move away from the medical model to the social model and the notion that disability environmentally defined and limitations are socially constructed; in other words, a change in attitude by mainstream society would lead to empowerment of those with disabilities. The social model was brought about through looking at the strengths and abilities that individuals possessed rather than what they were unable to do. It came about as a result of pressure from the disabled to remove the artificial barriers that are placed on them which restrict their ability to take a full and active role in society. Discrimination remained particularly evident in education and amendments to the passing of the 'Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, 2001' established the rights of students with disabilities to be included in regular schools. Around the same period, in the United States, the rights of children with disabilities were enshrined in similar legislation - the 'Education for all Handicapped Children Act, 1975'; and the 'Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1990'.
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In Australia, where a mix of UK and US legislation is generally adopted, the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005) supported the enrolment and full participation of students with disabilities in mainstream schools. In accordance with this, State Educational Policies propose a idealistic acceptance of inclusion and support inclusion "where possible" and "when in the best interests of the child" (Konza, 2008). The Western Australia Department of Education and Training (DET) produced a 'Ten Point Action Plan' (2004-2008) which sought to improve support for children who needed it. This Action Plan looked at:
providing additional support for those with learning difficulties and disabilities,
designing new facilities to support different students inclusive of technology support,
improved information and support materials for both parents and teachers,
improved training for teachers and support assistants,
increased availability of State-wide Specialist Services for those in need of them,
fairer allocation of resources,
clearly defined policies and standards of practice in schools, and
the establishment of monitoring processes to ensure good management of the above (Government of Western Australia, 2004).
Through this DET has addressed the need not only to diagnose problems but tackle them through a process of making educators and society in general more aware of the diversity of needs within their communities. Programmes like 'Building Inclusive Schools' and 'Building Inclusive Classrooms', and online resources such as 'Supporting Students with Attentional Difficulties' (Department of Education Western Australia, 2010) serve to illustrate an ongoing commitment to providing a quality education for all those who are impaired in any way in order to ensure that there are equal opportunities for all.
This philosophy of better understanding of impairments and inclusion for all is being applied to education throughout Australia, however it is not only the needs of students with disabilities that need to be considered. Along with the benefits and drawbacks of their attending mainstream schools one has to be mindful of the potential effect that such provision might have on the main student body. This is also something that has to be considered if there is to be a system of truly inclusive education for all. To ensure schools are inclusive for all students and guarantee equal opportunities, the needs of all students, teachers, other staff and parents, together with allocation of resources and funds must also be considered. Although there are certainly advantages to inclusive schooling, there are also numerous, to date unresolved, challenges. Firstly there is the changing socio-political climate regarding schooling. Forlin (1997) posits that the increasing trend for league tables and national standards in many countries has led to increased emphasis on examination results. The commitment to inclusive education can create extremely difficult decisions for the principle as being able to claim a high percentage of students in the upper-band of ability generally attracts more students than a school which claims to be welcoming and catering for all needs (Konza 2008).
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is teacher resistance to inclusion. Australian research has
As we can see from the above, the provision for those who have any kind of special needs is continuing to improve as time goes on. There is a much more enlightened and caring approach towards those who are impaired in any way; the medical model led society to feel that children who had difficulties needed to be hidden rather than embraced by society; the social model insisted that the environment and the attitudes of society had to change in order to allow challenged individuals to flourish; more modern ideals encourage us to use the term 'impaired' rather than disabled to ensure that each individual's circumstances, and their subsequent aid, can be assessed on its own merits involving all those who have an interest and can best help the child.
There is no doubt that inclusive schooling brings challenges for all in the education sector, perhaps moreso at secondary level as the pressures on adolescents both socially and academically build and the stresses on teachers, schools and parents to create the best outcomes for all individuals grow, however, studies have shown inclusion to be the best way to bring benefits to the community, both now within the education system, and in society in the future. O'Hanlon states that "immeasurable benefits [are] to be gained from what people give each other, pupil to pupil, pupil to teacher, parent to teacher and teacher to pupil" (2003, p9) which concurs with the findings of Manset and Semmel (1997) who discovered that other students in mainstream schooling "â€¦ were actually advantaged in terms of attainment by the presence of pupils with special educational needs - perhaps because their teachers were sensitised to the different learning needs of others in the class with challenges". Long may the development process continue to give freedom of choice in order that there can be a truly inclusive education system for all those who are keen to learn no matter what their ability or stage in life.
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A model of initial workshops followed by continued consultation in the school and classroom setting situates the professional learning in its authentic context, working with genuine difficulties, which increases the impact of the training. It allows time for reflection and modification of techniques as required. It is a model that builds collaboration skills, skills that many teachers lack but which are prerequisite for successful inclusion. It is a model that develops the shared understandings and common language that sustains change and reduces the stress of change (Fullan, 2001). It actively develops relevant teacher skills, and it is precisely in this area that teachers feel inadequate in their attempts to include students with disabilities. If this model of professional learning were done in conjunction with researchers active in the field, it would provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on and develop their practice, and critique it against research recommended practice (Long et al., 2003) and so reduce the gap between the professional knowledge of teachers and research findings (Eraclides 2001).
Such a model allows teachers, who are the primary agents of change, to feel that they have support and a network of similarly challenged and thinking colleagues. It builds the commitment of those who are most directly involved. It provides the underlying conditions for sustained change in a system the must undergo fundamental change if the rhetoric surrounding inclusion is to become reality for both learners and teachers; if the educational system is to move towards genuinely meeting the needs of all learners, and fulfil the promise of inclusion.