Contemporary research and theoretical perspectives concerning the best way to cater for children with Special Educational Needs in early childhood years in the United Kingdom favour inclusion of children with most kinds of disability within the mainstream educational setting. This position is strongly leveraged by English legislation which has strengthened the endorsement of inclusion over the past 20 years, as will be seen in the body of this paper. The sense in which ‘inclusion’ is meant when used in Ofsted position papers or policy documents or embraced by Local Educational Authorities and espoused on local Council websites, is for children with reported emotional, physical or psychological disadvantage, to be accommodated within the existing structures of early childhood and primary school settings.
The term ‘inclusion’ has been noted for its susceptibility to ambiguous usage, as it may refer to enhancing partnerships between children and parents in the educational process, or “concerned with minimising all barriers to learning and participation, whoever experiences them and wherever they are located within the cultures, policies and practices of a school.” In this view, “there is an emphasis on mobilising under-used resources within staff, students, governors, parents and other members of the school’s communities. The diversity of students is stressed as a rich resource for supporting teaching and learning.” Moreover, more recently inclusive education has been viewed as “disabled and non-disabled children and young people learning together in ordinary pre-school provision, schools, colleges and universities, with appropriate networks of support.” The tension between the more precise usage referring to provision of mainstream educational access for children with special educational needs (SEN), and the broader sense of the term as a reference to removing all types of exclusion on the basis of class, gender, race or religion, has been noted in a report averring that “whilst schools at the time the project began were increasingly being encouraged to become more inclusive and were able to access guidance on approaches to developing inclusive practices, this required them to make sense of often different and frequently nebulous definitions of ‘becoming inclusive’ in various texts. Some of these texts, for example, understood inclusion specifically in relation to children identified as having special educational needs. Others saw it as an issue not simply in special needs education, but in provision for all groups of children who had historically under-achieved in the education system, a version of inclusive education related directly to the government’s wider ‘social inclusion’ agenda concerned with ensuring that all social groups participated in the opportunities and activities of ‘mainstream’ society.
Nonetheless, The Centre for Inclusive Education has outlined attributes of an educational setting marked by an ‘inclusive ethos.’ Some notable features include: “valuing all students and staff equally; increasing the participation of students in, and reducing their exclusion from, the cultures, curricula and communities of local schools; restructuring the cultures, policies and practices in schools so that they respond to the diversity of students in the locality; reducing barriers to learning and participation for all students, not only those with impairments or those who are categorised as `having special educational needs; learning from attempts to overcome barriers to the access and participation of particular students to make changes for the benefit of students more widely; viewing the difference between students as resources to support learning, rather than as problems to be overcome; acknowledging the right of students to an education in their locality; improving schools for staff as well as for students; emphasising the role of schools in building community and developing values, as well as in increasing achievement; fostering mutually sustaining relationships between schools and communities and recognising that inclusion in education is one aspect of inclusion in society.”
In addition to this helpful delineation, this charitable research body has distinguished the social model of disability, (which they favour as more equitable), from the medical model of disability, (which they deem to be outmoded and more prone to promote exclusion). The charter states, that “according to the social model of disability, barriers to learning and participation arise from the interactions between learners and the learning environment or from the nature of the setting itself. This contrasts with a medical model in which disabilities and difficulties are attributed to inherent ‘deficits’ in individuals to be identified and treated as ‘abnormal’ in segregated settings.”
The rationale for inclusion is usually posited “because children – whatever their disability or learning difficulty – have a part to play in society after school. An early start in mainstream playgroups or nursery schools, followed by education in ordinary schools and colleges, is the best preparation for an integrated life. Education is part of, not separate from, the rest of children’s lives. Disabled children can, and are, being educated in mainstream schools with appropriate support.”
The imperative for Special Educational Needs children, from an early childhood age on, to be accommodated within mainstream educational settings, is also supported by its representation as a matter of human rights. The assertion that all children have a right to learn and not be discriminated against is endorsed by disabled adults who demand an end to segregation right across the social spectrum. Further arguments to support the current political posture with regard to mainstreaming SEN children, focus upon the educational benefits to those with special needs, suggesting they do better academically and socially, as well as assisting educational resources on the whole to be used more efficiently. Moreover, the social imperatives include the conviction that segregation and exclusion teaches children to be ignorant and prejudiced, making the bridge building process of normal relationships beyond their grasp and therefore more difficult in later adult life.
Finally, it is noted that inclusion confronts “deeply held, false beliefs about the impossibility of ever including all children in mainstream, the supposedly ‘huge expense’ of full inclusion, and the so-called sanctity of parental choice.”
Recent legislation since approximately 1990 has had a profound effect upon the educational policies and provision of education for early childhood years SEN children. The Education Act 1993 (section 160) was subsequently consolidated into the Education Act 1996 (section 316). In 1993 the general principle that children with special educational needs should, (where this is what parents wanted), normally be educated at mainstream schools was enshrined into law, conditional on school to accommodate needs of both SEN children and mainstreamed children. Moreover, the statement emanating from the UNESCO world conference in Salamanca, Spain in 1994, urged all governments to “adopt as a matter of law or policy the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools, unless there are compelling reasons for doing other wise.” The new British government in 1997 published ‘Excellence for All Children – Meeting Special Educational Needs’, which embodied a strategy to improve standards for pupils with specials educational needs. The policy, ‘Meeting Special Educational Needs – A Programme of Action’ was published in 1998. It undertook to review the statutory framework for inclusion in conjunction with the Disability Rights Task Force. The Task Force’s report ‘From Exclusion to Inclusion’ – published in 1999 – recommended “a strengthened right for parents of children with statements of special educational needs to a place at a mainstream school”.
The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 apparently delivered a strengthened right to a mainstream education for children with special educational needs. The Act has amended the Education Act 1996 and transformed the statutory framework for inclusion into a positive endorsement of inclusion. The Act seeks to enable more pupils who have special educational needs to be included successfully within mainstream education. One implication is that in theory at least, parents who have early childhood SEN children have a genuine right to choose either mainstreaming or dedicated SEN schooling for their child. In addition to the implementation of these legislative measures, the SEN specialist standards have been designed as an audit tool to help teachers and headteachers to identify specific training and development needs in relation to the effective teaching of pupils with severe and/or complex SEN.
The statutory framework for SEN leaves no doubt that the presumption of the law is that children with special educational needs should be educated in mainstream schools. The Education Act 1996, reinforced through an amended regulation inserted by the SEN and Disability Discrimination Act 2001, makes this principle clear: ‘Where a statement of special educational needs is maintained for a child, then he or she must be educated in a mainstream school, unless that is incompatible with the wishes of his or her parents, or the provision of efficient education for other children.’ In so stating, the law formalises what has been increasingly the practice in the majority of LEAs over the last decade.
In this context, use of the word ‘inclusion’ leads frequently to confusion, since the same noun is also applied to a raft of policies designed to secure the full participation in society (social inclusion) of people deemed for a variety of reasons to be ‘at risk’. Clearly, not all pupils with SEN are at risk of social exclusion, though some are; equally clearly, not all children at risk of social exclusion have SEN.
The process of diagnosis of children for SEN classification is is some ways problematic. According to the Audit Commission (2002), “One in five children – a total of 1.9 million – in England and Wales are considered by their school to have special educational needs (SEN). Despite the significant numbers involved, they have remained low profile in education policymaking and public awareness. National targets and performance tables fail to reflect schools’ work with them and a lack of systematic monitoring by schools and local education authorities (LEAs) means that poor practice may go unchallenged.”
The Wrexham County Borough Council website illustrates the process of diagnosis. “Only a small percentage of children with special needs require a statutory assessment and a statement. The SEN Code of Practice identifies a staged approach to meeting the special needs of children. Schools are required to adopt a graduated response to special needs that include a range of strategies and varying levels of intervention. As a parent you should be informed by school if your child has special educational needs and how these needs are being met. The SEN Code of Practice identifies the stages of identification and meeting special educational needs as follows: Monitoring, Early Years Action/School Action , Early Year Action Plus/School Action Plus, Statutory Assessment and Statement of Special Educational Needs.”
The existence of an annual review is heartening from a stigmatization and needs equity perspective. One’s child’s “statement will be reviewed annually. The LEA will notify the school when your child’s review should take place and the school will set the date and organise the review. The purpose of the review is to look at the progress made over the previous twelve months in relation to the objectives on the statement.”
The Derby LEA illustrates the role of statutory authorities. “A statutory assessment is a detailed investigation to find out exactly what your child’s special educational needs are and what special help your child needs. It is only necessary if a mainstream school or early education setting can’t provide all the help that your child needs.”
Issues pertaining to gender, social class, culture and language have been well addressed byu Topping. “Despite the focus on social and educational inclusion and on ‘joined-up thinking’ the discourses of SEN and of equal opportunities, in terms of race and gender, have remained distinctly discrete. Although the literature on learning difficulties and disability sometimes makes reference to ‘social class’, the gender or ethnicity (‘race’) of pupils is rarely mentioned. Similarly, research on ethnicity and gender issues rarely acknowledges Special Educational Needs (SEN) and disabilities.”