I have quite taken to the ‘I’ newspaper, that precis of the Independent. It brings a brevity and focus to daily news that has an appeal, being relatively devoid of all the fripperies of modern papers that distract too often and too long.
On Monday 7th March I read of a school in Cornwall, Gwinear Primary School, that has won a national award for the way it teaches tolerance and approaches issues such as religion and gay rights. A poster displayed in the school announces “Little, gay, black, Islamic, old, Asian, Gypsy, Jewish, dyslexic, Polish, male, Cornish, lesbian – BRITISH.” Actually, I have read the briefest summary of the school and its award, (bless the ‘I’) and from my understanding, just one person nominated the school for the award, which seems the slenderest of support, but I may be mistaken and I am sure that nomination will have lead to well-justified praise and good practice.
It reminded me of a time, oh so many years ago, when as a newly qualified teacher in a large secondary school, I displayed a poster on my form room that welcomed all, in around 30 different languages. I was thought quite the revolutionary…
I have fond memories of that poster, and my form room, but this poster – the little, gay… of the school in question, actually does not appeal to me at all.
So, here I am, putting my thoughts to order, and wondering why this disturbs me so, when this article and its message is wholeheartedly positive in its sharing of award winning excellence. It is hard to dispute words that speak of tolerance, of inclusion, of fostering good will for all. And yet here I am, all the same.
The school in Cornwall was nominated for an award by the Accord Coalition, which promotes an inclusive approach to education. We are bombarded by so many, frequently conflicting notions of what it means to have an inclusive society, to include, that at best, we may all be doing our own little thing in the hope and wish that this is what truly inclusion is all about.
Back to what troubles me, and why I feel we have a troubled inclusion agenda.
I take issue with the notion that, not to include all, in whatever the context or educational setting, equates to a lack of tolerance, implied not explicit, whether that be a lack of tolerance for those who are little, or gay, or dyslexic, or lesbian, or Asian, to return to the language of our poster. I find here, also, the choice of descriptors disturbing, promoting in some strange manner an awareness, for those who were not previously aware, that these may be our stereotypical victims of bullying. I wonder what thought went into singling out some groups, races, religions and types of special need, and not others?
It is this equation of a veritable feast of values, of aspirational notions, that falls hand in hand with talk of inclusion that I despair of more than a little, and that troubles me. The notion that to include must be good; to make available to all, must somehow be better than to be selective; to dilute our differences so that, actually, we are all pretty much of a muchness, must be our way forward.
I do not share that point of view. I do not applaud the concept of diluting difference, which we may see as a form of marginalizing individuality, so that we may safely include all, in whatever our endeavours. In education, certainly, we have lost our way this past decade or more, in blindly following what may be termed localised interpretations of inclusion, although in reality, so widespread is the interpretation, it is endemic to our Isle.
In garnering the support of parents of children with special educational need and handing over the power of placement, or choice of educational establishment, to parents – something that we may predict will be a progressive element in the forthcoming SEN Green Paper – we are held fast against change.
Our Local Authorities, desperate to keep money within county, to maintain control of all aspects of funding including the allocation of delegated resources, the provision of services from retained funding, the assessment of special needs and its resulting provision, are dependent on the whims and wishes of parents to elect for mainstream, local schooling.
What parent wouldn’t choose what is local, what is mainstream, what secures a transition with friends and neighbours, when that option has been made accessble and so eminently desirable by the persuasive ideology of inclusion? What kind of intolerant, backward society are we if we do not allow for a socially just system of inclusion?
This is where our troubled inclusion agenda hits a rocky road. We have so clouded our inclusion agenda, already enshrined with our nation’s deeply-held but long-forsaken Christian values, that we are in danger of losing a capacity to discuss objectively what is going on here.
There are many who fervently believe in the right of all young people, whatever their special need or disability, to be educated in our manstream nurseries and schools. It is in the exercising of that right, which, after all, like my right to vote, may not be exercised from one General Election to another without fear of my losing that right, that I have concerns.
To be included, to be a part of society, big or small, we need to be able, as a very basic requirement, to commune with others, to have friendships, to be part of a community. Many of our mainstream schools, striving to meet incredibly complex, challenging and long-term needs, do not provide that community for our vulnerable young people. In small rural areas, where pupils with complex special needs may represent 1 – 2% of the school population, there may be many many miles that divide that child and that child’s family, from those experiencing similar difficulties, and facing similar needs. Parents may feel as isolated in their own towns and villages, as the child in the mainstream school, despite that this is our inclusive utopia.
Variously the school may provide additional employment, to adults with specialist knowledge, to services and products that form an essential element of the care and education package; they may provide a physical environment and shelter for the young person; they may provide the best they can in terms of an education or social care. Despite all this, a paid entourage of helpers and staff is no substitute for a peer-community, who share similarities of need and ability.
I am mindful of a time in our recent past, between 19th February 2001 and 14th January 2002, when Britain’s farming community was laid bare by the Foot and Mouth crisis. Communities were devestated and isolated by Foot and Mouth as it rampaged through our countryside. Helplines were set up to support our isolated and struggling communities, to support the many individuals who feared the worst for their farms, for their livelihoods, for their families, for businesses that had passed down, in many cases, from generation to generation. There was a very real sense of the need for those in the farming and its related communities, of the misery, the exhaustion, the sense of dread and isolation many experienced. There was, for the first time that I recall, a real debate and discussion about the increased rate of suicide amongst isolated farming communities.
Why do I say this? What has all this to do with our troubled inclusion agenda, with the rights of all young people to be educated in our mainstream schools?
I say this because, just as sharply as our farming communities were blighted by the threat or actuality of Foot and Mouth disease, so, too, are our children, young people and their families, blighted by a life-long servitude to our flawed and most troubled inclusion agenda. But instead of people noticing, as those in a position of power convened to reach fast and flexible decisions on an almost daily basis as new of more case of Foot and Mouth spread around the country, in Education, we have no one yet who dares disturb the universe.
In our mainstream schools, who does the mother talk to when teachers and SENCo at school do not have the time to meet recurring needs or specific concerns? Who does the child turn to, when there is no one in school with the same interests, passions or obsessions, and when the only opportunities for companionship are with paid adult support staff? Who do the family turn to, when their troubles, their concerns, are so uniquely different to those of the families around them?
That need for a solidarity of community, for the understanding and empathy of others who have shared similar experiences, a similar sense of loss, a similar sense of grieving for the adult that never will be, is as strong in our parents as it is in our children and young people with special needs and disabilities.
When we assume only good can come from the promotion of tolerance, inclusion, equality, we are more than a little blinded to the reality that actually, hand in hand with that notion of inclusion, with our flawed but ever popular notions of inclusion, can come isolation, fear and loneliness too.
Inclusion is not a single route, or choice, or placement or pathway. It is broad and diverse and can be found in many settings, mainstream, specialist, day, residential or other. True inclusion is about finding a place that can allow a young person with diverse needs to be truly themselves, without the fear that that self is less worthy than any other.
If we truly valued young people with special educational needs in our mainstream schools, we may consider what it is like to be that young person, and not so fervently strive to eradicate, through our systems and procedures and policies, what makes them so very different in the first place.