Inclusion of Children with SENs: Some Questions and Concerns

The following brief paper contains summaries of recently published papers or articles which explore the issue of inclusion.

There continues to be a consensus that inclusion is an ideal but concerns exist that the idea has still not been matched by organised research into what constitutes effective practice, by training, and by resourcing. There also remains concern about the possible difficulties, under current criteria for evaluating a school’s performance, of reconciling policies about inclusion with policies about raising academic standards.

M.J.Connor January 2001


The following summaries all refer to means of dealing with special needs, and there is an implication that inclusion will only become meaningfiil and practicable when schools combine to form a coherent system rather than continuing to operate as separate and autonomous units, in competition for positions on scholastic achievement league tables.

A great deal has been said and written about the principle of inclusion and there appears a consensus that educating children together is an ideal to which we should all aspire. However, one would not wish to belittle the differences that exist between children, between schools, and between family and neighbourhood circumstances, which all indicate the need to examine individual cases on their merits rather than according to some general ideology.

A common goal among the parents of children with special educational needs is to gain a place in a school where those needs are recognised and acted upon, and an individual education programme established. Precisely where this takes place is of less importance than the recognition of those individual needs and the desirability of setting corresponding aims and objectives.

The articles which are summarised in the following notes highlight some of the issues which have yet to be resolved, and the continuing gap between the ideals of inclusion and the organisational or attitudinal changes that will be required if inclusion is to be truly viable.



The article by Myers (2000) begins by quoting existing research evidence that schools can make a marked difference in respect of individual pupil progress, and that pupils at the same baseline points make very different achievements in different schools. She also notes that teachers can perform differently at different schools and cites the example of a head teacher who may be highly successful in one school but who may struggle at another.

Myers argues that there may be various lists of characteristics which combine to make a successful school, but that what has been missed out is the influence of the mix of pupils and staff It is one thing to deal with children with learning difficulties or with disaffection when they are in a minority, but quite another thing when such children are the majority in a school and whose ethos is, therefore, negatively influenced.

Reference is made to the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals as an indicator of disadvantage, but this appears too gross an index since the children concerned will come from a wide variety of backgrounds including some families who perceive education as a means of self-improvement, but some other families who live in areas of high unemployment and where parents see little purpose in school and who may have laad unhappy experiences in school .... with consequently negative attitudes towards teachers and other professionals working with a local authority.

Despite different intakes, schools appear to be evaluated according to identical and academic criteria and are under consistent pressure to achieve demonstrable improvements in pupil achievement. Myers expresses the concern that some schools may seek to improve by simply changing the mix of pupils whom they are willing to accept. The knock-on effect of this is to increase the number of children with learning or behavioural difficulties in those schools currently under-subscribed. This means that there may develop a vicious circle of some schools becoming less and less able to demonstrate good results and attracting fewer children from families with high educational aspirations.

It is argued, therefore, that what is needed is collaboration among schools rather than competition.

Myers suggests that relevant questions should include the following:

· How are schools in an area serving the requirements of the whole community?

· How are they working together to provide all pupils with a coherent and comprehensive service. How are they working together to provide all pupils with a coherent and comprehensive service?

· How do they ensure that they will meet the needs of current and future pupils. How do they ensure that they will meet the needs of current and future pupils?

The conclusion restates the ideal of collaboration but raises the question of how to shift the focus from individual to communal improvement.

An example which might indicate one way of approaching this ideal is that of taking note of a school's particular experience of types of special need. It might be logical if, in a given area, infant schools (and corresponding junior schools) could build upon experience of particular types of pupil need and develop specialisms. Such specialisms might include providing for children with autistic spectrum disorder, or with language disorder, and one might anticipate the development of expertise and a bank of ideas and strategies and equipment.

The status quo would involve each school taking on a varying range of difficulties year by year, and, while one can understand some attraction of admitting a mix of pupil needs, there would be less probability of developing a pool of specific expertise such that there is less efficiency in dealing with particular needs. There is also the concern lest the suggestion of some specialism might be interpreted as asking one school to take on responsibilities which should rightfully fall to another school, but this simply re-echoes the point made by Myers about school collaboration in meeting the needs of pupils in the area which they jointly serve rather than having a "non-system" of autonomous schools which are in competition, and for whom the prospect of admitting children with special needs may be seen as threatening to their competitive edge if the criteria for inter-school comparison remain the same.


Development of Expertise

A largely similar set of thoughts emerges from the study completed by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Fletcher-Campbell and Cullen 2000) concerning delegation of LEA support services and the impact upon special educational needs. The contents of the study have been described by Thornton (2000) who begins by noting how there are as many types of special needs’ service as there are LEAs. In other words, as schools have been given greater control over the use of funding, they have developed in different ways, and this raises again the question of how to take advantage of differences and how to maximise the benefit for children with special needs.

The report cites how schools with established good practice made the most effective use of the delegated funding, and some schools had developed a level of staff expertise which hitherto would only have been available within specialist support services. However, echoing the point made by Myers, there is less opportunity following delegation to exert any influence upon those schools whose provision for special needs is of poorer quality or quantity.

Questionnaires completed by representatives of LEAs highlighted how some schools appeared to be making limited provision for those pupils who were unlikely, even with additional support, to help bring about improvements in league table position. There were also some accusations of schools seeking to boost their funding by inflating the needs of some children in order to gain access to a further share of centrally-organised resources, or of schools using money designed for special needs to fund quite different areas. In return, some schools are quoted as complaining that certain centrally-organised support for children with the more severe level of need was of limited quality, was not rapidly available, or simply reinforced information already available to the staff.

The report concludes by quoting the aim of maximising the number of children with special needs in mainstream education, but argues that there is a lack of evidence about how best this aim can be brought about. The report also restates the concern lest the drive for higher academic standards will limit willingness to accept children with special needs.

One immediate implication is to investigate how to measure the improvement achieved by pupils with learning difficulties, and how publicly to demonstrate this progress which currently is not discernible within the system of league tables.

The authors put forward some key issues suggesting that LEAs should improve the training for support staff and ensure that services can be focused upon individual pupil need and achievement.

Meanwhile, for schools, there is a need to improve support for special need co-ordinators and to integrate support work into the curriculum as opposed to its being seen as a kind of separate and "bolt-on" addendum.

Finally, for central government, there is a need to determine how support services can foster inclusion while also agreeing measures by which to demonstrate the progress of pupils with learning difficulties.


Raising Attainment and Increasing Inclusion

Research carried out by Norwich and Lunt (2000) has investigated whether it is possible to reconcile the aim of increased academic standards among pupils in mainstream schools with the increasing enrolment of children with special educational needs in these schools.

In order to investigate this topic, the authors examined the 1998 and 1999 GCSE data for over three thousand secondary schools in England, along with the numbers of pupils who were at stages 1 - 3 of the SEN Code of Practice or who had statements.

From the 1998 data, schools were divided into 10 groups according to GCSE results, with a view to identitying the percentage of pupils with statements in those groups, from the highest achieving to the lowest achieving.

It was found that the proportion of pupils with statements was very small in the highest attaining group of schools, and increased as one went down the scale towards the lowest attaining group of schools. The range was from less than 1% to nearly 4%. The inverse correlation between exainination attainment and the percentage of pupils with special educational needs was all the greater when the number of pupils at stages 1 -3 of the code was taken into account.

A similar picture was gained from the 1999 data, although, in this year, the lowest attaining group of schools had more than 5 times the percentage of pupils with statements than the highest attaining group.

The authors recognised that there are exceptions and that it would be desirable to investigate the policies and practices in the very small number of schools which were in the top 30% for both attainment and numbers of pupils with special needs. Nevertheless, the overall conclusion is a challenge to the assumption that the greater number of pupils with significant special needs in a school is compatible with excellent GCSE results.

(This supports the commonly expressed concern that, while inclusion of pupils with SENs, and the year on year increase in GCSE outcomes, are both very positive aims, they cannot be achieved simultaneously; and the apparent belief that they can be reconciled only serves to put pressure upon school staffs who might be confused as to what is being expected of them. Again, the implication is for highlighting the performance of pupils with special needs and not placing sole reliance upon GCSE A-C rates as an index of the performance of a school).


Training Issues

As an introduction to this section, on one might refer to the International Special Education Congress held in the summer of 2000 (and reported in the TES of 11 August by Thornton) at which Charles Gains, a retired lecturer in special educational needs and editor of a specialist educational journal, discussed the lack of the teacher training in providing for pupils with special needs. He argued that there is not only a limitation in in-service training but that the issue of special needs is not covered during initial training. The net effect is that many schools cannot readily cope with the increase of pupils attending mainstream schools following the emphasis upon inclusion.

It was also argued that it was time to examine the content of the curriculum given the observation that the national curriculum was of limited relevance or interest to a significant number of pupils in mainstream schools, especially those with special needs.

Gains stresses that he is in favour of inclusion but that it must be responsible inclusion, and there is concern lest inclusion policies are based more upon political and ideological motives than upon clear evidence about what works best for the pupils concerned. His anxiety is that some children are attending schools where their needs are not easily met, and that attending a mainstream school with little or no support and with only tenuous access to the curriculum is hardly responsible inclusion.

This theme is taken up by Garner (2000) who suggests that, as far as the policy of inclusion is concerned, there has been much promised but little delivered. He too expresses anxiety over the extent to which inclusion has become a dominant policy despite the clear observations about the lack of readiness, both conceptually and practically, among many newly qualified teachers who, nevertheless, will be increasingly expected to adopt inclusion initiatives in education.

Reference is made to Feiler and Gibson (1999) who share the positive view about the principle of inclusion, but who describe continuing threats to its meaningfiil implementation. For example, they point out the lack of any precise definition of inclusion coupled with the lack of research evidence concerning the effectiveness of inclusion, and they note the continuing preoccupation with labels for children with learning difficulties.

The implication, particularly from the latter point, is that full inclusion is still inhibited, and that locating difficulties within the children may lead to an avoidance of examining in-school policies and practices with the result that the child is still somehow to be fitted into the system (with more and more support demanded) as opposed to having the system mould itself to the needs of the children.

However, Garner argues that the prtncipal problem has been overlooked namely that the issues which underlie problems with implementing effective and meaningful inclusive policies can be linked to a "chronic failure" to address widespread shortcomings in the coverage of special educational needs during initial teacher training. If this topic is conspicuously absent in the majority of training programmes, both undergraduate and postgraduate, the whole concept of inclusion becomes discredited. The author's concern is all the greater because of the frequency with which there has been reference to the lack of SEN training, but he argues that the situation has remained largely unchanged over the last 20 years since the Warnock Report (and despite the HMI Report of 1990 about special educational need in initial teacher training). There may still be a preoccupation with subject knowledge, with teacher training providers having little opportunity to go beyond the prescriptive nature of the training curriculum.

There is a further problem in that teacher training has increasingly become a form of apprenticeship with the implication that less time is available for a consideration of the principles and practices linked to special educational needs, including discussions about the effectiveness of inclusive approaches. Garner notes how students may rely on picking up both information and attitudes from the general culture and ethos of the school in which they are placed for experience; and it is recognised that the concept of inclusion may be perceived with different degrees of understanding or acceptance from one school to another. Meanwhile the workload falling to SEN co-ordinators may limit the opportunity for providing advice and guidance to either students or newly qualified teachers.

The Teacher Training Agency (1997) noted that without strategies to rationalise SEN training, there will be a declining base both of individuals able to offer training and a declining base of expertise. If this is so, SEN expertise will not readily be generated or passed on, and any knowledge or skills accumulated by newly trained teachers may be the result of trial and error rather than by organised policy; and children with learning difficulties will also continue to face a lottery in that some may be lucky enough to be in schools with a high level of commitment and expertise with regard to special educational needs, while other children will not.

Garner concludes that there needs to be a comprehensive and independent investigation into current methods of teacher training, and he argues that ft should become compulsory for all students to receive a substantial core input with regard to special educational needs and inclusion along with opportunities to experience a specialist and inclusive education in practice.

He also suggests that staff from both mainstream and special schools should be routinely involved in taught programmes and should be taking the lead in debates concerning inclusion. If school based training is to be emphasised, then there should be greater priority on special educational needs with funding made available to ensure that students can receive input from SEN co-ordinators and others.

Garner concludes that advocates of inclusion need to recoguise that, if the policy is to move on, it must be recognised that one is still at a kind of idealistic level and there is yet to be the establishment of clear policies, strategies, evidence about outcomes, and resourcing. He likens the situtuation to the policy surrounding "Care in the Community" which is undoubtedly an excellent principle but which has not been followed up by the establishment of resources or clear investigations of what needs actually to be involved in day-to-day practice.

M.J.Connor January 2001


Feiler A. and Gibson 1999 Threats to the inclusive movement. British journal of Special Education 26(3)147-152

Fletcher-Campbell F. and Cullen M. 2000 Impact of Delegation on LEA Support Services for Special Educational Needs. Windsor: NFER

Garner P.2000 Pretzel only policy? Inclusion and the real world of initial teacher education. British Journal of Special Education 27(3)111-116

Myers K. 2000 United we stand to gain. Platform, Times Educational Supplement. August 4th.

Norwich B. and Lunt 1.2000 Impossible ideal. Research Focus, Times Educational Supplement. November 24th.

Norwich B. and Lunt 1.2000 Can Effective Schools Be Inclusive Schools? London: Institute of Education

Teacher Training Agency (1997) Survey of Special Educational Needs Training Provided by Higher Education London : TTA

Thornton K. 2000 Vive Ia difference. Briefing, Times Educational Supplement. February 25th.

Thornton K. 2000 Staff not prepared for SEN influx. Times Educational Supplement. August 11th.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of the author.

© Mike Connor 2001.

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