When everyone’s special, no one is: how inclusion went sour.

Not shown here: 'no suitable modifications offered.'
What do we mean when someone has special needs? And why do we get it so spectacularly wrong?

Interesting article in this week’s TES about SEN provision:
‘Pupils with statements of special educational needs are being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, prompting fears that many of the most vulnerable children are receiving a poor education.’
Part of me can't see the controversy. Given that many statemented needs revolve around behaviour, it's not surprising that many SEN pupils spend time outside of the classroom. That isn't an indication of failure itself, but simply a recognition that removing a challenging student to a less crowded space is often the most sensible strategy. It's also not surprising that students with learning difficulties are removed to nurture groups. In fact, in my experience it's not removal that's the problem, but not removing.

Inclusion; that’s the pivot around which this all revolves. When I started teaching in 2003, I was amazed that classrooms often contained students so badly behaved, or with learning needs so pronounced, that I knew I could never provide for them adequately. What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesn’t speak English, but has no interpreter in the class? With a pupil who frequently assaulted or insulted teachers? With a student in a GCSE class with a reading age of seven? More, why were such pupils packed into the same classroom as everyone else? Inclusion, I was told.

Inclusion was treated very seriously. I received several lectures and tutorials on it when training. Every lesson plan I made had to include awareness of inclusion issues. Differentiation was supposed to be the catalyst to this magic process; if I planned the right lesson, it seemed, everyone would be caught in the gravity of the lesson. This was a complete lie.

Plato spoke about Noble Lies- untruths that were useful, like the belief in Gods, which he claimed kept people moral. Inclusion was and is an attempt to generate a contemporary Noble Lie, only instead of conjuring goodness through the threat of divine retribution, we imagine that wishing for inclusiveness creates it.

But it doesn’t. Instead, inclusion, handled in the most knuckle-headed manner, has created a vale of tears where everyone loses: children with special needs don’t get the support they need- instead having to cope in classrooms for which many are not ready- and the mainstream class has to suffer and starve due to the disproportionate focus that challenging or very needy students require. And somewhere under this enormous pyramid of toil and chaos, is the teacher, unable to meet the needs of his class, harrowed by failure.

Get Out of Jail Free

'OFSTED, muthaf***er. DO YOU SPEAK IT?'
A second issue is the designation of statements themselves. Many children are statemented for reasons that, decades ago, would hardly have been seen as a special need at all. We have all worked with children who are statemented for behaviour, yet who are perfectly capable of behaving well for a certain teacher, or their parents. This makes a mockery of the whole system- Old Andrew calls it the SEN racket- as it shows that we have medicalised many perfectly normal parts of the behaviour spectrum and redesignated them as pathologies. This reductivist approach to human nature leads to a joyless form of determinism, where the human being is lost and replaced with a series of triggers and causes and cues. How depressing.

There are some children with clear difficulties- like Tourette’s- where they have little control over themselves. But the surly teenager who is persistently rude to teachers because she can’t be bothered, isn’t helped by a label of ODD; in fact, it infantilises them, and gives them a reason not to amend their behaviours. And this isn’t a fringe issue; this is at the heart of the SEN liturgy. I have read many well-meant Individual Education Plans for statemented pupils that go along the lines of ‘Let them run around the room punching people in the Charlies if they want’ or similar. Try and run a room like that for five minutes and see how much learning gets done.

Redefining Inclusion

1. Inclusion doesn’t mean ‘in the class with everyone else.’ This is inclusion at its most witless and barbaric. It is also the default definition in many, many mainstream schools: you’re included if you’re geographically present. You might as well say that the waiters at Buckingham Palace are guests at the garden party.

2. But all this does is to create pressure-cooker classrooms where the few drain the attention of the one, to the detriment of the many. The teacher is spread thin as marmalade and lessons are carpet bombed. Learning over.

3. Inclusion like any value, cannot be intrinsically good. It must be balanced with other values, such as the rights of the class, the teacher, and the good of the child.

4. For some children that can be achieved in the mainstream classroom; modifications that can be done with relative ease: task that differentiate for different abilities; seating plans that accommodate children with hearing issues etc

5. For some children, inclusion needs to mean special provision. Overwhelmingly, this means smaller groups, separate classrooms and specially trained staff. That way they can get the attention they require without dominating the classroom. When did we forget that mainstream kids have needs too?

6. Staff trained in a meaningful way. I feel sorry for TAs. Often they are the least trained, the worst paid and the least valued members of staff, and yet the demands on them are Herculean. ‘Work a miracle with this pupil’ they are told, without being told how. Their salaries are shocking. Children with special needs don’t just need a warm body nagging them, or writing out their answers; they need teachers, trained in specific areas: EAL; Autism; reading strategies; extreme spectrum behaviour. And they need subject knowledge too, to teach meaningful content. I know many TAs who do a fantastic job. But there are some TAs who, through little fault of their own, are little more than tall buddies for their charges.

7. For inclusion to be meaningful, it has to exclude meaningfully. Good internal inclusion units are a joy: a school within a school, a Russian Doll of focus and care. Others are holding pens; three goes on the Rollercoaster and the pupils are dropped back into the circus.

Inclusion, as it stands is worse than useless in many schools. It is actively harmful. It serves no purpose other than to meet its own criteria. We’re bad at identifying special needs, and we’re terrible at meeting those needs. If we crack this, the value and efficiency of what we already do will sky rocket, I guarantee it. But we spend all our cows on magic beans.

Now that is special.


  1. What should I do, I wondered, with a student who doesn’t speak English, but has no interpreter in the class?

    This illustrates the issue. It's not inclusion, per se, that's the problem it's the fact that it's not adequately resourced, or it's not resourced at all.

    Which doesn't mean that all children should be in all classes eg a pupil who frequently assaulted or insulted teachers.

    As I understand it one motivating factor for "inclusion" was that young people excluded from the school grow up excluded from society, and the behaviour persists into and throughout adulthood. Fine: "include" them, but resource it properly.

    All of this reminds me of a judge sentencing an offender to prison with the idea that they will be rehabilitated but the reality that they won't.

    As for who's to blame, I think as a society we're pretty good at allowing ourselves to be lied to and comforted whilst denying harmful realities. (See house price bubbles and the like.)

    Also, and this is a really serious point: since, say the early noughties over the course of ten or twelve years, hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of children and young people have had their education blighted, by "included" pupils. Thousands of teachers stand in front of their classes confronted by this the most obvious and damaging issue. They say what they see...and nothing is done about it. Why not? And that's not a moan, that's a question.

    If I recall Channel 4's Undercover Teacher attempted to address this issue and, as usual, the whistleblower was disciplined.

  2. Tom, this is - as ever - spot on. The way that most schools deal with this issue is not fair on anyone; the staff, the pupils themselves and the rest of the class. More and more have I become convinced that "inclusion" actually means" EXclusion" for the rest of the class, and in these days of mixed ability classes for almost everything, even moreso.

    I've worked in tough schools, from one in special measures to those that just about scraped through the old "satisfactory" barrier - and they, of course, tended to have a higher proportion of SEN than other schools. I regularly had classes where the number of kids on the SEN register was greater than the number who weren't - and had no classroom support whatsoever.

    When I raised issues like this, I was ignored and I often got the feeling that I was then looked on as someone who just wanted an easy life. But that wasn't it at all -I felt bad that I could often do NOTHING for those kids, because some of them just weren't able to access the lessons, no matter how carefully I differentiated. I mean, try teaching a 13 year-old pupil with a reading age of 6 about cognates in MFL - you're on a hiding to nothing because he's got so few reference points in English!

    My husband has recently become one of those TAs you talk about, and indeed, he's already wondering how on earth he is supposed to help some of the pupils to whom he's been assigned. (And he works in a top-end "good" school).

    I read the TES article and was very surprised about the part you have quoted. I'd have thought parents would be glad to think that their child was getting some one-to-one attention.

    I'll stop before I bore you to death - thanks for posting this.

  3. You have correctly described the poor implementation here. And you do, eventually, recognise how well 'good internal inclusion' works.

    Part of the problem is the binary nature of the language (it's either inclusion or exclusion) which gives people some very fixed ideas of what it should be. Sadly, it leads many to the conclusion that 'inclusion' doesn't work. To me, inclusion is not a strategy, it's a principle. It's the idea that schools need to reflect society so that we don't segregate children on any basis. Notice that I say 'schools'. The same does not necessarily apply to 'classes'. Classes are merely sub-groups within a school that should be sized and composed appropriately for the children's needs. The best inclusion I have seen ensures that pupils with SEN are always notionally attached to the mainstream (e.g. as part of tutor groups and year groups) even if most of their learning occurs apart from their (social) peers.

    BTW, I never actually encountered a SENCO that endorsed the 'let-them-be' approach (even if the IEP may have implied it). This was much more likely to come from SMT who didn't want to deal with the behaviour issue.

  4. This is a good article which I think does an admirable job of summarising the issues from a teacher's point of view. However, I wonder if you are conflating statements with medical diagnoses. A statement for a child with behaviour problems does not need to come with a assumptions about the origins of their difficulties. The statement should simply detail what their difficulties are, the objectives for their development and the provision that is required to meet those objectives. A statement of SEN also carries with it funding for support from the local authority so they are often very desirable for schools. In my experience the prevalence of statements for exclusively behavioural issues vary greatly from area to area, in some authorities they are almost exclusively issued to children when they go to a special school. Whether a child gets a statement appears to have more to do with how local funding is organised and prioritised in many cases.

    I think that the problem with the Inclusion that you describe is that it is simply a soundbite, a weasel word, a piece of marketing for a oversimplistic idea (when people say words like "Inclusion" or "Academy" I often think of the Monorail episode of the Simpsons). The fact remains that being included is a social experience which has little to do with the room you are educated in. I have seen some of the best examples of inclusion in special school settings or in mainstream schools which operate specialist units. However the prevailing state of affairs has been unwittingly concocted by a combination of management money counters who see a cost saving and naive idealists who have a fervent beliefs that it is a right for all children to be educated in the same classroom, no matter how impractical, unworkable or unhelpful it actually is to do so. I agree that this state of affairs has undermined effective education for many troubled children and their peers. However, I believe that there is an increasing recognition among those who work in this area that troubled children need to learn increasing peace with the world before they can be properly educated in the conventional sense.

  5. Wonderfully astute commentary Tom. The more I think about it these days, and when I read an intelligent, experienced analysis like yours, the more I want to jab the finger of blame not at the politicians, techno-zealots or ideologues but at the...English teachers.

    If English was taught in schools well. Not the naive politics or social engineering NATE exemplifies, and children left schools aged 16 with the kind of linguistic skills commonly found in other countries (Germany, Russia...)maybe we wouldn't as a nation be so vulnerable (as Ken notes) to the deployment of marketing when we have the right to expect intelligent insight.


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