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“We shall operate blindly and in confusion until we recognize this fact; until we thoroughly appreciate that departure from the old solves no problems.” John Dewey, 1938
If a school does not work for all of its pupils, it does not work. There are no students for whom a second rate experience is acceptable or for whom inferior outcomes are okay. There is no subgroup of child for whom bullying or segregation can be a reluctantly permitted reality or for whom education is a benevolence and not a right. The school has to work for every child. Failing one is failing. Failing the least able child is a failing for everyone.
Failing one is failing. Failing the least able child is a failing for everyone.
The reality, though, is this; schools – and the policies, infrastructures and traditions that surround them – did not come into existence overnight. They are not the result of a single conference or meeting, act of parliament or revolution: education as we know it is the product of a long and complex evolution. An evolution which took place in the absence of children with disabilities or other additional educational needs.
This was not—at least initially—as a result of discrimination. A high infant mortality rate, especially for those with genetic or medical conditions, meant that the presence of individuals with more complex needs was minimal. In addition, in its earliest incarnations, a formal education was the privilege of the wealthy and, for the majority, illiteracy was simply the norm; those with mild and moderate learning disabilities were not exposed. History, of course, is peppered with references to physical and sensory impairments as well as antiquated concepts such as holy innocents, the village idiot, or those possessed by evil spirits. But, with plenty of hands on practical work available, close knit communities and, for the rich, the luxury of not necessarily needing to work, the issues of a truly inclusive education were not relevant. By the late nineteenth century, with infant survival rates on the increase and education starting to look a bit more familiar to us millennials, there had been an emergence of a new group within society who were considered to be subnormal, non-functional, even insane, and with it a culture of discrimination that marginalised those people to the very fringes of society. This is the cultural climate in which our modern education system evolved and it would be another century before the wider social consciousness reached a point where equality for those with disabilities would be a possibility; until the rhetoric of inclusion, inclusive education and the rights of the disabled child would become part of the public lexicon. Our concept of educational inclusion has a short – around forty year – history, but has somehow become engrained and entrenched almost as if it had always been there.
Our concept of educational inclusion has a short – around forty year – history, but has somehow become engrained and entrenched almost as if it had always been there.
We have, as a society, come to recognise that a high quality education is the right of every child, and inclusion is certainly a step in the right direction. But it is just that; a step. It is not the destination.
The word ‘inclusion’ is simply the umbrella term for all the ways we have come up with to ‘include’ a more diverse cohort of children into a system that was not designed for them. It is a series of add-ons, annexes, coping strategies and papered over cracks that get square pegs into round holes. But if your inclusion into the educational establishment of which you are on roll is to spend a significant proportion of your time in a special area set aside for the ‘included’ students (ironic, isn’t it!?); or if, despite a school’s systems being designed – one would hope/expect – to provide the best education for its students, you abide by an alternative set of systems; if you spend your breaks and lunchtimes in a designated safe space for vulnerable students because you don’t feel safe walking the corridors of the school you attend; or if teachers are asked if they don’t mind doing a bit of teaching in ‘inclusion’ or, worse still, the alternative provision aspects of your timetable are delivered by non-specialist, unqualified members of staff… then your ‘inclusion’ is actually internal segregation. Segregation of space, of service, of expectation and of outcome. And it certainly isn’t equality.
And, what’s more, it doesn’t work. The inclusion paradigm is such that the school with the most teaching assistants and withdrawal interventions, or the biggest SEN area or inclusion corridor, is the school that is deemed to be the most inclusive. The schools with the most separation and segregation are deemed to be serving their learning disabled students the best. With only 6.6% of working age learning disabled adults in paid employment (2010/11 – learningdisabilities.org.uk), but an estimated 65% desiring to be in paid employment, there is no doubt in my mind that the current offer does not facilitate young people with learning disabilities to become successful adults. And all the while we are continuing to teach our physically and learning disabled youngsters that their place in the school is in a separate building or corridor. That their right to education is away from the specialist departments and staff. That their status in the community is ‘other’. In doing so we are also teaching our able students that this is what equality looks like and, thus, we are destined to perpetuate a society and infrastructure that discriminates against some of our most vulnerable community members.
A new social consciousness has opened our eyes to the injustices of the past and – as is the habit of humankind – our response is to implement the opposite; it was wrong to exclude those with additional educational needs from the experience and opportunities of education. So, the solution must be that everyone has to be included into that well established and celebrated institution. Inclusion at all costs.
But we will operate blindly and in confusion… we will continue to fail our most vulnerable children, accept coping where children should be thriving, and miseducate our most able… until we recognise that departure from the old systems – a 180º turnaround – only creates its own set of problems. Doing the opposite is not the answer. Placing vulnerable learners into a system that wasn’t designed for them – simply getting previously deemed uneducable children into a mainstream school building – is not equality; in fact, it is actively detrimental and potentially damaging for everyone involved.
Placing vulnerable learners into a system that wasn’t designed for them is not equality; in fact, it is actively detrimental and potentially damaging for everyone involved.
In order to achieve true equality for our most vulnerable children – to create an education system that reflects modern attitudes and values and shapes tomorrows society in the way that we would want it to be shaped, as well as maximising on modern technology, design, innovation and liberties – we need to relinquish our death grip on the received wisdoms and established systems of the past, take what genuinely works, and start afresh based on the possibilities, challenges and resources of now.
A moving ship, however, is difficult to turn. Difficult, but not impossible. To reform the entire education system as we know it would be both challenging and protracted, and potentially as disruptive as it would, ultimately, be beneficial. The matter of achieving equality for all of our learners is, to my mind, non-optional; we simply have no choice. The upheaval of significant structural change at all levels of the education system is unavoidable and yet, understandably, even the most ambitious and open minded of leaders would wish to be assured that the new systems will work in practice. And this is where we have an opportunity.
In England, a ‘free school’ is a school that is funded by the government but not run by the local council (as most non-private schools still are). They aren’t allowed to use academic selection processes like grammar (selective entry on the basis of academic ability) schools but they do have other freedoms; free schools can set their own staff pay and conditions, change the length of school terms and the school day, and they are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. Free schools are a type of academy – a publicly funded independent school – that has been set up from scratch by a group such as parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups. A free school is a chance to start from scratch and do it differently.
A quick Google search of the words ‘England free school’ will quickly reveal that the free school movement, and indeed the academy movement as a whole, is not without its controversies. But, for the purpose of making my point here, that is by the by. What free schools offer is the opportunity to design a school where the full range of ability and disability, strengths and vulnerabilities, are taken into account from the outset; a school designed with all in mind. Trying to design a school that meets the needs of the extremes of ability that can be found in a mainstream school, all within the main offer and without segregation, sounds like a bit of a nightmare. So what if you design the school specifically to meet the needs of the least able and most vulnerable? What if the highly responsive and personalised assess-plan-do-review cycle was applied to all of the students? What if the whole school was a safe space for vulnerable young people? Not only do I believe that this would offer a high quality, truly inclusive and equitable experience for students with additional educational needs, I think it would have other benefits too. A whole load of ‘middle ability’ students who don’t hit the threshold for SEN support and are able to cope with the expectations and demands of school life would be enabled to thrive, and the whole school community would benefit from learning in an environment that is concurrently diverse and fair. Would this enable our learning disabled students to go on to be successful adults? Could this create a society where people with disabilities can access their community through the front door? And what’s more, could this new school model provide the reassurance that the existing schools need in order to implement the changes necessary to achieve educational equality for all of their students?
What free schools offer is the opportunity to design a school where the full range of ability and disability, strengths and vulnerabilities, are taken into account from the outset; a school designed with all in mind.
Dixons Trinity Academy (DTA – www.dixonsta.com – OFSTED) is a secondary free school located in Bradford, northern England. As a comprehensive intake school in an area of significant socio-economic deprivation, the school has as diverse and complex a cohort of students as could be expected. And it doesn’t have inclusion. There are no teaching assistants, inclusion rooms or safe spaces, or these same features by any other name, and there is no SEN or inclusion department; all of the students’ academic needs are met on the same basis by the academic departments, and all of the students’ pastoral, developmental, and health and welfare needs are met on the same basis by a central student services department, known within the school as ‘mountain rescue’. At DTA, all students make exceptional progress and the students identified as having additional needs meet, and frequently exceed, the progress made by their non-additional needs peers. We have a zero bullying record. To explain how we have achieved this would be to explain the entire school; every system, structure, strategy and policy has been designed to meet the needs of the least able and most vulnerable in order to ensure that all students can thrive in our environment and beyond. More detail about the school can be found on my personal blog (inco14.wordpress.com) and the academy’s blog (blogs.dixonsta.com).
Inclusion, as a stepping stone towards equality for our most vulnerable learners, has served its purpose; it’s time to take the next step. Taking that next step, however, is going to be hard. It will require significant change, including a change in our attitudes and expectations, at all levels of the education system as we know it. It will require admitting and accepting that, currently, we are getting it wrong. But equality is non-optional; we owe this to our vulnerable learners. The free school movement offers the opportunity to make those changes and provide the models and examples that will enable existing schools to make those changes too, and we are certainly starting to see it work. But we have to take that opportunity and run with it; a leap of faith for the chance of equality for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. This is our chance; a chance of change.
[Head photo © Via Tsuji]
Nicole Dempsey is the Individual Needs Co-ordinator (INCo) at Dixons Trinity Academy and Dixons Music Primary; two new schools opened under the government’s free school mechanism in Bradford, United Kingdom. Through her role as INCo she aims to develop them as truly inclusive schools where all students, including those with disabilities, receive the highest quality education without any kind of segregation of provision or resources. Nicole also works for several local charities who work to ensure that children and young people with disabilities have access to leisure activities in their local community and beyond. This can be anything from an afternoon at the cinema to abseiling off a viaduct and is a regular reminder that the only limitations are the ones we set ourselves.