Children with Special Needs in Mainstream Schools and the Perils of Inclusion


Educators in recent decades have implemented a policy of ‘inclusion’ – children with special needs being brought into mainstream schools. How has this fared?

Discussions of inclusion can be difficult as definitions vary depending on who is asked.  In this article, I am talking about ‘inclusion’ in terms of including students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in mainstream schools.  The policy of inclusion developed out of the idea of de-medicalising disability and seeing it in a social context. Rather than focus on the diagnosis itself, the emphasis should instead be on the ‘needs’ of the individual.  This is clearly a laudable concept in itself – no two people with the same diagnosis will be impacted in exactly the same way, and ‘needs’ can often be evidenced long before diagnosis. Inclusion is the idea that these needs can most often be met in a mainstream setting as they are not rare or necessarily permanent.

Inclusion has been happening in some ways since the 1981 Education Act which abolished formal labels of ‘handicaps’ and instead tasked all schools with determining the ‘special educational needs’ of their students and devising ways of meeting those needs.  The Warnock Report of 1978 had reached the conclusion that children with specific needs or learning disabilities belonged with their peers in mainstream education and the introduction of the National Curriculum meant that all students were entitled to the same ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum diet.  This was reinforced in the 1993 Education Act which made it clear that Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were to provide this for students with SEND. The 1994 Code of Practice made it clear to schools that it was their job to do this – provision for most students with SEND was to be within mainstream schools.

Inclusion really accelerated under the Labour Governments.  It was part of a broader focus on social inclusion and was backed up by the Disability Discrimination Act which made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of disability.  ‘Personalised Learning’, with class teachers giving thought to students as individual learners, rather than as homogenous groups, was seen as a way to cater for those with additional needs within the mainstream classroom.  So far, so commendable. All students are individuals, and all have differing needs. Seeing the requirements of students with SEND as part of a continuum of need that mainstream settings are required to cater for makes sense within this model.

With the acceleration of inclusion came an increase in funding for schools.  New Labour’s mantra of ‘Education, Education, Education’ was matched with a cash injection that came at a time of falling student numbers.  Schools had money to implement inclusion and many set about doing so enthusiastically. Not all though. The Thatcher governments’ introduction of a market forces approach to education meant that schools concerned with prioritising their place in the league tables did not necessarily approach inclusion with an open mind, and many tried to avoid offering places to students with SEND or made attempts to remove these students before the commencement of formal examinations.  This has worsened in recent years.

Where inclusion has worked well, staff have been well-trained in the specific needs of the students they are to teach.  This often involves working with parents, who know their children best, as well as outside agencies who can help assess student need and devise plans to help meet this.  Where inclusion has not been as successful, it has often been down to a lack of training for teaching staff, who have usually had little in the way of specific SEND input during their Initial Teacher Training.  There is a tendency amongst some school staff to view inclusion as meaning that all students should be treated equally. This clearly fails to recognise that students with SEND will need adjustments for their specific needs, in order to have equality of opportunity.  There is a saying within schools, which is not without truth, ‘If you get it right for SEND students, you get it right for all students’. The issue is, though, how do you ‘get it right’ if you have little opportunity for training?

Inclusion seems to have been more successful in primary, rather than secondary, school.  Primary schools are smaller, classes tend to have one or two main teachers and relationships are easier to form both between students and teachers and parents and teachers.  Still there can be tensions. If a child displays behaviours due to their SEND that impact upon learning in the classroom, parents can be quick to complain as primary school classes spend a lot of time together and interrupted learning can have a major impact.  It seems that inclusion can become harder for some children the further up the education system they navigate – expectations get higher and teaching becomes more linked to testing. If a child is struggling to achieve it can have negative impacts on self-esteem and behaviour.

Behaviour that is the result of SEND should not result in punitive consequences for students.  A student should never be punished because of their disability. However, within a mainstream setting this can be very difficult.  The ideal is that the behaviour will not be triggered because the need will be met, but this is proving extremely difficult with some students.  Depending on how students are grouped, it can be the case that a class has a majority of students with different SEND, whose behaviour, as a result of their needs, can cause stress reactions in other students with SEND.  This can be an impossible situation to manage for classroom teachers. Some schools use isolation as a consequence for poor behaviour, but for some students with SEND this is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Some schools are ‘off-rolling’ students with SEND as a way of improving their GCSE results.  Schools are only ever as good as their previous set of GCSE results and students with SEND are proportionately over-represented in both exclusion and off-rolling figures.  Almost a third of the 20,000 students who left school rolls during their GCSE years had SEND and 4, 500 students with autism were excluded.  Whilst there can be no excuse for ‘off-rolling’ students, and it is failing those we should be including, it is the system of judging schools based on examination results that feeds this sort of behaviour.

Cuts in education funding are having a major impact on the viability of inclusion.  More children with SEND are entering the education system, partly due to increasing medical knowledge and technology meaning more children survive premature births.   Increasingly, schools can only afford to employ teaching assistants for those students with an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP), which are not awarded easily, so students with lower level SEND are missing out on support they might have received when schools were able to fund more general class teaching assistants.  Similarly, many schools are saving money by employing less qualified teaching assistants, which undoubtedly results in a poorer experience for children with SEND. Waiting lists for specialist provision such as Speech and Language Therapy can be up to four terms, meaning a child will wait over a year for interventions that are much more effective the earlier they are delivered.

There is some good practice with regards to specialist provision within a mainstream setting, for example provision for students with Hearing Impairments (HI) or Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC).  A primary school with a HI Provision onsite has seen benefits for all students as they learn sign language in the classroom, and the students with HI receive specific input from trained HI staff who are not directly employed by the school.  A secondary school with an ASC unit teaches children with ASCs separately for some lessons and allows them to feed out into mainstream classes with support when the students feel able to cope. However, some proponents of inclusion would argue that this kind of provision is not true inclusion as it still means some separate provision.

Where inclusion is working, it is down to relationships between mainstream schools, special schools and specialist provision.  The dismantling of LEAs due to academisation and the proliferation of free schools means that this success is under threat. A SENDCO in a special school told of how they used to have a mutually beneficial relationship with their nearest mainstream secondary school, sharing facilities and staff to benefit all students.  When the mainstream school converted and became part of a multi-academy trust, this relationship stopped and instead the school began to exclude or off-roll students with SEND.

Where do we go from here?  Inclusion is important. Children with SEND should not be ‘othered’ and removed from mainstream settings.  However, provision for them should be appropriate, supportive and above all well-funded so that all children can thrive.  Some children will need a specialist setting in order to flourish in education and they must not be sacrificed on the altar of inclusion.  Special schools must remain available for those who need them. Government must listen to students, parents, teachers, and specialists to make sure that inclusion is not a way to educate children with SEND on the ‘cheap’.  Everyone involved deserves better than this.