The school I attended from age 7 to 17 was not inclusive. My class consisted of girls from Surrey whose parents could afford it, who had passed a challenging entrance test.
Each year there was a roll call of where every single one of last year’s Upper Sixth leavers had gone. Oxford, Cambridge etc etc. My friend’s name was read out as having “got engaged” and there was apparently a sharp intake of breath. We are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, a theatre producer, accountants, mothers, wives.
But there was the girl who struggled because her dad was an alcoholic and she didn’t know where to go for help. And the girl who was asked to leave, who burnt down one of her next schools. There were some eating disorders, and other mental health issues which weren’t discussed. Sadly two of my Year 4 class of 25 or so girls died by the age of 40. Because “life” (as a landlord I once worked for used to say frequently) “is not a bowl of roses.” And however much you bundle up privilege in a classroom together and pull up the drawbridge, you cannot prevent life from storming the ramparts. Maybe because my brother is autistic, I always knew that there was more to life than perfect crocodiles of girls from a Madeline book. But others were not so lucky, and years of trying to fit in to the perfect stereotype took their toll.
Inclusion benefits everyone. Teachers learn how to teach properly, because we are aware that not everyone just “gets it”. In learning to differentiate for the child who has specific learning difficulties, we help the child who is particularly able, because we think beyond the text book and adapt our teaching so all children learn. Meanwhile children learn tolerance and respect because they see examples every day of children achieving despite barriers they face, so children learn not to judge or make assumptions. They learn to hope. And they learn how to learn with a range of people, and how to work with them. In life, we are rarely surrounded by “like-minded people”. In the neighbourhood, the extended family, our kids’ football club or the local park or swimming pool – even in most workplaces, surely; we have to deal with difference every day.
The main argument against inclusion cites poor behaviour disrupting learning. In my experience, bad behaviour can disrupt the learning of students across the socio-economic and ability spectrums. Before blaming individual children or their needs, we need to acknowledge that school leadership are responsible for behaviour management. If school leaders have not set up their systems properly learning will be interrupted – whatever the IQ of the class, the admissions criteria or the fees charged to the parents. Conversely, if the systems are strong all children will benefit and be able to learn.
Another argument against inclusion is that the curriculum has to be “dumbed down” to include all children. Anyone making this argument has not kept up to date with recent curriculum and assessment changes. All our students are reading and analysing Dickens, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. In Year 7 and 8. And 90% of Y7 pupils will need to take all ebacc subjects. The more able will be sorted and sifted as never before into Grade 9s to Grade 5s by the means of long written examinations. Which will also be taken by the less able, with their range of needs; and retaken by these students until they are 19: relentless retakes until they hit a national benchmark of the top X% of entrants to the exam nationally. Rest assured, educationalist, no one will avoid the academic curriculum.
There is a better argument against inclusion around work-life balance; with teachers having a sense of failure because they are unable to meet the needs of some children who are in their classes, despite intense amounts of work trying. What is the best way for leaders to manage this? Surely not to position inclusion as someone else’s problem and petition for a segregated school? In my mainstream secondary school our approach has been to build expertise amongst staff and develop a team of professionals in the Learning Support team who can provide advice, answers and team-working so that teachers can be excited by what is possible rather than discouraged by what will never be.
Arguments against inclusion have to recognise the reality for children with SEN and their families. A few of our parents and carers want to move their children to more specialist provision. But their wishes, supported by recommendations from a range of professionals at annual review, are being over-ruled by the local SEN Panel whose hands are tied by shrinking budgets and a lack of specialist places. This means that we have to stay positive, we have to do slightly more to support our teachers and students, and get more inclusive, not less.
We have one Year 13 with a place at Harvard and fourteen with Oxbridge interviews this year. 111 leavers went to Russell Group universities in 2015. Our inclusive approach is not holding anyone back. We celebrate the students who went to study Hair and Beauty or Construction, Animal Care or Medicine. I would love to go back to my old school and challenge the stereotypes by reading out my inclusive comprehensive’s roll call.