Joshua is a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who enjoys an
intellectual challenge and wants to go to school with others in his
road. He seems the perfect candidate for inclusion but he was at
his local secondary school for just three months because he could
not cope with crowds in the corridor and the jibes of other
Mark is defined as having moderate learning and behavioural
difficulties. At the age of four he bit a nursery teacher, when he
was seven he threw a chair at a classroom assistant and two months
ago he was excluded from a primary school because of another
violent incident involving another pupil.
According to the government, both children have a level of
special educational need that can be met in mainstream schools.
But, say their parents, neither can function properly in large,
The inclusion of children with special needs has proved one of
the government’s most contentious education policies. Parents
who exercise their right to express a preference for special
schools find their wishes overruled by local authorities intent on
closing them down. Meanwhile, teachers say that inclusion of
children with behavioural problems disrupts the education of the
rest of the class and is driving people from the profession.
At its annual conference this year the second largest
teachers’ union condemned “the persistent rise in
disaffection and disruption in schools brought about by the
continued insistence of a government inclusion policy that keeps
pupils with behavioural difficulties in mainstream schools”. Amanda
Haehner, a secondary teacher from London and a senior member of the
National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said
she noted with concern “the high rate of exclusions of pupils with
disabilities and those with special educational needs.”
The figures bear out her concern. Two-thirds of children who are
permanently excluded have special educational needs, according to
the Department for Education and Skills. Pupils with special needs
are 13 times more likely to be excluded, temporarily or
permanently, than those without.
School life is about more than the curriculum, says Haehner. “It
is social interaction in the playground, being part of a class or
year group, coping with the negative as well as the positive. For
some included children this provides more pressure and more chances
However, the government has made it clear to teacher unions that
it does not intend to back down on the policy first announced by
the then education secretary David Blunkett in l997 and enshrined
in the SEN and Disability Act 2001. Blunkett said that his views
had been shaped by his experience at a boarding school for the
blind where he felt “separated out” from society and was denied the
opportunity to study for the same qualifications as other
Ralph Surman, a primary teacher on the ruling executive of
the Association of Teachers and Lecturers surprised its conference
this year by his personal attack on Blunkett who he blamed for the
failure of the policy. “However passionate David Blunkett felt
about inclusion, I don’t think he really understood what it
entailed because he was thinking in terms of visual impairment,” he
“Children with physical disabilities are the easiest to include
but the policy has been steam-rollered through to include children
with varying degrees of autism, children with attention deficit
disorder and those with severe but unspecified conditions that
result in emotional and behavioural problems. Including children
who feel threatened in the mainstream amounts to institutional
The 1997 Act states that schools must not discriminate against
disabled children in their admission arrangements or exclusion
policies. But the SEN code of practice, which came into effect in
January 2002, provides a get-out clause for schools by saying that
children with SEN statements can be refused places “in the small
minority of cases where the child’s admission would be
incompatible with the efficient education of other children.”
They can also be excluded for behaviour that “systematically,
persistently and significantly” threatens the safety of others or
impedes the learning of others.
The government’s latest approach, in the strategy document
Removing Barriers to Achievement published last February
(see box), is to support teachers by placing special education in
the overall context of services for children. Charles Clarke, the
education secretary, said the strategy reaffirms the
government’s “commitment to partnership working between local
authorities, early year settings, schools, the health service and
the voluntary sector”.
The expectation is that children with moderate learning
difficulties will be educated in the mainstream but special schools
will continue to provide for those with the most severe and complex
needs and become centres of excellence, sharing their expertise
with mainstream schools.
However, the government acknowledges that more research needs to
be done on supporting children in mainstream schools and says a new
Inclusion Development Programme has been set up to bring together
education, health, social care and the voluntary sector. Projects
will be set up to develop and pilot effective practice and develop
the evidence base about what works and how to implement good
practice. Initially, the work will be focused on autistic spectrum
disorder, behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, speech,
language and communication needs and dyslexia and moderate learning
Behaviour improvement programmes have already been set up in 61
local authorities covering 2,000 schools, which the government
expects to draw up new schemes to provide for excluded children,
such as flexible placements in other schools or “in-school
exclusion centres” or both in which the youth service will be
involved. There will be more training for teachers and head
teachers and the use of “P” scales – achievement benchmarks for
children working below the first level of the national curriculum –
will be extended and promoted.
According to the Audit Commission, children with emotional
and behavioural difficulties are the least likely to be admitted to
mainstream schools and the most likely to be excluded from them.
Children with physical and learning difficulties are also
disproportionately refused places and excluded.
“Some schools feel that the only way to ensure support for
individual children with challenging behaviour is to exclude them.
This does not, of itself, resolve the child’s underlying
difficulties, it disrupts their education and can be damaging to
their long-term prospects,” says the document. In-depth research
into the admission and exclusion of pupils with SEN has been
commissioned and will be published in September.
“I believe that young people with learning difficulties and
disabilities have a right to lead rewarding and independent lives,”
said Maria Eagle, the then minister for disabled people in the
forward to Removing Barriers to Achievement.
It would be hard to find a parent or teacher who did not share
her sentiments. But there are many who feel the needs of the most
vulnerable children are not being met by the inclusion agenda.
Key points of government strategy
The government’s Removing Barriers to Achievement
for special educational needs (SEN) includes the following main
- Better co-ordinated support for children with special needs
- More child care for children with SEN and disabilities.
- More SEN advice and support to early years settings.
- More children with SEN to attend mainstream schools.
- Practical tools to help schools improve access for disabled
- Inclusion Development Programme to support schools with
children they find most difficult to deal with. For example those
with autistic spectrum disorders.
- More resources to raise achievement of children with SEN.
- Ensure teacher training providers include SEN skills.
- Consult on changes to performance tables so schools get credit
for the achievements of pupils with SEN.
- Clarify role of special schools.
- Guidance on avoiding use of high cost residential special
- Fewer SEN statements. In time these will only be used for
children with severe and complex needs.
- Greater integration of education, health and social care to
meet the needs of children with SEN.