Inclusive education has the magic touch

Human Rights: Transforming Services? was the title of the conference but it was the question mark at the end that caught my interest.

A big event staged by the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the Disability Rights Commission aimed to look at the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act 1998 as reflected in the policies and practices of four main services: health, education, social care and justice.

I presented a piece on the human rights of disabled children in the education system but, as I listened to the keynote speakers and looked at the illuminated power-point question mark, I began to think differently. Could human rights be delivered through statutory services or was the current form of services necessary only because our human rights were not upheld?

Mr Justice Munby, a senior family judge, reminded me of the shocking realisation I had a few months earlier, that the whole debate about human rights does not include the issue of the world’s resources. The inconvenient fact of the massive and growing economic inequality between people is not up for discussion:

All the human rights we have are subject to the availability of resources. I find it difficult to see how this could ever lead to meeting the human rights of poor people – the majority population.

I then began to think about whether “education” is a service at all and, if it is, who the “client” group is. A service is something you want which is helpful to you. But education in the UK is compulsory. If your children do not attend school the police knock at your door. This feels more like a duty than a service to me.

Children do not have the smallest say in this “service”. For them it is like forced unpaid labour in a place not of their choosing, at a pace set by others, with a curriculum drawn up and delivered by people who may or may not frighten them. Often they cannot even choose what they wear and they always have the threat of exclusion, more so if they are poor, black or disabled. So who is the service for? The government? Parents? Employers?

I once asked some lawyers to consider how disabled children could have at least the same rights as able-bodied children in school. Embarrassed, they said that wouldn’t be difficult because no child has absolute rights in the education system.

For my talk, I had gathered together some examples of inclusive education in which friendship between children, across barriers of class, race and ability were seen as fundamental to learning.

I quoted some children in one such school. They are aged about six and are talking about a boy who has no verbal communication and cannot move or sit up without assistance: “What we enjoy most at playtime is when we push William up the hill in his wheelchair and come down really fast – we run down all holding on because we must not let go or he will roll off and get hurt. We hold on really tight in case he gets frightened. We enjoy reading with William. We hold two books and he looks at the one he wants. We follow his eyes. He likes Kipper books…When he is out of his wheelchair he lies down to take part in activities and we lie down with him. The best thing about having William in the class is his hugging and giving big cuddles.”(1)

I noticed tears in the eyes of quite a few listeners. That magic place had been touched where we remember how simple our needs are and yet how difficult it is to meet them in a world confused by competition and greed.

It would be great to ask about the services people would create for themselves that would genuinely empower them and help them to feel they deserved and had the unconditional right to be treated well. I somehow feel they would look very different from the ones we now have.

(1) Snapshots of Possibility, Alliance for Inclusive Education, 2004

Micheline Mason is a writer and founder of the Alliance for Inclusive Education

“It would be great to ask about the services people would create for themselves. I somehow feel they would look very different from the ones we have”

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