“Schools for all – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences,
support learning, and respond to individual needs”
The Salamanca Statement
In 1994, not all that long after I started teaching, the UK was one of 92 governments and 25 international organisations to sign the Salamanca Statement. The Statement called for us to find ways to make the education system inclusive for all children – to work towards a situation where children with special educational needs had the same rights of access to mainstream schooling as their peers. It stated that “those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting those needs”. As part of this the Statement called for government to give “the highest policy and budgetary priority” towards helping schools to be inclusive. If you read the Statement, it is clear that the signatories knew inclusion was not going to be easy to achieve, and that it would need a lot of government support and input, but that nevertheless it was a worthwhile and valuable goal to work towards.
“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”
George Bernard Shaw
At the heart of effective classroom management are consistency, routines and an agreed set of rules. Children like to know what is coming – to know what behaviour is and is not okay in their classrooms and their school. It is important to tell children what is expected of them, because it is only fair, and also because it helps them feel safe and secure. When we have a common set of standards, this creates an environment in which learning can happen, and in which everyone is kept safe. However, this does not mean that all children can get to the same standards in exactly the same way. Nor does it mean that we can set any standards that we want to, regardless of their impact on the children. It is important for us to be reasonable, so that we do not inadvertently create barriers to learning and inclusion for children with particular needs. While consistency is vital, some children will find it much easier than others to ‘follow the rules’. Our duty as educators is to make “reasonable adjustments” to support the inclusion of children with SEND and this is where the concept of ‘flexible consistency’ can be very useful. It is possible to aim to reach the same standard for all children, and at the same time to accept that some children will need much more flexibility and support to get to the point where they can meet that standard.
“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life.
The only completely consistent people are dead.”
In recent years, “no excuses” behaviour policies have become more common within the UK education system. The concept seems to have originated in the US with the “broken windows” theory of criminology. This theory suggested that if you cracked down on any minor infringements, you would prevent major crimes from happening. The message has been translated into similar approaches in classrooms, where every small ‘infringement’ is picked up on and ‘dealt with’, by applying some kind of punitive consequences. The idea is closely intertwined with the “zero tolerance” methods that are becoming more of a feature in US (and some UK) schools. Superficially, these ideas seem extremely attractive. If being consistent about the rules is important, and if being picky about the rules you create is useful, then surely the more consistent and picky you can be about the rules, the better? But this is where the fault line between consistency and inclusion lies, and where potential barriers to inclusion can very easily (and inadvertently) be erected. If your aim is for ‘the very highest standards’ of behaviour, some children are inevitably going to struggle more than others to meet them. Depending on the level of expectations you decide to set, you may be picking a fight that only some children can win.
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
Imagine a four year old, bursting with physical energy and the childlike instinct to explore her environment. When you ask her to sit still on the carpet, she wriggles, because actually she is just desperate to be up and at it, not sitting there listening attentively to her teacher. Part of our job as teachers, then, is to help her learn to pay attention when she needs to, to focus on learning, to learn how not to disrupt or distract the other children. We are not only teaching her the curriculum, we are also helping her learn how to behave. We might decide to create a rule about sitting still, because we believe that this rule will help all our children to learn better. But at the same time we need to be reasonable with the rules that we set. If we ask a class of small children to sit still on the carpet for twenty minutes, with their hands folded in their laps, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. This is not about having low expectations of children, it is about accepting the reality of how small human beings operate. If we make our rule too unyielding, too difficult for people to follow, then we create an invisible wall that is a barrier against the possibility of inclusion. It is all very well to talk of “rigour” and “raising the bar” and the “soft bigotry of low expectations” but we should be careful not to build walls that would be better replaced with hedges.
“The highest result of education is tolerance.”
One of the biggest tensions around inclusion for teachers is that feeling of wanting to be equitable to all your students, rather than just to some of them. How do you ‘include’ a child whose behaviour makes it really difficult for the rest of the class to learn, or who makes others unsafe? How is it fair for you to give more rewards to the most difficult children, and less rewards to those who always behave well? At what point does your tolerance of difficult behaviour in the name of inclusion become too much of a negative for everyone else? I’ve had some very interesting conversations with my own (thankfully well behaved) children about these questions. What’s probably most surprising to me is how tolerant children are of difference, and of the need for their teachers to behave with flexibility and responsiveness as well as consistency. This is a really useful conversation to have with our kids – why might it be harder for some of us to ‘behave well’ than others? Why is it so important for us to learn how to help others behave well, and to be tolerant of differing needs? How can their behaviour help us move towards a more inclusive world?
“You cannot solve our problems with the same thinking
we used when we created them.”
If we are truly going to embrace the concept of inclusion, then we need two key things. Firstly, we need the government to support schools properly, to fund them in a way that allows them to deal with these complex issues without unintentionally excluding or discriminating against any of their children. There is nothing simple or easy about making inclusion happen. But secondly, we need to look at ourselves and ask ourselves how willing we are to change the way we think on this subject. Are we just paying lip service to the idea of inclusion, or are we actually working to make it happen? Do we isolate the children with most difficulties from our classrooms, in the name of consistency and learning to conform, or are we going to make a go of inclusion by changing the way that our system works? When we talk about ‘high expectations’ do we run the risk of pushing out those children who are most difficult to support? These are really tricky questions, and to imagine that there is a simple answer to them is a failure in which we are probably all complicit.
“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations,
the relations within which these individuals stand.”
I don’t want to talk about individual cases, because to do so would be to break the confidentiality that we all hold with the families who choose to use our provision. However, I will say that my proudest moments as an educator have been in helping make it possible for children with complex needs to attend our preschool. Rather than seeing these situations as a problem to be solved, we have tried to see them as an opportunity to be embraced. How could we adapt our setting and our approaches to break down any barriers that might exist? How could we make it possible for any family who wanted to join us to be included in our provision? How could we (for want of a better word) be more inclusive? Clearly it can be far more difficult for larger settings than ours to achieve this, and particularly for schools and colleges when they are under so much pressure to achieve results. But I do believe that this is about a frame of mind, and a willingness to be adaptable, rather than about adopting an approach that refuses to bend and which sees flexibility as a fault rather than as a benefit.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
The debate about the balance between inclusion and meeting everyone’s needs is further complicated by the fact that sometimes parents or carers feel that the ‘best’ setting for their child is not going to be a mainstream one. Until we reach a time when children with special educational needs and disabilities are properly included in mainstream schools (if this is actually possible) then parents of children with SEND quite rightly feel that they need to put the needs of their children first. We need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about whether it is possible to include all children in mainstream settings, and if not, which children we feel we might not be able to include, and much more crucially, why. This is a whole other discussion, and if you are interested in reading and thinking more about this, then do read Nancy Gedge’s excellent blogs on the subject. It is brilliant to see Nancy and many other parents of children with SEND advocating so strongly for their children. However, it is also deeply frustrating to see the DfE marginalising children with SEND in announcement after announcement, and publication after publication.
“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”
Rita May Brown
Perhaps my biggest concern about the debate around inclusion and behaviour is the way that conformity is currently being framed as a virtue. While it is important for children to learn how to go along with social norms, and to regulate their behaviour, the idea that we should teach children to conform without question is a dangerous path to tread. In the ‘good old days’, children were expected to be seen and not heard. We used to beat children with a stick if they refused to conform to what the adults wanted in school. The change in attitudes, and in the law, around the rights of children has made life a lot more difficult for educators in terms of handling their behaviour. But if we are going to exclude children from the mainstream classroom because of their refusal to conform, we need to be damn sure that what we ask of them is respectful, achievable and realistic. A great rule of thumb is: would it be reasonable for me to ask this of adults, who have already (in theory) learned how to behave? A teacher I once met, who worked in a special school, said something to me that goes to the heart of any discussion about inclusion. Whenever I listen to the points made on both sides of the debate, I am minded of what she asked. “If we can’t include them when they’re children, then when are we going to include them?” And I wonder how I would feel about the answer to this question, if it was my child you were going to exclude.