Potential Energy (Part 3)

Following consideration of Theme 1: Vision and visibility, we turn our attention to Theme 2: Mainstreaming and inclusion. This obviously covers a lot of the same ground as the revised “Guidance on the presumption to provide education in a mainstreaming setting” on which I recently completed a ten-part series of blogs. You can read my conclusions on that guidance in Mainstreaming, I presume? (Part 10).

Thankfully, this review reaches many of the same conclusions about mainstreaming, and explicitly adopts many of the key concepts and principles from the guidance:

  • the review confirms that the “physical presence of a child” in a mainstream school alone does not constitute inclusion;
  • it adopts the four principles of inclusion from the guidance – present, participating, supported and achieving; and
  • it underlines the importance of inclusion “in the life of the school” which includes the playground, school trips, sporting events, social events and being “visible as part of the community”.

True to its child-centred beginning, the review states that “the true measure of inclusion” is “the child or young person’s own experience” of their education.  However, it notes that for “far too many” their current experience is one of isolation, loneliness, rejection and being disliked or uncared for. This simply highlights the importance of the observation of John Swinney, in the introduction to the mainstreaming guidance that “we must improve the experience of inclusion for all pupils if we are to deliver on the promise” of the legislative and policy framework.

Part of the problem, concludes the review, is that the focus is disproportionately placed on achievement.  If a child is doing okay academically, it may be assumed that the placement is “working”.  The review here takes the opportunity to reiterate the call from Theme 1 for “valued and alternative pathways” – specifically those which “support the child or young person’s experience of inclusion.

What does Mainstreaming mean, anyway?

Here, things start to get interesting.  Pausing first to note that the presumption of mainstreaming was not part of its remit, the review nonetheless spends a significant chunk looking at it anyway.

The concept of “mainstream” needs to be redefined and repositioned ..

Of course, “mainstream” doesn’t have a definition – at least not a legal definition.  The law on the presumption  of mainstreaming is therefore framed in the negative i.e. it is a duty to educate in a school that isn’t a special school.  I think that this is bound to have an impact – and probably not a positive one.

The review notes with approval “outstanding examples” where the mainstream school has changed to meet the needs of their pupils – rather than pupils with additional support needs being expected to fit into mainstream schools “as is”.  Three aspects are highlighted:

  1. schools that have “stretched and adapted their culture and environments”;
  2. provision of “responsive personalised adjustments for individual children and young people”; and
  3. the development of “nuture approaches” focussed on wellbeing and relationships, supporting growth and development.

Interestingly, all three are specifically noted to be of benefit to all pupils, not just those with additional support needs.  The review speaks favourably of “enhanced provision within mainstream” and also notes that rural schools often provide good examples of inclusion, as there is no real alternative to doing so.  It stops short of recommending any specific model of delivery, while noting significant pressures on the system, due to increasing levels and complexity of need.  It also notes “significant variation” in transition from primary to secondary school.

The review concludes that all of this “raises questions for all aspects of design and delivery in education” – including for Curriculum for Excellence.  Many teachers expressed concerns about their capacity and ability to effectively differentiate the curriculum (an essential element of any inclusive school system).  Again, the system’s obsession with exam results directly leads to a reduction in the flexibility and capacity to support additional support needs, both generally and in terms of access to alternative pathways.

Again, without making recommendations on specific models, the review notes a strong view in favour of “responsive child centred provision” which departs from the “hard edge separation” between “mainstream” and “specialist”.  It also notes a minority view that inclusion cannot be achieved while special schools are still a thing, in part because the structure reinforces the idea that additional support needs are not the responsibility of mainstream schools.  With the incidence of additional support needs approaching one-third of pupils, the persistence of that way of thinking is of particular concern.

And, as noted in the recent blog post by A24 Scotland on The GEM Report, the very existence of a separate system can entrench exclusion.  The UNESCO report even goes so far as to offer that “debating the benefits of inclusive education can be seen as tantamount to debating the benefits of the abolition of slavery, or indeed of apartheid.”

Processes for implementation of ASL

The review poses the question of whether the additional support for learning framework works to support inclusion (and mainstreaming). However, the review concludes that the key process “have become distorted to manage levels of need and demand” – which may feel for some like the long awaited recognition of a rather large elephant in a smallish room.

One of the consequence of prioritisation and rationing of resources, is that inevitably it results in competition between individual children and young people.

That is necessarily the case.  What is a parent to make of a case where their child is recommended for placement in a unit or special school by their educational psychologist, only to be told following a “resource group” meeting that they will instead be attending the local mainstream school as the unit is oversubscribed? Whatever your views on special schools, that is not an auspicious or positive start to anyone’s school journey.

The review finds that the factor most likely to lead to a “win” in this resources competition was having persistent and articulate parents.  By contrast, looked after children (lacking such support) “are routinely overlooked”.  Vocal parents will be pleased to note the review’s rejection of the idea that they are thereby being “unreasonable and demanding”.

The other factor identified by the review is the behaviour of the pupil – particularly when that behaviour impacts on them, other children and/or adults.  And by contrast, children whose needs do not “impact on others are overlooked”.

Recommendations

Recommendation 2.1

The Independent Review of Curriculum for Excellence must fully integrate the findings of this Review and focus on all children and young people, affording equity to those with additional support needs.

To fully achieve this, the Independent Review of Curriculum for Excellence must maintain a strong and central focus on the experience of all children, young people, parents and carers and the professionals in closest connection with them.

Recommendation 2.2

The work of the Scottish Education Council must be informed by the findings of this Review.

First of all, credit must be given to Angela Morgan for stepping beyond the strict boundaries of the review to address the concerns being raised by those contributing to the review, and for addressing and articulating some uncomfortable truths.

Given the serious nature of the concerns raised by the review, it is surprising that the recommendations are so few.  After all, the review has effectively identified significant system-wide issues which undermine several planks of educational policy including: public services which require to be more proactive, processes which have been “distorted” in order to ration resources, the prioritisation in practice of resources to middle class kids over looked after children, a skills / capacity deficit among teachers in differentiating the curriculum, and core concept of mainstreaming and achievement which require to be fundamentally redefined.

That is both quite the indictment of Scotland’s education system, and no easy task to fix – requiring, I would imagine, significant legislative, policy and systemic change and well as substantial resourcing.  One can only hope that the Independent Review of Curriculum for Excellence and the Scottish Education Council do indeed take the findings of this review seriously and act on them.

Image by Andre Zan from Pixabay

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