The issue of inclusive education is a very emotive one. It is multi-faceted, and there is much debate around what inclusive education implies and entails. This is the first article in a series of articles which will explore the issues in depth. We should perhaps start by questioning what it is that we mean by ‘inclusive education’.
Do we mean that all children should receive the same curriculum? Do we mean that all children should be ‘diagnosis-free’? Do we mean that all children should be participating in their school- and community-environments to an equal degree? And do we mean that all children should be educated in the same setting? These are fundamental questions that must be addressed if we are to progress in this important debate. In the majority of cases the answer must surely be yes. However, we may actually be mis-serving a significant minority of our children and their families if we insist that the answer must be yes in every single instance.
The Salamanca Statement by UNESCo (1994) is widely regarded as the most significant international document ever to appear in the field of special education. It argues that regular classrooms with an inclusive orientation are indeed the most effective means to generating an inclusive society and education for all. ‘Such schools’, it suggests, ‘provide an effective education for the majority of children’. This acknowledgement is echoed in UK government legislation where most national guidance on inclusive education in connection with the rights of individual children categorised as having special educational needs recommends they be educated in mainstream schools whenever possible – again acknowledging that there are circumstances where this is either not possible or not desirable.
It may be that there are a significant minority of pupils for whom regular school placements are not tenable. Does this need to mean that these children cannot be fully included members of the education system and of society? No it doesn’t. It simply means that their individual needs are such that they require specialist provision in a tailored environment – a special school – where their medical needs and physical difficulties can be matched by the necessary infrastructure. Within such an environment, children can still be included at the curriculum level – they can still receive the national curriculum as all other children do. They can still be fully participative members of both their school community and their wider social community. If all other aspects can be kept equal – the only difference is the roof under which they are educated. And is it actually not more inclusive to acknowledge this diversity – this difference – and to provide for it in whatever form best suits that individual’s personal circumstances, rather than insisting that to be ‘included’ they must receive their education under the same roof as all other children?