Chris Darlington: We are still challenged by the concept of embracing difference

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The Independent Online

In 2002, the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) revised its policy document on inclusion (first published in 1999) which identified inclusion as not just a simple concept restricted to issues of placement.

In 2002, the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) revised its policy document on inclusion (first published in 1999) which identified inclusion as not just a simple concept restricted to issues of placement. Its definition was broadened to encompass notions of educational access and recognise the importance of catering for diverse needs. Increasing mainstream access is an important goal. However, it will not develop spontaneously; it needs to be planned for and promoted. Moreover, NASEN's principles highlight the importance of meeting children's individual needs wherever they are. This will be achieved by working in a trusting partnership with pupils, their parents and all staff in schools.

There is a developing explicit agenda that all educational settings will embrace inclusion. It will not be an add-on or a voluntary option. It is expected that inclusive practice will permeate through the life and culture of every school. Self-evaluation in relation to inclusive practice should be integral to a school's improvement agenda.

In 1999 the revised National Curriculum rightly called for the provision of effective learning opportunities for all pupils. Requirements for teachers included: setting suitable learning challenges; responding to pupils' diverse learning needs; overcoming potential barriers to learning; and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils.

But some teachers still appear to be unaware of their responsibilities towards inclusive practice in the classroom. In 2000, Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, published "Evaluating Educational Inclusion", which stated that all schools had a responsibility to all pupils, but in particular to vulnerable groups who may not achieve as well as their peers. All Ofsted inspections were to ask the following questions: Do pupils get a fair deal? How well does the school recognise and overcome barriers to learning? Do the school's values embrace inclusion and does its practice promote it?

It also stated that, from the evidence gained from school inspections, "inclusive schools are effective schools" (see www.ofsted.gov.uk).

This year the Government published its strategy for special educational needs, "Removing Barriers to Achievement". It calls for: developing a new role for special schools to work in partnership with mainstream schools; increasing mainstream access for those parents who want it; improving and identifying the qualities associated with the best inclusive practice; increasing the access of services/ resources that support inclusion across all agencies; and the merging of specialist services into a unified, multi-disciplinary team.

The Government has taken up a most challenging, emotive and complex agenda whilst also identifying some strategies for developing more inclusive schools.

It was very interesting to note in the DfES's "Consultation on Performance Tables and Pupils with Special Educational Needs" , published in April, the statement: "We are attracted to the idea of including measures of inclusion in the performance tables and School Profiles." The rationale is that inclusive schools deserve to be recognised, and evaluating inclusion should become an integral part of school self-evaluation. This consultation document, downloadable from www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations, clearly identifies how inclusion policies contribute to wider society.

Our culture is often challenged by the concept of embracing that which is different, whether it be different cultures, ethnic groups or religions. Many educational practitioners have spent their careers working with children who have special educational needs and have put their energies into celebrating diversity and differences with the children they have taught.

NASEN will be responding to the DfES consultation paper on behalf of its members and would expect a significant response from across the profession.

The challenge for the Government, LEAs, schools and parents is to identify the wide benefits of inclusive practice. Does it make a difference and how do we know? Does it raise achievement in its widest social sense and how should we measure it? Every child should feel safe, have friends and feel valued, and have the highest attainable expectations set for them. Parents should feel confident that the school will welcome their children and celebrate their uniqueness. Staff should be professionally supported with training so that they are confident in meeting an increasingly diverse pupil population in a positive way.

Chris Darlington is President of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN). He is also headteacher of St Hugh's Special Secondary School in Scunthorpe

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