“Inclusion” is something that it is easy to be in favour of. However, inclusion rhetoric often conflates very different kinds of issues, ignores social consequences in order to focus on the individual and, at worst, acts as a front for a dumbed-down pedagogy that works against the interests of the working class.
I secured my first teaching position at a time when children with physical disabilities were starting to be encouraged to attend mainstream schools. My school admitted its first child who used a wheelchair. The science labs were on the first and second floor of the building and so a lift was installed. All of this was perfectly reasonable and an example of how to include children with different needs.
However, imagine that a child is particularly badly behaved. Perhaps she comes from a difficult background or perhaps she has psychopathic personality traits that mean that she lacks empathy. Perhaps the former caused the latter. Suppose we then decide to give this child a label for her poor behaviour. Let’s call it ‘antisocial behaviour disorder’. Including this child is now a quite different prospect to including the child with the wheelchair.
I moved on from my first school when I was still quite a young teacher. My second school was in a more deprived area. I remember teaching science to Year 10 one Wednesday afternoon. A boy – let’s call him “Joe” – was misbehaving. He kept shouting out swear-words whilst I was trying to address the class. I had placed him near the front and he repeatedly turned around, saying things to the other students that I couldn’t quite hear but, from their reactions, I could tell were quite insulting.
We had an ‘on call’ system where, in an emergency, a senior member of staff was available to come to a class. I called for help and an Assistant Head turned up. He took Joe outside. I expected him to take Joe away but, after a couple of minutes, the Assistant Head opened the classroom door and Joe came back in. “I have a good relationship with Joe,” He explained to me, “he’s promised to behave now.” And the Assistant Head left. Joe smiled at me and then continued to behave as he had done previously.
Joe should have been excluded from the rest of that lesson. Indeed, when I became an Assistant Head myself, that is what I would do. Once, a child would not leave the room, I noticed an empty classroom along the corridor and so I moved the rest of the class. I then phoned the student’s parents and asked them to come and pick him up.
If I were to tell this story to a professional who is used to dealing with children’s issues on a one-to-one basis then I might get the following response: How is excluding Joe from the lesson going to teach him anything about how he should behave? What is he going to learn from that?
This is looking at the issue in quite the wrong way. Whether Joe learns something or not, the exclusion is for the benefit of the other members of the class. That Wednesday afternoon, Joe’s classmates did not get a science lesson. And that’s not on.
A similar argument can be made about sanctions such as detentions. What did anyone ever learn by being in detention? I don’t know, but at least it points out to the rest of the school population that there are boundaries and there are consequences for crossing those boundaries. Despite popular perceptions, students generally know right from wrong and they have an acute sense of justice. They expect a school to deal with the bad behaviour of others, particularly if it has an impact upon them. They will lose respect for an institution that appears not to act.
Certainly, society at large has sanctions in place for crossing boundaries, ranging all the way from speeding to murder. We don’t do students any favours at all by preparing them for a different kind of society to the one that actually exists.
I was listening to a segment of BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. Someone from the ‘Give Racism the Red Card’ organisation was speaking following a racist attack in an English school. She simply could not bring herself to condemn students who racially abuse teachers. Instead, she wanted to focus on the way that David Cameron had described migrants in Calais as a ‘swarm’, implying that this was a cause of students’ racism. She also trotted-out constructivist platitudes – it’s not enough to simply tell children that racism is wrong, they need to construct that understanding for themselves. I am sorry, but racism is plainly wrong. I am quite prepared to tell any student at some length exactly why it is so wrong and why it has been such an evil and malign influence throughout our history. And then they can write me an essay on it.
Failing the working class
Of course, there is another answer to the Joe situation. You will have noticed that the Assistant Head subtly shifted a little blame onto me by implying that my relationship with Joe was not as good as his. Blaming teachers in these sorts of situation is quite common.
For instance, you might suggest that my lesson was not engaging enough for Joe. Perhaps I hadn’t planned it with his needs in mind. Maybe I needed to use principles of universal design to ensure that everyone could access the lesson. Perhaps Joe’s behaviour was a consequence of the fact that he could not access the lesson in the way I had presented it. I could have been guilty of micro-exclusion.
Advocates of this sort of thinking will suggest that lessons need to be adapted to the individual needs of the students. Although learning styles might not exist, it is certainly true that students will express a preference for one activity over another. Indeed, I can think of many students who would prefer to be learning football rather than algebra. Allowing children such choices has been tried in many progressive schools in the past and has not been hugely successful. Robert Peal chronicles the approach in his book.
However, most schools would not go this far. They would still have traditional subject disciplines but would perhaps try to allow student choice and differentiation within that. Does a particular student like drawing? Well, perhaps we can get him to work on a poster instead of listening to the teacher. Let’s give the other students options too. This strategy works to manage behaviour. I’ve tried it in the past.
The problem here is that we dumb-down the curriculum by doing this. Given the choice between a bowl of ice-cream and a plate of veggies, it is a strong-willed child who chooses the veggies. And so children in tough, working class schools get this adapted, self-directed colouring-in curriculum while the children of elites attend independent schools and all learn algebra and history, properly. Algebra and history are examples of the kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ that Michael Young talks about; the kind of knowledge that provides access to the elite professions. And so this kind of approach entrenches class division and privilege.
Thankfully, schools are emerging that take a more enlightened approach to educating the disadvantaged. Expect a lot of inclusion rhetoric to be fired in their direction.