Excluding students with a disability

There have been a couple of recent articles in The Conversation that have cautioned us against excluding students on the basis of those students having a disability (here and here). On first sight, this seems to be an argument that does not need to be made. Who would want to exclude students due to their disabilities?

Yes, there may be practical issues. I remember teaching science in a school that installed a lift up to the science labs so that a disabled student could take part. We realised that this wasn’t sufficient because the desks in the labs were still too high to complete practical work from a wheelchair and we also needed to ensure adequate protection was in place – students normally stand-up to complete practical work in order to avoid spilling anything in their laps. Nevertheless, we were all keen to work through any issues.

When you click through to the references in the Conversation articles, something odd seems to happen. To support points made about ‘disabilities’, these pieces often link to research on students with ‘special educational needs’ (e.g. here). Although a disability may cause a special educational need, these are not necessarily the same thing. Up to 20% of students in the UK have been classified as having a special educational need (although I understand this figure is now falling). It beggars belief to suggest that 20% of students have a disability.

It is also true that behavioural and emotional problems are often classified as a special education need. I can see how a disability might be linked to a behavioural problem. I can also see how a failure to learn to read (which could be due to a disability or could plausibly be a failure of teaching) might lead to a student feeling disengaged with school and misbehaving. But these things are all slightly different, aren’t they? A physical disability is something that a person has little agency over. To draw an equivalence between a physical disability and a behaviour problem implies that a student with such a problem has no control over his or her behaviour.

This might be the case for a particular individual but I think that most people would be incredulous at the idea that poor behaviour is generally a manifestation of a disability over which the individual has no control. If you believed this to be true then the notion of any form of punishment would be absurd because it simply would not work. Perhaps this is the claim?

Yet there is evidence that behaviour systems that include negative consequences can be effective. And how would you work with a student that exhibited behaviour problems? You would probably talk through scenarios and the choices that can be made in those situations or you might try to reframe thinking with cognitive-behaviour-therapy-type approach. All of which would be pointless in the absence of any internal control over behaviour.

If behavioural problems are to be included in our definition of a disability then it’s hardly surprising that students with ‘disabilities’ are disproportionately excluded from school. After all, what are they being excluded for?

None of this tells us anything about the rights and wrongs of exclusions. This is actually a moral argument about weighing the competing rights of individuals. I don’t think anyone would argue that students benefit from being excluded and I certainly think that any school exclusions should be minimised. We should try everything else first. However, I also think that there comes a point when a child’s behaviour is so damaging to the learning of their peers – or perhaps even puts the safety of others students at risk – that it is justifiable to exclude those students from a lesson or even from a school.

If there are those who disagree with my moral choice here then they should make a moral argument rather than confuse us with slippery categories.

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12 Comments on “Excluding students with a disability”

  1. You’re right about the categories, Greg; people can be rather lax about what they mean when they use those labels.

    Also official definitions of disability and special educational needs are context-dependent. Most official definitions of disability and special educational needs are derived from the social model of disability. A child might have an *impairment* – a biological variation that impairs their day to day functioning. If reasonable adjustments to accommodate that impairment are not made by society, the impairment becomes a *disability*. If the impairment means that the child requires educational provision that isn’t generally available in most schools, then they have a *special educational need*. But the term ‘disability’ is often used when actually referring to an impairment, and obviously impairments can vary considerably.

    As far as the UK is concerned, there’s a fair amount of evidence that up to 20% of children will require special educational provision at some point in their school career. That figure doesn’t beggar belief of course; it’s close to what you’d expect to see in a normal distribution (16% of children more than one SD from the mean). You could also expect around 16% of children to have some kind of ‘impairment’. Whether it beggars belief that 20% of children could have a disability depends on your definition of ‘disability’.

    Inclusion is a different matter. There are obvious advantages to as many children as possible being educated in mainstream schools, but for some children this is not advantageous, and sometimes it’s seriously disadvantageous for their peers. I agree there’s a moral question about weighing up the competing rights of individuals, but there’s also a question about the evidence for what approach is likely to achieve the best outcomes for all concerned. I get the impression that ‘inclusion’ is for some an ideological imperative that doesn’t take that evidence into account. And for some schools, ‘exclusion’ is the only strategy resorted to for solving a problem.

    The school population is very varied. What we need is a range of learning environments that can accommodate that variation.

  2. debrakidd says:

    So you’re sympathetic to someone, say in a wheelchair, with a disability you can see. Or one with a condition that you don’t perceive to be their own “fault”. But not of one on the autistic spectrum, or who might have, foetal alcohol syndrome – a condition that is frequently not even properly diagnosed but which impacts hugely on a child’s ability to moderate their behaviour and manage their anger? There are deserving disabilities and undeserving ones? The only reason we have some vagueness in our definitions of cognitive impairments is that diagnosis is often difficult and resources scarce for properly identifying and treating it. Whereas if someone can’t walk, it’s pretty obvious what we need to do about it. This lack of compassion and understanding is a little like the Victorian attitude towards the deserving poor that we are seeing emerge in some of our free schools and academies. The brain is part of the body and a cognitive disability that manifests itself in behaviour is as much, and often more, debilitating than a physical condition.

  3. I didn’t note any lack of compassion when I read Greg’s piece.

  4. V. Nelson says:

    I’d be interested in everyone’s opinions about teaching young children in a language they do not understand. This inclusion is applauded, even required, in the States.

  5. Brian says:

    I would have thought that any issue that prevented learners from making progress in or out of school created a special educational need. Schools seem to me to be about taking large groups of kids and subjecting them to compulsory activities in order to acheieve some sort of educational objectives. This is simply an exercise in efficiency, I am not aware that there is evidence that groups of 30 is a magic educational number.

    Groups of 30 bring certain managerial challenges which teachers try to negotiate in all sorts of ways. The extent to which kids can benefit from a one size fits all (OSFA) approach (whether it be a traditional, progressive or somewhere in between) depends to a great extent on context. Dunkin and Biddle described the situation effectively in the old days.

    Some kids will do ok but others not so. The further we get from the core achievers the less effective our one size fits all will become. For me this is where the SEN tag is useful. It decribes the need for something other than OSFA.

    I can see the disability leading to SEN argument. Makes sense to me.

    My experieince tends to be that the more traditional teacher centered approaches are less able to cope easily with SEN. I believe the differentiation movement developed due to this issue, and inclusion simply exacerbated the problem.

    If one has a view that kids owe it to teachers to sit in silence, do the work they are allocated without complaint even when they find it unengaging and boring then I guess it is a good idea to dismiss SEN as an issue of misbehaviour. Those who are more learner centred try to adapt what they do to cater for differences.

    Clearly in some contexts some physical disabilities may lead to SEN. Clearly, cognitive impairments usually result in SEN. That is to say the OSFA approach will not work well.

    Whether schools have an obligation to educate all children in the same environment is a issue for debate. Whether society funds sufficiently the education of children who fall outside the OSFA catchment is for me an issue.

    Children with SEN often exhibit inappropriate (but often understandable) behaviour. This does not lead to the conclusion that SEN equates with bad behaviour so we seem to agree on this.

    It would be foolish to suggest that negative consequences never change bahaviour for the better, just as it would be daft to suggest that positive consequences never change behaviour for the better. Which consequence will have the most favourable impact in an individual case is perhaps the million dollar question.

    For me there is not choice other than to treat each and every child as an individual. For me therefore, child centred education is the answer to most of these issues/questions.

    This should not be child led or child controlled, it should alaws be teacher led and controlled but with the child’s needs at the heart of decision making. This might well lead to separate facilities for those with SEN and those without. This may lead to smaller classes for whom one size can actually fit all.

    This whole discussion seems to be a non issue. Kids must be excluded for their behaviour, whether this is caused by SEN or not if necessary.

    • Chester Draws says:

      For me there is not choice other than to treat each and every child as an individual. For me therefore, child centred education is the answer to most of these issues/questions.

      A monstrous, and incorrect, leap of logic. (We have no choice other than to treat every adult as an individual. Therefore person-centred, not dispassionate, law enforcement is the answer?)

      We can treat each individual as an individual in a teacher centred classroom too, you know. I don’t regard each of my students as indistinguishable.

  6. […] Excluding students with a disability → […]

  7. Beefo says:

    “A physical disability is something that a person has little agency over. To draw an equivalence between a physical disability and a behaviour problem implies that a student with such a problem has no control over his or her behaviour.”

    Was there a reason you chose to use the nuanced phrase “little agency” in the first sentence, and the less nuanced “no control” in the second?

  8. […] Ashman was subject to this half-term’s twitter storm yesterday when he eloquently explored the conflation of SEN with disability. You can most probably imagine the all too predictable response to his piece. A […]

  9. […] finally, Greg Ashman: Excluding students with a disability.  This also tackles the crucial subject of when we have to weigh up the needs of the many in a […]


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