Inclusion versus specialisation

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If you hang around in the education sections of social media for long enough, you are bound to encounter a collection of teachers, academics and parents who campaign vociferously for inclusive education, where students with speciality educational needs, disorders and disabilities are included in regular classrooms rather than being given specialist provision.

Such advocates have a lot of important, valid points to make. Unfortunately, these are often lost due to a tendency to speak in slogans such as ‘all means all’ and an intolerance of disagreement. If you challenge a point made by an inclusion advocate, you are unlikely to receive a reasoned response and likely to have various laws and regulations quoted back at you.

This latter point is important because inclusion advocates have made great gains in terms of regulation. As a new article in Education Next by Allison F. Gilmour, an assistant professor of special education at Temple University, explains, in the U.S. there is a regulatory presumption in favour of including students with special educational needs in regular classrooms.

Gilmour’s is an important article. It is long but worth reading in full because it demonstrates that the argument is far from clear cut. It hinges on three important points.

Firstly, inclusion advocates quote research to show that students in inclusive classrooms get better outcomes than those in specialist settings. However, this evidence does not come from randomised controlled trials but by comparisons between students who have been allocated to these settings by the current system. Given the system’s presumption towards inclusion, we can expect children who are nevertheless allocated to specialist settings to have more profound needs than those who are not and so this is the likely cause of any difference in outcomes.

Gilmour points to one study where, for mathematics, students where randomly allocated to either an inclusive classroom utilising ‘Universal Design for Learning‘ or specialist provision and notes that those students in specialist provision performed far better. However, I am sceptical of this study because the specialist provision represented an intervention whereas the inclusive classroom was business-as-usual and we invariably see a boost from an intervention in these circumstances.

Gilmour also makes a point that I have made in previous blogs on inclusion: the effects on other students are ignored. Researchers don’t tend to consider the impact of inclusive practices on peers and regulations don’t tend to require us to consider the impact.

I am sure that the impact is generally positive but I don’t think it can be positive in the cases where a student exhibits serous behavioural issues that are likely to stress peers and make them feel unsafe. Gilmour points to some of the relatively scarce evidence that confirms this point, evidence that is scarce because so few researchers are looking into it.

Which leads into the final point. We should not consider all needs, disorders and disabilities to be the same. Those that lead to children exhibiting challenging behaviours have a different impact than other types of need and we should be clear about this, rather than lumping these needs in together. A deaf child or a child with an intellectual disability will require a range of accommodations to enable them to participate in an inclusive classroom and teachers need training and support to be able to do this. However, these needs are quite different to those of a child with oppositional defiant disorder or a conduct disorder. Mantras such as ‘all means all’ gloss over this complexity and offer nothing to teachers who are trying to make inclusion work.


8 thoughts on “Inclusion versus specialisation

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    It’s difficult to generalise about special schools. I’ve only visited three, and one was dreadful and the other two (both in Gloucestershire) were exemplary. The latter were running our Wave 3 intervention, and their pupils were making almost as much progress as those receiving the same intervention in mainstream schools.

    However, I think your analysis misses two important points. The first being that most SEN pupils are merely victims of poor teaching. In schools with rigorous synthetic phonics programmes initiated in Reception year, they are very rare, certainly no more than one or two percent. Insofar as ODD and challenging behaviour are concerned, there is one old finding which the profession has never given the attention it deserves:

    “The present study was unsuccessful in attempting to correlate aggression with age, family size, or number of parents present in the home, rural versus urban environment, socio-economic status, minority group membership, religious preference, etc. Only reading failure was found to correlate with aggression in both groups of delinquent boys. It is possible that reading failure is the single most significant factor in those forms of delinquency which can be described as anti-socially aggressive. I am speaking of assault, arson, sadistic acts directed against peers and siblings, major vandalism, etc.” (Hogenson, 1974). A US Dept of Justice study found that “What brings about the delinquency is not the academic failure per se, but sustained frustration which results from continued failure to achieve selected academic goals” (Brunner, 1992).

    To this I would add that I’ve taught a lot of pupils with challenging behaviour, and whenever I had enough time to bring their literacy skills up to scratch, their behaviour ceased to be a problem.

    The second is that even without considering behaviour or poor literacy skills, inclusion decreases the time and attention that teachers have to devote to mainstream pupils, and too much special consideration for the included pupils can breed resentment and serve to isolate them socially from mainstream pupils.

    Against this we have to consider that society has become far more stratified in recent generations, with the ubermensch working in high-rise offices, living in gated communities and relying on technology rather than human servants. This is deeply unhealthy, as the bitterness of the Brexit/Remain division has revealed. This is why I’ve long been a grammar-school sceptic. I think the best solution is to have inclusion for all but STEM subjects and English. Another idea we mooted with our (unsuccessful) free school proposal was a house system where pupils of varying abilities and origins worked together in a daily ‘prep’ period. This said, there will always be a point at which pupils need special schools, and that will never be an easy matter to judge.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Could you provide some more links supporting the idea that reading difficulties primarily drive behavioral problems. A quick search doesn’t seem to back this up with issues around bidirectional influences and correlations with attention/self control difficulties (which likely also influence behavior).

      The statement about rigorous SSP leading to only 1- 2 % of students still struggling is a little unspecific. Is this all learning difficulties or just Dyslexia/reading? Could you also point me in the direction of some supporting evidence as this seems more impressive then what I had previously read about from interventions.

      The best I could find was file:///C:/Users/MPye/Downloads/dyslexia_intervention_research%20(1).pdf page 7 which said 1.5% to3£% were still below target levels. However the entire article summarized points with little context so I found it hard to evaluate.

      • Tom Burkard says:

        Your link didn’t connect, but then the same can be said about almost anything written about ‘dyslexia’. Rutter argued that “… the features said to characterize ‘dyslexia’ do not cluster together as they should if there were a single ‘dyslexic’ syndrome…” and Snowling demonstrated that dyslexic children’s psychometric profiles don’t remain stable over time. The British Psychological Society’s report “Dyslexia, Literacy and Psychological Assessment” stated that “…dyslexia has for many years been a short-hand for marked difficulty with the alphabetic script. As such, it has generated a substantial body of empirical research leading to theoretical debate about the sources and explanations of these difficulties. However, meaningful resolutions about conceptualisation and identification across all spheres of involvement have not been reached”.

        As to your specific questions: the first article I ever published (Burkard, T (Summer 1996) Phonological training in Reception year, British Journal of Curriculum and Assessment 6:3, pp 7-9, 25) cited the results of Woods Loke Primary School on the Suffolk Reading Test, which was adminstered at 6+ and 8+ in all Suffolk infant schools. At Woods Loke, only 1.8% of their pupils scored 85 on the London Reading Test, and they were on average 22 months ahead of norms on Young’s Parallel Spelling Test. Sadly, I never got around to publishing this. But at the same time, only 3% of their pupils were on the special needs register, and those were for statutory or medical reasons. Needless to say, Kobi Nazrul was a very happy school, and it would be very difficult for anyone in the SEN industry to argue that their intakes were magically exempt from all of the other behavioural and developmental problems they routinely cite in their IEPs (as they were then called).

      • Tom Burkard says:

        My comment had a large chunk taken out in the middle–the last bit refers to Kobi Narul Primary School; as it reads now, it magically shifts from Woods Loke.

  2. David says:

    Inclusion while ostensibly laudable has to be carefully managed. How does a teacher manage a child who’s favoured ‘communication’ is assaulting others, or (a case I’m aware of) including a child who defecates for attention in a regular class? Not good, of course, but doctrinaire inclusion cannot see this and the benefit for the normal (used intentionally and statistically) students is almost entirely negative, not to mention for the teacher who is not trained as either a nursing assistant or behavioural expert.

  3. As a mum to a child who had HFA and a few other disabilities, I can offer the answer: they need a teacher’s aid assigned to them, who stays with them all day and during meal breaks. At no time should a child with a neurological disability be left alone. For my son, they could only supply an aid for 0.4 of the time, and she was mostly used by the teacher for other jobs, and my son not failed at learning anything, he was also highly stressed. We homeschooled him from the age of 10 and he caught up within 6 months and have gone on to university. If he had stayed at school, he would have been placed in a sheltered workshop with a menial job and would have lacked quality of life. Not everyone can homeschool, and an aid who shadows and helps the child is the only way to help everyone concerned.

    • Michael Pye says:

      The research on TA’s by Blatchford doesn’t support a blanket solution like that. Support staff can cause negative effects, likely by replacing peer and teacher interaction. This is not a criticism of your child’s needs merely evidence that rolling it out across the board is likely to be expansive and reduce outcomes.

      I teach SEN to 16-19 year olds and strong support networks can usually be provided without specifically allocating staff to individual students. (With the odd exception and even then it is usually situation specific).

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