SEND and Social Justice

I was recently asked by @SENcollusion to share my thoughts on the following questions/themes for a chapter she’s writing for an upcoming book;  the Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies, edited by Katherine Runswick-Cole et al. Of course I was happy to oblige! I’m always happy to share my thoughts and concerns about the state of inclusion. The questions/themes posed, and my responses, are reproduced below. Thanks for thinking of me, @SENcollusion; I hope it was of some use 🙂

  • Why do SEND issues so rarely enter the mainstream education debate when so many pupils have identified SEND?
  • Commentary around SEND is usually narrative and rarely consists of political analysis of how these issues fit with the wider government agenda.
  • Disability rarely gets a mention in broader education policy, whereas race and gender tend to be included. Education secretaries and their shadows don’t seem to engage on the issue; why is disability sidelined and not mainstreamed?

For me, many of the barriers faced by those with disabilities – both in education and in society as a whole – stem from the same, chronically overlooked problem; the current educational inclusion paradigm is actually a form of internal segregation and does not represent social justice. I believe that the common artefacts of inclusion as we know it – TAs, withdrawal intervention, SENCo’s and SEN/inclusion departments, corridors, rooms etc. – all result in a segregation of space, service, expectation and experience. Ultimately, schools are designed to get the best out of and for their students; what does it mean for a child to sit even slightly outside of that design? How all of this came about seems obvious to me. The education system as we know it evolved without the need to consider the wide spectrum of abilities and disabilities we now have the opportunity to embrace. High infant mortality of babies born with additional needs, education being optional and elitist, and then the concept of the uneducable child… educational inclusion as we know it is a recent phenomenon; 1980’s+. Integration, as it was, and now ‘inclusion’, is actually a series of strategies, add-ons, annexes and afterthoughts that are in place to try and get SEND students into schools that were not designed for them. It is a step on the journey towards social justice for those with disabilities, that’s all. We seem to have hit a brick wall on our journey to achieve the real end result, though! It is this stagnation and failure to complete the journey that elicits many of the problems faced by children and adults with disabilities, and could begin to answer the questions you have raised. I will try to outline the main points, and links to your research, here:

  • Those with additional needs and/or disabilities are denied a high quality education. I recently read a statistic that only 6.6% of learning disabled adults are in employment, but 69% want to be. Anyone who thinks that only 6.6% of learning disabled adults are capable of working need to get out and meet a greater range of people. So what does this statistic mean? I’m sure that, if asked, more than 6.6% of schools would claim that their SEND provision is effective and successful, but clearly it is not preparing those young people to become successful adults. And how could it? If we value QTS why would it be acceptable for some students – our highest need students – to be taught by those without it? And TAs… unless the TAs going to be with them in the job interview, or on the station platform when the train’s cancelled, that can only ever be short term solution.
  • What does the current ‘internal-segregation-as-inclusion’ paradigm tell SEND students about themselves? What does it teach a child about their place in society if they always sit slightly outside of the systems? Especially if ‘their space’ is inferior in quality, such as learning spaces away from the knowledge hubs and unqualified, non-specialist staff. And especially if that segregation instils an ‘us and them’ or even culture of fear between the SEND and non-SEND students, such as inclusion areas (oh, the irony) and ‘safe spaces’ for vulnerable students.
  • By segregating students with additional needs and/or disabilities, what are we teaching our non-SEND students? What are we telling them is the right way to support diversity and vulnerability in our communities? That it is someone else’s problem? And, surely, we are denying them the opportunity to value and learn about diversity and what it can bring to the community. These students will go on to be the potential employers of ability diversity.

In combination, these unintentional by-products of our current approach to inclusion perpetuate the unequal society paradigm that exists way beyond childhood and education. We inadvertently teach our SEND students that they are ‘other’ and should expect less. What’s more, we deny them the tools to fight that situation. We teach our non-SEND students that disability is someone else’s problem, we deny them the opportunity to experience the joy of diversity (disability inequality is an injustice for all of us) and we make it look like this approach is a benevolence; a kindness… something that should make them feel good about themselves. Let me explain that last point a little more thoroughly…

I believe that a big contribution to our reluctance to move on from this step on the journey towards justice is that we have somehow persuaded ourselves that this approach is a good thing. Like having an inclusion department with a load of TAs, withdrawal interventions and escape from the mainstream is a benevolence. Like we are doing those with disabilities a favour by putting a ramp up to a side entrance so they can get in to our able spaces. It’s patronising. The school with the biggest SEND departments is the least inclusive, not most. The building with the most big yellow wheelchair silhouettes slapped all over everything should not be celebrated for all their high profile segregation. The most socially just space is the one with no inclusion or access strategies in place, but where people with all levels of physical and/or learning ability can access it anyway.

I should probably get back to the questions you actually asked.

Why does SEND have such a low profile in educational discourse, political debate and in the more general drive for a fairer, more just society? In my opinion, it is because we teach each upcoming generation – inadvertently – that segregation of SEND is not just acceptable but a cause for celebration and self-congratulation, and we deny our children the information and experiences that would equip them to fight this approach. Each generation become adults thinking about SEND issues as someone else’s problem, or (as a person with a disability), believing that they should be grateful for the add-ons and afterthoughts they get… and without the quality education that would facilitate change anyway.

Women and non-white ethnic groups have also been denied access to a proper education, have had their adversaries miseducated to their detriment, and have had their voices stifled, even criminalised, in their fight for justice, this is true. It cannot, though, be denied that a bigger proportion of the group that are our focus here have additional cognitive and communication challenges that further disadvantage them. In order for those with disabilities to move forward on their journey towards justice we will rely more heavily on changing the hearts and minds of the ‘able’ community; to be able to make a distinction between benevolent segregation with the label of inclusion and real equity and justice for everyone in society. The power to achieve this lies within education.

And I firmly believe that it can be done! I work in a mainstream secondary school in a challenging and diverse inner city area. We have no TAs, never withdraw from lessons, and have no SEND/inclusion department or area. Our SEND register and disadvantaged students match the progress of their peers in all subjects and in all year groups (we have y7-10 – start up free school – but have all assessments externally moderated). In addition, SEND and vulnerable students are proportionally represented in attendance, behaviour and rewards data. I’m not saying it’s easy, it is not! The challenges are myriad, not least the issue of SEND’s low profile at ITT. But also, it is not optional. Justice for vulnerable people in society is a right and responsibility for all of us.

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