The Inclusion Delusion

a.k.a. Why do we keep doing it if it doesn’t work?

delusion (noun): an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument

There are plenty of complaints being made about the state of SEND and inclusion in education and it is not my intention to outline them here (NB – I hear, and know of personally, plenty of positive stories too, but they are by no stretch the majority, probably not even 50/50).  But what if the issue is not how badly or well inclusion as we know it is being done, but the very existence of inclusion itself?  I’m not saying we throw the baby out with the bathwater here – where we are now is a point on a journey –  but it’s time to take the next steps and here’s why.

The thing we call inclusion is not effective.

  • Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.
    Labour Force Survey, April to June 2017, via
  • After housing costs, the proportion of working age disabled people living in poverty (28%) is higher than the proportion of working age non-disabled people (18%).
    HBAI 2015/16, via
  • Four years on from London 2012 [Paralympics], nearly half (43%) of the British public don’t know anyone who is disabled and the majority (67%) feel awkward around disability.
    Scope (2014) ‘Current Attitudes to Disabled People’ via
  • 2% of working age disabled people do not hold any formal qualification and only 6.5% of working age non-disabled people do not hold any formal qualification.
    Disability Facts and Figures from 2014 via
  • Over one quarter of disabled adults say that they do not frequently have choice and control over their daily lives.
    Disability Facts and Figures from 2014 via

Whichever way you look at it, adult outcomes for those with disabilities are pretty dire.  Actually, I do believe that education for children with disabilities has improved over time i.e. it’s better than it was historically (and, actually, some of the data specific to education does reflect those improvements) but still, the adult outcomes are dire.  Dire for both of the things we learn at school – the academic stuff, information and qualifications as well as what we learn about how to be part of a community and find our place in society… both of which add up to, among other things, employability.  Can these adult outcomes really be the result of only the aspects of inclusion that we all acknowledge are going wrong?  Or, is it time we start acknowledging that the aspects of inclusion that appear to be working well at school level do not lead to positive adult outcomes?  For me, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t.  We have to look at what teaching and learning looks like for the students who are ‘included’ in mainstream education.  If we put aside, for a moment, whether or not the systems we have designed and agreed constitute the right (mainstream) education for our children are the very best right they can be (I will leave the conversations about how frequently and how we should assess, feedback, behaviour manage, and design curricula, largely, to other bloggers), what we have in place is at least the enforced best-ish right that we have a the moment.  If we have an education system that, for the moment, has been put in place and enforced as right and ideal for the children and young people of our country, what does it mean – whether you agreed with it wholeheartedly or not – if any children and young people sit outside of that system?  What does it tell them about themselves? Their rights? Their place?  What does it tell everyone else about those students who sit slightly outside of the system?

We have, for example, agreed that the right people to teach are teachers – people with a certain level of a certain type of qualification, accountability and monitoring.  Why, then, would it be right for some children to be taught by teaching assistants?  (Disclaimer – I’m talking specifically about teaching and learning; teachers are not the only kind of adult a child might need in their lives).

We have agreed, also, on a curriculum to cover everything at a student needs to go to be a successful adult, and this is reinforced by measures such as EBacc and P8/A8… so why would it be okay for some children to be denied full access to what we’ve agreed is the ideal?  There’s a matter of principle here, but it isn’t to be insisting on subjecting vulnerable learners to a curriculum that wasn’t designed with them in mind, but maybe we should be making sure the ideal we have designed is broad and flexible to meet the needs of everyone whose needs need meeting.  The current attainment measures, Ofsted and League Tables force schools (kind of – it can be resisted, of course) not to do this and make it so that each school has little choice but to simply be a better or worse version of every other school; no true diversity or choice.

Maybe there isn’t a way to really separate teaching and learning from everything else you learn in school but, at least to some extent, the other side of the coin of education is what we learn about ourselves and our place and role in communities, society and ever shrinking world.   This aspect of our education and learning plays a huge role in shaping the society of tomorrow.  How can we expect our young people to go on to be fair and equitable, open-minded employers and colleagues when what we’ve shown them in their formative years is that some people sit outside of systems and that there’s something else in place, that someone else deals with, for them?  How can we expect our ‘included’ young people to go forth and take up their place in society if we have not equipped them with the knowledge and skills they need, or the understanding of their worth and place in society, that they deserve – one that is the same as that of their peers???  Scope’s ‘Enabling Work’ (2015) found that a ten percentage point rise in the employment rate amongst disabled adults would contribute an extra £12billion to the Exchequer by 2031.  We all benefit from a more inclusive society.

I am not, by the way, advocating an ‘inclusion under one roof at all costs’ approach, and nor am I admonishing the role of special schools; in fact, I think specials schools are one of the few examples of genuine diversity and potential quality choice we have in our education system and, additionally, the schools themselves are often great examples of how a wide variety of abilities and needs can learn together.  That might be another blog for another time.  A significant barrier to true inclusion (i.e. no inclusion) is the lack of diversity and choice parents have because of the nature of how schools are monitored and forced to compete on narrow measures of success.  There’s little point in schools all following the same formula, seeing the same problem and overcoming it with the same solution, but that is also another blog for another time.  My point is that sitting some children outside of the systems we have designed can only mean one or both of two things – either the systems we’ve designed are discriminatory OR we are accepting that not all children have an entitlement to the best education we can currently think of.

The thing we call inclusion is not inclusive.

I have to re-look up the definitions of the medical and social models of disability embarrassingly often in an attempt to reconcile them with my own experience and observations… and I still end up with more questions than answers.  This is my best understanding of the two models right now, though:

Medical Model  →
Deficits lie within individuals and the focus is on fixing those deficits (medicine, psychology etc.) or to institutionalise / segregate.

Social Model      →
Deficits lie within society and the focus is on fixing the deficits in society in order to make it more inclusive.

I’d be happy to be corrected or pointed in the direction of more thorough or accurate definitions, having a clearer understanding might clear up some of my questions too, but – for the time being  – these are the definitions I have in mind and these are the questions they raise for me.

Firstly, how far from the medical model has education actually traveled?  It seems to me that EHCPs, SEND Registers and the artifacts of ‘inclusion’ in general (TAs, SENCOs, inclusion departments and corridors) all place the deficit within the child by identifying their differences and additional needs and then looking to use a system of add-ons and exceptions to the existing system to accommodate and compensate.

Secondly, how much of an improvement is the social model anyway?  I mean, of course, it’s an improvement on the medical model… but how much of an improvement; surely this isn’t what we are aiming for?  Or maybe it’s just that we’ve misunderstood or cut short the progress of the social model? Whatever it is, it just doesn’t feel like enough.  What I mean is this; we identify the deficits in society and then put in disabled toilets that meet the needs of some but still not all, ramps that send the ‘included’ around to the back and through a side door, and we have schemes and initiatives to support those with disabilities into employment but fail to create an education system that prepares all students to be employed nor teaches all students to be inclusive employers and colleagues.  This isn’t really addressing the deficits in society. It’s papering over the cracks and accepting a two tier system.

Surely, the right thing to do is create systems that intrinsically work for everyone?  Not to stick with what we’ve got but find ways of making it work for those identified as having additional needs.   There are children in mainstream for whom it is absolutely right and there are children in special schools for whom it is absolutely right… but what about the children in special who feel, and whose parents feel, that they should have been able to be (or stay, usually) in mainstream?  And the children in mainstream who are identified as SEND and taught on a separate corridor by a separate team?  Not to mention all the children, identified as SEND or not, who are out of education or home schooled against their families and their own wishes?  And what of all the not identified as SEND who are coping, barely coping, or not coping in the school systems we have designed?  True social model would not only be accepting and identifying the deficits in our systems and addressing them in a way that penalises the system, not the individuals. Designing a functional system would need to be from the ground up; one that works for everyone and accepts them as unique and varied individuals, not flawed versions of an ideal.  For me, inclusion means being part of a community that truly works for you and values you and what you bring, interacts positively with the other communities around it,  and where each individual piece of the jigsaw is as crucial to the overall picture as the other pieces.

Which brings me to my third question about the social model – do our current systems (in education and society) play a part in creating the concept of disability?  Of course, some people have diagnoses and needs that are less commonplace but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  Dis-abled literally means to be prevented from being able to do something.  In a true social model, a truly inclusive society, no one would be prevented from doing something they want and need to do (a deceptively complex concept in itself – we all have things that we can’t do but what I mean is not being able to do the normal, everyday things we need to do to thrive in the community, infrastructure and society we live in) and we could all have our identities, including disabled identities, but no part of that should be hindering or negatively life impacting.  There are so many ingrained ideas and received wisdoms to overcome, for example, some people will still require carers but we can move away from understanding it as a carer / service user relationship and move towards requiring a carer as the purchase or entitlement to a service, through the tax and national insurance system, just like getting the bins collected or having a gardener or a cleaner.  If our education system had genuinely been designed to properly meet the needs of all children, and we didn’t require inclusion in the way we do now, then who would be disabled by that?  To be clear, this isn’t about erasing disabled identities or denying the existence of diversity or different; it’s about not allowing any off those things to negatively impact on a person’s life experience.

Ultimately, a school is the students.  All of the students.  Sometimes I think the whole concept of inclusion simply absolves teachers and schools of responsibility to some of their students.  Legitimises and promotes segregation, even.

This brings me to the final question about the social model – why don’t we move forward?

This is the aspect of inclusion that keeps me up at night.  We have had a fairly recent, so recent we are still dealing with the implications of it, overhaul of SEND and inclusion in education with the Children and Families Act (2014) and the New Code of Practice 0-25 (2014) being implemented.  What problems this solves and what new ones it has created is not what I want to talk about here but, I will say, that I don’t think that the language used in either of these documents prevents or hinders progress being made.  The question I’m asking is bigger than those two documents, bigger than education, and sits somewhere up there at the societal level – why do we keep doing it if it doesn’t work?

What we’ve actually achieved is a society that continues to not work for everyone but has a range of rules and restrictions, add-ons and afterthoughts, that maybe make it work for a few more than it would have, albeit often through segregated provision, and give the illusion of inclusion.  It allows establishments and authorities to tick the box of inclusion.  But it isn’t really inclusion.  True inclusion is no inclusion.  The revolution will not have disabled access, just access for all.

Maybe we don’t move forward because to the majority of us, who were denied access to the full, broad range of diversity through segregation in education and society in our own formative years, the current approach feels like enough.  And maybe we don’t move forward because the ground-up change that would be required to achieve it feels like too much.  Maybe the reality is that the society we are living in and the infrastructure we have in place just isn’t ready yet… but we are, of course, ready to start.

The structural change and societal shift needed, the increased enforcement and accountability, valuing of diversity, improvements in representation and opening of doors, is not going to happen overnight.  There’s no use throwing ourselves at a brick wall… but we can chip away at the bottom of it.  We are each only in charge of making good choices in our own lives, homes, classrooms, departments, schools, MATs, businesses, communities and authorities.  The more of us that do – the more of us that are chipping away at the wall – the better.

Eventually, that wall will fall.