The limits of inclusion

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With the growing government emphasis on inclusion, the role of special schools has become marginalised in education policy. Yet for many children, inclusion in the mainstream is a route to failure. Howard Sharron met a head teacher of a special school, who has asked to remain anonymous, to discuss three children who failed to make it in the mainstream.

The ‘Window Smasher’

John was referred to my school as a violent child with unmanageable temper tantrums who was on the verge of permanent exclusion from his mainstream middle school. On investigation, it transpired that he had a very difficult home life that was being exacerbated by the attitude of his school.

John was eleven and lived with his mother and stepfather in deprived, really squalid conditions in the Midlands. His parents were both from traveller backgrounds. John was rejected totally by his biological father who had left the family home, but his mother remained very supportive. However, she was badly abused by her new partner, John’s stepfather.

John was ‘emotionally delicate’. The slightest upset would tip him over the edge and he would go from 0-10 in extreme behaviour in seconds. He would drop kick windows, throw rocks and bricks at people and scream and shout.

When I first met him, he wasn’t coping in his mainstream middle school of 500 pupils. His family situation was in crisis because of his behaviour. They were also extremely poor. John’s mother couldn’t work because she was constantly being called to take him away from school - he was very clingy. It was putting pressure on the mother’s fragile relationship and she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

One of the reasons John was so clingy was because he had seen his mother being beaten up. He was reluctant to leave her side because he thought he could protect her in some way. In fact, he was just aggravating his mother’s desperate situation.

 John found the demands of the school too much… he couldn’t cope with the demands of the classes (he is dyslexic) or with the school routine. It was a very busy school. And in some ways, the school was exacerbating the situation by being inflexible.

So the mother was dragging the child to school. She would arrive with him screaming and shouting, drop kicking doors and being abusive. He would be turned around at the door and sent back home by the head.

The mother was threatening to put the boy into care and the family was in danger of collapse.

As far as the school was concerned, the impact on the family of excluding the child everyday was not important. Their main priority was ensuring the rest of the pupils were not disturbed by John’s behaviour.

John, however, had learned that by kicking off he could get what he wanted - to be sent home.

Alarm bells began ringing in the LEA. The mainstream head teacher was threatening permanent exclusion, and the family was about to disintegrate. But there was no statement on the child.

I went to the school to see what was happening. The head and the senco, to their credit, had put in a lot of strategies. But they were designed to help John cope when he was struggling with his academic work, not to cope with his resistant behaviour.
I spoke to the head and did a bit of tracking in school. It turned out that John found the transition from the chaotic routine of home difficult. He would often arrive having slept badly and without breakfast. This meant he found the strict regime of school too hard to take. In fact, he found it terrifying.

In addition, in the playground there were far too many children for John, who was very withdrawn, to cope with. He was always having fights - often for failing to interact with the other children on their terms.

A teacher suggested that he might do better if the school designated an ‘alternative playground’ – a 20 square-foot plot for children who find normal interaction difficult. A safe space like that could act as a ‘re-groupment zone’ - where the staff could quietly prepare John to make the next effort at coping with classes.
But the head teacher said he needed the space for the ‘staff garden’.

I told the head that he should start a positive reward system for John’s behaviour. He also rejected this idea - he said he couldn’t do it for one child as it was unfair on the others.

It was clear that the head wanted the child out.

My view of John? I thought he was not really a difficult child. I had no qualms accepting him into my school – even though it is not a specialised Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) school.

Meeting John

I went to John’s house and introduced myself as the head teacher of his new school. I said that I accepted that he’d had a bad experience, but that it was time for a fresh start.

I explained that kindness and warmth is the key rule in my school - a very different ethos from the achievement ethos of his last school. I also set up a reward system for him, loading him with rewards for coming to school. There were personal rewards, lots of ‘well dones’ and hand shaking. John had never had this type of reinforcement or affirmation before – and it was now offered at every sign of a good attitude.
I made lots of calls home in front of him to his mother, saying how well he was doing. They were very different call to the calls she got from the previous head, which had strained their relationship to breaking point.

Within a week, John had one hundred per cent attendance - which has been maintained in the two years since. He’s never been ill. His mother has recovered her day and is working. Their financial situation has eased and John’s stepfather has left the family.

John is now settled and happy. We hope to negotiate his re-entry into high school when he is 14.

The key with John was to build up his emotional resilience. As far as my staff are concerned, the mistakes he makes are learning experiences and shouldn’t be punished with exclusion.

As a result, John is starting to understand that his actions have consequences. He has a personal education plan and an individual behaviour plan. Our staff share tactics to maintain his positive attitude – like using ‘punctuations’ (time outs) and exercise during lessons. Some teachers let him go and kick a tree for a bit, then have a quiet discussion with him. They also make sure to brief new teachers on his problems and his dyselxia.

Given his current progress, I think John will have no trouble getting qualifications and a job. But I don’t see the point of trying to force John back into a mainstream school - unless I was convinced he’d thrive there. We will keep John in our special school and give him a vocational education route.

‘The Gangsta’

Ali, 14, was an Asian lad. He was referred to my school as an exceptionally dangerous child with a formal assessment of ‘autistic tendencies’. Both turned out to be untrue.

He had been fostered into a home in London, a long way from his real home in the Midlands, after violence in his family. Ali’s siblings were put into different foster homes. Ali wanted to get back to his hometown to be with his elder brother, who was encouraging him and his younger brothers and sisters to rebel against their foster placements so they could return.

Ali was attending a special school for autistic pupils. But he also attended a local high school for a day a week on an inclusion package - where he was doing surprisingly well.

When Ali was removed from his foster home, the special school staff were terrified of him. They excluded him, saying he was a ‘gangster’. They told the Independent Review Officer for Looked after Children that Ali was: “Not safe to be in any school in the country!”

When Ali came to my school, his referral papers described him as ‘Autistic, Severe’. So he was placed in the autistic unit of our school.

But the minute I saw him, I knew the autistic label was nonsense. Ali’s last school had an autism specialism - and I think he was diagnosed to raise funding.

The officer in charge of the children’s home who brought him to our school was surprised at the warm reception we gave Ali. Given the child’s record and reputation, he expected us to be hostile. This is what Ali expected, and wanted.

Ali said: “I’m a gangsta in London and ah gonna be one in the Midland [sic]!” He was even wearing Ali G gold chains and swaggering. But every time Ali tried to use intimidation, he was wrong footed by the warmth of the greeting we gave him.

We told him that he wasn’t a gangsta. And at the end of his first interview, I also told him that he wasn’t autistic - and that it was my intention to get that label removed. He was delighted.

Ali has been to school every day since. He hands over his cigarettes and mobile every day. He’s a lovely lad with quite a bit of charisma. He’s rewarded heavily within the system for attendance and conforming to expectations.

His progress in emotional stability and academic prowess was so superb that my staff thought he should go back to mainstream school and go back to his parents. We started to set up an inclusion place near to where he would live with his parents.

The mainstream school, however, was not at all receptive. In fact, they created obstacles. The senco was cold and unreceptive. He refused to shake Ali’s hand. He even asked if he was EBD in front of him - as if he weren’t there. I walked straight out with Ali and made a formal complaint to the head teacher.

The next negotiations, with the head teacher, uncovered that the school was a National Challenge school and didn’t want to pick up a child functioning below the level of his peer group. The school did agree to take Ali on full time – but only if he was kept on the special school roll so he wouldn’t affect the school’s results.

In the end, Ali didn’t take up the offer. The violence was continuing at home, so he wanted to stay at the children’s home and stay at our school. He is still here. He will do a three days examination route with two days vocational route into FE College and work experience. We expect him to do well.

Although the problems we had with his inclusion package were extreme, they were by no means unusual. Mainstream schools put up all sorts of barriers to accepting children with problems. This case was just more cut-and-dry than most.

The ‘Stabber’

Roger, 14, was an autistic lad weighing 16 stones. He was referred to my school after he (allegedly) stabbed a member of staff in his mainstream school. He had been attending a Learning Rescue Centre, but following a mainstream timetable. Roger was very articulate and very bright. But he was also very immature and lacked empathy.

Upon investigation at the LEA and at school, we discovered that he was inappropriately treated by staff and repeatedly bullied by a couple of thugs. On one occasion, he had clearly had enough and threatened to stab them with a screwdriver.
This caused a disturbance in the corridor, and a senior member of staff attended the incident. He sent the two bullies away and condemned Roger as the instigator publicly. So the child hit him. There is some conflict over whether the screwdriver was involved at this point.

Roger was permanently excluded. Because of his reputation as a stabber, he was not admitted anywhere else. The council was being sued for not providing his education.

I went to see him and admitted him to my school. He was disturbed by the incident. It took us a long time to regain his trust. As is often the case with these kids, the mainstream school had excluded the victim and exonerated the tormentors. Fortunately for Roger, this was recognised by staff at the LEA - otherwise the outcome could have been a lot worse.

Roger attends the autistic unit at our school and travels to school in the same car as his friend ‘the gangsta’. He is due to leave at sixteen - but this is a big worry to us. There is no way he is mature enough to survive in FE without special needs provision.
Fortunately, there is a special school down the road that can take children until they are 19. But they will only take Roger if he improves his social skills. We are working hard to get him ready.

The time Roger spent in mainstream school was wasted. He was persistently bullied and was very unhappy. His social skills didn’t develop at all as a result.

Mainstreaming Roger was always nonsense. The staff didn’t have the skills or the specialist knowledge to understand or help him

The future

Special schools are more valued in my authority than in most. There is no national special school strategy and very little leadership on special education. We are constantly left off circulation lists for primary and secondary curriculum training days. Likewise, mainstream schools make very little use of our expertise.

The overwhelming ideological drive for inclusion is lessening now, thankfully. But it has already been damaging to both special children and mainstream pupils. I have been offered money by the authority in the past to push the mainstream agenda. But frankly, I am not interested in government targets. I am only interested in inclusion if it is in the child’s best interests. For us, the key thing is inclusion into society, not inclusion into mainstream school for it’s own sake.

At the moment, I would say we are not working in tandem with mainstream schools. We are picking up their messes and failures. I would also say that special schools are now applying ‘personalised education’ and the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda much more effectively than mainstream schools. They are concentrated on the curriculum outcomes, and we are concentrated on individual children - it’s a very different approach.

Mainstream now has a lot to learn from special schools. Special schools are beginning to resume the leadership they had in the seventies.

Howard Sharron is the editor of Every Child Journal. Before starting his publishing company, Imaginative Minds ltd, he wrote for the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the New Society.

If you have a story about an inclusion strategy that has worked - or failed - we would love to hear from you. Please contact the editor, Howard Sharron, at




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