Well-publicised recent events have highlighted the challenges that Scottish teachers face in educating children with additional support needs (ASN).
The quest for equity and equality is firmly established within the national and international educational policy landscape. The concept of inclusion in education is gaining prominence and there is a growing awareness of its benefits for society and for learners. More than 26.6 per cent of pupils in Scottish schools have ASN and this disproportionately affects those from areas of multiple deprivation and lower income families.
In response, the Scottish Government advocates for an education system which is based on inclusive practices, one which welcomes diversity and enables pupils to reach their full potential.
Although the concept of inclusion is highly desirable as a philosophical ideal, inclusive education is a much-contested concept which can be problematic to put into practice. Central to the inclusion debate is the issue of mainstream or need for specialised schooling for children with ASN. This is a polarised argument which largely remains unresolved.
Most educationalists would agree that it is best to educate all pupils within a mainstream setting and this is reinforced in legislation and key policies which refer to a ‘presumption of mainstreaming’ for all, although these also state that children may be placed in specialist provisions if their presence in a mainstream class would be considered to be ‘detrimental’ to their own or the education of others.
In a paper that is still relevant today, British academic Professor Mel Ainscow explained in the 1990s that there are three levels of educational provision to achieve inclusion for pupils with ASN. These begin firstly with a full-time mainstream placement, secondly maintaining the pupil in mainstream with appropriate interventions, additional support and expertise, and finally a placement within a specialist provision.
Two Scottish academics, Professor Lori Florian and Dr Jennifer Spratt, more recently suggested that inclusive pedagogy is an approach that can help to reduce inequalities in education by enhancing opportunities for all pupils (including those with ASN) by improving the quality of mainstream teaching and learning and in reducing variability in teaching approaches and practice.
But when it comes to inclusive education, can theory really be put into practice?
Despite there being widespread support for inclusion, there are some concerns that true inclusion is difficult to achieve because mainstream teachers are not sufficiently well prepared or skilled enough to deliver inclusive education practices and to meet the growing needs of a wide range of learners.
‘Inclusive teachers’ are crucial because of the central role they play in promoting social justice and in reducing underachievement; however, many teachers may feel overwhelmed in the midst of competing pressures and daily struggle to adequately differentiate lessons for their students.
Teachers across Scotland report experiencing daily instances of violence and abuse, while others speak of the challenge of juggling multiple complexities in one class.
Calls to increase the level of staffing in schools – particularly specialist support teachers - have been the key ongoing concern in addressing the needs of ASN pupils, but the challenges of mainstreaming also need to be addressed in the bigger picture of the education sector in Scotland.
Above anything else, the Scottish Government and local authorities should be doing whatever it takes to improve teacher morale and retention across the country. Too many excellent teachers are leaving the profession because that their workloads are unsustainable, and it’s widely known that Scottish teachers feel a distinct lack of support. ASN is just one aspect of the pressures teachers face.
Teachers must also have access to the resources they need; having better tools on hand to deliver the curriculum is critical. These improvements must happen hand-in-hand with any drive to upskill teachers and achieve success in inclusive education. My key learning from years as a mainstream primary teacher and special school leader is that the formation of trusting relationships with ASN pupils is fundamental for effective behaviour management.
Although mainstreaming is always the ideal, there may always be pupils with ASN who are better suited to a specialist school environment. These are the students who, possibly through bad experiences, have essentially become ‘school-phobic’ and suit smaller environments. Moving to a specialist school also offers these pupils a chance for a fresh start.
On a personal level, I admire the Scottish Government’s stance on maintaining inclusion as a priority to fulfil the needs of pupils with ASN and welcome the raft of policies and legislation to progress this vision.
In an ideal world all children would sustain successful mainstream placements, however until we are ‘Getting it Right for Every Child’, there will always be a need for special schools and alternative provisions for children who require a different approach to mainstream education.
Jackie Blair is Director of Education at Spark of Genius, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition