The concept of inclusive education, where additional needs pupils learn as part of the main class rather than be taken away for special tuition, is a progressive and laudable policy, which helps counter the stigma associated with additional needs by normalising the educational experience. But it is a complicated process which needs to be finely balanced if it is to work. And if it doesn’t work, the policy can be heavily counter-productive.
If, for instance, only one teacher is available to deal with a disruptive situation caused by a lack of support available for an additional needs pupil, it is inevitable that other members of the class will not receive the teacher’s attention during the time it takes to resolve the situation, and learning time will be lost. Worse still, is the possibility that some youngsters respond to this situation by becoming disruptive themselves.
In response to EIS concerns over disruptive and aggressive behaviour in classrooms, the Scottish Government says that what is key is “meeting the individual needs of children and young people and ensuring that we get it right for every child”. Again, this sounds admirable, but does not address the dilemma of situations where attempting to meet an individual’s needs has a negative impact on the needs of the majority. If insufficient support is available, it is impossible to “get it right for every child”.
The policy of “mainstreaming” can work, but with a fall in the number of additional support needs teachers in Scotland – the numbers of ASN teachers have fallen in two thirds of Scottish local authorities in recent years - it stands an increasing chance of backfiring, and actually getting it wrong for every child in such a class.
And of course, if the policy does not work, the people who are being let down the most are vulnerable young people who have their education placed at the mercy of a system designed for them but not resourced well enough to succeed.
The policy of “mainstreaming” is not cheap, and requires significant extra resource if it is to be effective. If we want mainstreaming – and, with all things equal, we should indeed aspire to such inclusivity by keeping children in mainstream classes wherever possible – then we have to be prepared to fund it properly. The Scottish Government should not be simply stating that decisions over resourcing are a matter for local councils; if this is a principle that Scottish education wants to stand for, then the government has to take a stronger lead to ensure that it happens.
Giving vulnerable and consequently disadvantaged children a better chance would also fit the overall objective of closing the attainment gap. Can the Scottish Government afford not to get it right for every child?