THE SECRET TEACHER GOT IT WRONG: A RESPONSE TO “I AM ALL FOR INCLUSION IN PRINCIPLE, BUT IT DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK”

By Cátia Malaquias 

Twitter @CatiaMalaquias  

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This is a response to the article published on 23 May 2015 by The Guardian: “Secret teacher: I am all for inclusion in principle, but it doesn’t always work“.

*First published by GLOBI – http://www.globi-observatory.org/the-secret-teacher-got-it-wrong-a-response-to-i-am-all-for-inclusion-in-principle-but-it-doesnt-always-work/

What is “inclusive education”? Many, like the Secret Teacher’s school, profess to strive for it. Many, like the Secret Teacher’s school, profess to practice it. But the practical reality is that too often, inferior formulations are wrongly labelled “inclusion” and sold to students with disability, to their parents and to their teachers as meeting or even exceeding the mark – many drink it (or are forced to drink it) none the wiser as to its quality or limitations.

In the case of the recent article from Secret Teacher, not only was an inferior formulation served up, but in a glass that they themselves seem to see as half-empty.

As the parent of a child with disability, there were several aspects of this article that I found troubling; starting from the beginning with the title “I’m all for inclusion in principle”. To be honest, I‘m not convinced.

If, as the opening paragraph of the article recounts, a parent can say “in confidence” to a teacher that they will remove their child from the school if another child with disability is not first removed, it’s fair to speculate as to whether that parent, to so confide, perceived the teacher as being “all for inclusion” or even “in principle”.

What is also interesting is the Secret Teacher’s lack of positivity about “inclusive education” beyond their bald assertions of being supportive – not even an acknowledgment that one of the most widely recognised benefits of inclusive education for all children is the social-emotional development that flows from the opportunity to learn to process individual differences at an early age. Rather, the Secret Teacher takes the opposite slant in questioning whether primary school children have the capacity to learn to deal with and “process” another’s disability or “difference” – whether in appearance, function or behaviour – beyond developing long-term aversion to disability. This rings to me of a rather closed mindset straining to see negativity in the concept of inclusion.

Children develop skills for life at school – beyond their family life, it is their main developmental path to adulthood. In regular schools that are truly representative and inclusive of the range of human diversity in their communities, children are provided with the greatest opportunity to develop empathy, social leadership and other qualities, which, while not “academic”, are very valuable in fabricating and maintaining the health of their own future relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and society.

In regular schools that are truly representative and inclusive of the range of human diversity in their communities, children are provided with the greatest opportunity to develop empathy, social leadership and other qualities.
If the teachers of tomorrow are educated in inclusive mainstream environments, they will be better prepared for their future roles.

But leaving the Secret Teacher’s “in principle” beliefs to one side, the main reason I wished to comment upon the article is that it demonstrates some of the main challenges that inclusive education faces: the broad lack of understanding by many teachers and school administrators of what inclusive education is and how to implement it and the ironical frequent but unfortunately damaging wrongful attribution to inclusive education of perceived mainstream “failures” in educating students with disability – ironical in that those “failures” are often due to a lack of inclusiveness, not because if it.

This latest article from the Secret Teacher is another such ironical and damaging example. “Damaging” because the message that it sends is that many students with disability (particularly intellectual disability) will be better catered for and “happier” in segregated “special” schooling, to the consequential benefit of their less “burdened” mainstream peers. This is against the contemporary best evidence and common sense that students with disability (including intellectual disability) achieve better academic, and equally importantly, better socialisation skills (critical to independent living potential) in a truly mainstream setting representative of the diversity of society – where they effectively can learn from and model their peers in an environment of “higher expectations”.

As the parent of a child with intellectual disability, I see this every day. I see my son, Julius, be the first student among his typical peers to read a word on the whiteboard because he is motived to keep up; I see another child demand that Julius apologise to him because he was just not going to accept that Julius touched his head uninvited – fair is fair and no one is exempt – Julius apologised – socialisation in action! I hear all the new words that Julius brings home at the end of the day because, by being amongst peers whose language skills are stronger, his own development is maximised. And I also see the way his teacher responds to the challenge of including Julius as a fully-fledged member of his class, her sensitivity to his developing sense of self, the equality with which she treats his right to “belong” and her expectation (insistence) of his participation in all general activities (with appropriately designed adaptations, where they are helpful to support his inclusion).

I am fortunate that Julius’s teacher understands the critical importance of actively connecting Julius to the class – at a curricular and social level – through her instruction and modelling – it is that real sense of “connection” that brings “inclusion”, a genuine sense of belonging, which in turn validates Julius in his own eyes and critically in the eyes of his “typical” peers. It is that validation as a valued member of the class that nurtures and eventually sustains his peer-granted right to learn and play as “one of them” and not as “other”.

I suspect that the parents of the child with Down syndrome, whose supposedly “extreme” case formed the backdrop to the article, understood the potential benefits of inclusive mainstream education – hence their well-founded and in my view commendable “unwavering insistence that mainstream schooling was the only place he could reach his full potential”.

For the parents referred to in the article to have started from a different perspective, or to have “wavered” earlier, would, on one view, have been against the interests of their child – they didn’t do so notwithstanding having to face the undoubted headwind of a mainstream education system ill-trained and ill-designed to accommodate their child. The heavy cloak of “advocate” is currently conferred on every parent of child with disability, and for many it weighs more than they can bear. “Unwavering” parents are not, as the article paints, a problem – they are a phenomena of an education system (perhaps broader society) with a systemic design and entrenched culture not conducive to the full participation and belonging of their child – their understanding of their child and appreciation of the day-to-day “real time” impact of the schooling experience upon their child is a valuable education resource and necessitates their collaborative and intimate involvement as partners in the education of their child. When, as in the article, a school perceives that it is the parents who are “driving” the inclusion of their child, the relationship with the school is neither a partnership nor collaborative. The fact is that parents are only compelled to take the steering wheel when in their eyes no one else appears to be willing or able to drive.

The heavy cloak of “advocate” is currently conferred on every parent of child with disability, and for many it weighs more than they can bear.
The Secret Teacher professes to work in an “inclusive school”, striving for “inclusive education” and that he or she is personally “for inclusion”, but read in its full context the article demonstrates that the Secret Teacher and their school (like the majority of education systems) do not understand and practice the concept of “inclusion”, whether “in principle” or otherwise. Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which 159 countries including the UK, Australia and Canada are parties, provides that every child has the right to an education within an inclusive education system – the starting point is that it is a “right” of the child and an “obligation” of countries, not a “privilege”, “option” or “fad” to be supported or opposed “in principle” at the wisdom or whim of the school or teacher.

“Inclusion” is the conferral of a genuine sense of respect for and belonging in the individual for who they are. It is about maximising the academic and social potential of each child (whatever the functional impact of disability) without preconceptions as to ability driven by medical diagnoses and medical labels and without judgment as to rate of development of that potential. And critically it is about “normalising” human diversity and endeavouring to minimise as much as possible, differential treatment of a child and any potential consequent alienating and isolating stigma in their eyes and those of their peers.

“Inclusion” is the conferral of a genuine sense of respect for and belonging in the individual for who they are.
“Inclusion” requires much more than physical inclusion of a child in a regular school – it is physical, social and curricular participation on the same valued basis as all others. Achieving “inclusion” requires both the “will” and the “skill” to engage all types of learners and goes to the mentality or culture of the education setting – to the degree of leadership, empathy and inclusive adaptation that the system, administrators and teachers are willing to demonstrate in catering to the circumstances and experiences of each student. That mentality, leadership and willingness to adapt curriculum and teaching strategies to connect a child through instruction with their peers and the general learning environment, although perhaps refined in accommodating students with disability, is also of significant benefit to the education and development of administrators, teachers and ultimately students generally.

While I don’t know exactly what was going on in the Secret Teacher’s classroom – and there certainly seem to have been significant “resources” made available (which is frequently not the case) – I am certain that very little “inclusive education” was happening or attempted. Rather, it appears that the student with Down syndrome effectively received a “special” segregated education albeit within the four walls of a mainstream classroom – in a localised yet isolating and stigmatising manner – undermining any sense of their belonging or inclusion.

There was reference to “Special Education Needs (SEN)” experts, speech and occupational therapists and a “child-centred” separate curriculum suggested by “educational psychologists”. The first point I’d make is that “SEN” strategies tend to be developed and carried over from “special education” settings and often involve frequent separate one-on-one instruction throughout the day that disconnects the student from the rest of the classroom. They are strategies that do not necessarily, and in fact rarely, transfer well to general education settings; they are, in a real sense, localised “special education” – the opposite of “inclusion”. Further, every student needs to perceive themselves, and needs to be perceived by their peers, as being primarily taught by their class teacher – teaching assistants must be skilfully instructed and managed by the class teacher to deliver his or her adapted and supplemented instruction – but whilst maintaining and not disconnecting the primary teacher-student relationship. Leaving the teaching to the teaching assistants is not “inclusion”.

From the description in the article, the student in question was put through specialist program after specialist program, all day long – within physical touch and sight of, but effectively in a separate education paradigm to, his class peers. I would have been more surprised if this student had not developed “behaviours”.

While I am not in a position to provide informed comment, it is well known that for students with communication or intellectual disability, “behaviours” are often a way of letting others know that something in their environment is not right. The way that the environment – including teachers and peers – responds to these “behaviours” is critical. What is required is a pro-active response, endeavouring to see the situation from the student’s perspective, with positive strategies to identify and minimise potential “triggers”, assist the student to develop greater self-control and to learn alternative ways to express their feelings – otherwise the “behaviours” will likely be reinforced, become entrenched and escalate.

For students with communication or intellectual disability, “behaviours” are often a way of letting others know that something in their environment is not right.
The fact that the student with Down syndrome is now “thankfully” in a “special school” and “with the right support” doing “much better” does not mean the outlook for the long-term academic and social development of the child has improved. The outlook may have improved from the Secret Teacher’s perspective but a segregated experience within a “lower expectations” but more “supportive” environment is not conducive to maximising academic, social and ultimately independence outcomes.

It is not surprising that many teachers are sceptical about including children with disability in regular classrooms given that most receive little or no training or preparation in inclusive teaching and sometimes very little in-class support. When I asked a friend who is a teacher what happens when a student with disability joins her classroom, my question was met with a long pause and the answer: “I’m just expected to use common sense”. It is more often a lack of resources and training, as well as a lack of leadership in developing inclusive cultures, that leads to the approach of “integration” – with the absence of the necessary resources, strategies and culture to assist students to learn within the regular classroom, students with disability are simply expected to “integrate”.

“Integration education” is the response of an unprepared mainstream school compelled to “accept” a child with disability – it systemically responds with a conditional cold invitation – the message that “if you can learn like us and behave like us – if you can conform to our [narrow] concept of normality – then you can stay – but otherwise you don’t belong here” – it sets up children and teachers for failure. Neither “special education” nor “integration” in general education is inclusive and both fail when assessed for the core critical measures of inclusion: the creation of a real sense of belonging and connectedness to curriculum and peers.

Neither “special education” nor “integration” in general education is inclusive and both fail when assessed for the core critical measures of inclusion: the creation of a real sense of belonging and connectedness to curriculum and peers.
The further irony here is that solving the Secret Teacher’s complaint that the general education system lacks “specialist resources” is itself undermined by the Secret Teacher’s suggestion that some students with disability are better served in “special schools” and the wrongful attribution of blame to “inclusive education” – both operating to encourage enrolments in “special” schooling. If valuable education and scarce financial resources continue to be tied up and consumed in a parallel “special” segregated schooling system, those resources cannot be freed to assist regular schools to better provide genuinely inclusive education. Governments struggle to fund one education system, let alone two.

My intention in writing this response was not to malign the Secret Teacher nor any teacher who finds themselves overwhelmed by the challenge of educating and including a child with disability in a general education classroom. The challenges are real, often requiring intuitive and creative solutions and for the most part students and teachers do not get the support they need – or they get the wrong support – as appears evident in the article by the Secret Teacher. But I do not agree with the Secret Teacher’s analysis and conclusion that the problem lies in seeking to provide an inclusive education for all – again, a right of every child. However, what the Secret Teacher does expose is a struggling education system that is failing students, teachers and parents alike and whilst doing so places them at odds with each other – causing angst and damage to all.

Instead, it is vital that stakeholders in the education system move beyond attributing blame to one another and actually engage in open and constructive dialogue around system design issues, and unite their voices to call for the critical reform and transformation of education that has been long overdue and that all children deserve.

* This article is written in my personal capacity and represents my personal views and perspective. It does not purport to represent the views of any other person or organisation, including any organisation on the board of which I may serve, in which I may be involved or which I may represent from time to time.

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