Inclusion is ‘the right of every child to an appropriate and efficient education in his or her local mainstream school.’ The implication here is that there are to be no exceptions in regards to a child’s culture, gender, ethnicity, and religion, issues of disability, age or sexual orientation. An inclusive classroom is one in which learning happens in small groups with peer helping and supporting each other, it is also ‘student centred with a high sense of respect and community. Students structure the rules and are expected to follow them.They are aware others are doing different things but fairness does not come into question because ‘that’s just the way it is’. (IDEA)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the United States, states that all children will be educated in regular classroom unless the nature of their disability is such that education in such a classroom cannot be achieved satisfactorily. All ‘schools have a duty to try’ to be inclusive. It further went on to highlight that the ‘least restrictive environment is one that provide the greatest exposure to an interaction with general education students and persons without disabilities’.
Implications of these statements can be looked at from the perspective of different groups within the school community. These are mainly, parents, teachers /support staff, general student population, and students with special needs.
Mixed gender schools for example may not be the first choice of parents of certain religious faiths because of implications for their religion. For those parents who subscribe to a particular religion, faith school offer the sort of religious grounding they want their children to emulate. While there are religious assemblies and devotions in faith schools and students are expected to conform to the particular ethos of the school, this is not the case for mainstream non -faith schools.
For some teachers the idea of inclusive schools can be quite disconcerting as well. A Muslim colleague who left an all girls school to teach in a mixed school that was conveniently closer to home,became quite unhappy because she felt quite ‘intimidated by the closeness’ of her male students. Other teachers felt they wouldn’t be able to cope as well with boys as they could with girls and vice versa. Therefore while they have the choice they will choose to teach in the school they are most comfortable in. That choice is however taken away from them if schools then move to become ‘inclusive’.
A lot of the arguments against inclusive school/classrooms however, will focus on the inclusion of students with special needs. Often parents feel that their child/ren’s progress is hindered when the general classroom teacher has to spend a lot of time helping students who are less able. On the other hand a parent of a child with special need may welcome inclusion because they feel this gives their child a greater sense of belonging.
For the teacher /classroom assistant, inclusion has perhaps the greatest implication. On a positive note inclusion may help teachers appreciate the diversity of their classroom while also enabling them to recognise that all students have strengths as well as weaknesses. It therefore increases ways of creatively addressing challenges and can provide the teacher with invaluable experience of being a part of a multi-talented, multi-disciplined team of practitioners. Yet, on the other hand, any teacher within an inclusive environment must be extremely resourceful and committed in order to succeed. For any teacher working in a situation without the right structures in place, the classroom can quite easily turn out to be a nightmare. If there is insufficient support for example, the job of the teacher can become quite difficult as it then becomes impossible to effectively teach and manage the various situations that can likely occur. It is a big misconception that all qualified teachers are equipped to teach pupils with special needs. The reality however is that a classroom practitioner, however confident and skilled must be sufficiently trained in dealing with specific needs of particular pupils in order to teach them effectively. As one educator and specialist in the field of Special education states, ‘Without resources, commitment, vision, restructuring and staff development, inclusion won’t work.’ Many mainstream teachers will attest to the fact that too many schools are insufficiently equipped to deal effectively with inclusion. Consequently this can cause situations that are a hindrance to pupil progress rather than a help.
For too many of us the term inclusion is interpreted at face value so as long as students are put together within the context of a mainstream school then we have satisfactorily included all students. A study by G. Lindsay examined how the teaching of the Literacy hour can provide an ‘inclusive environment’ to students with special educational needs. Yet while the author felt that most students were ‘included’ there were instances in which a number of pupils had to contend with alternate activities geared at developing their communication skills. This indicates that even while we strive to be inclusive, individual limitations will always determine the extent to which this term can be fully realised.
Undoubtedly there are many benefits and arguments in support of inclusion. A 1999 article from the University of Iowa Department of Special Needs points out that among these are opportunities to experience diversity, appreciation of the uniqueness and beauty of every individual, opportunities to develop respect, sensitivity and tolerance towards others with ‘limitations’.