When social inclusion is discussed in education, it means an amalgamation of students from diverse backgrounds with a wide range of abilities located in mainstream education. Slow learners are grouped together with high achievers, and teacher assistants are employed to work with students who are physically or mentally challenged to the point where they qualify for this assistance. In public education there are seldom enough support staff employed do this work effectively and over the years the criteria for qualifying have become more restrictive. As a result, students who could benefit are often overlooked or the onus is thrown onto the teacher to provide individual learning plans which are meant to provide educational opportunities at the particular student’s level of academic progress.
‘Social inclusion’ has now resulted in many if not all, special schools closing their doors and their students attending mainstream institutions. The promise of ‘social inclusion’ sadly, is an illusion. Students, who previously would have attended schools with teachers trained to help them, are not included in the peer groups of so called ‘normal’ students just because they attend a mainstream school. In many cases, teachers are not trained to deal with their specific needs and simply do not have the capacity to cater for the very broad spectrum of students in their classes. At the same time, the academic progress of the other students in the class is held back, whilst the teacher attempts to ensure that the disadvantaged students do not fall too far behind. At both ends of the spectrum of students, this situation is a recipe for boredom and behavioural issues to surface, which further reduces the learning that should take place.
Social inclusion was first introduced with a government commitment to provide the necessary Aide time for those students in need. However, over time the bar has been set so high to receive Aide funding for a student that it is almost impossible to qualify, unless the student is severely mentally or physically impaired and is unlikely to be ever able to function independently, even into adulthood. This then begs the question, ‘what does social inclusion achieve in those instances’? Such individuals are seldom accepted by their peers as equals and if not directly bullied will always ‘stand apart from the herd’. Meanwhile, those who have some potential to become independent and self-sufficient adults, but who are still somewhat disadvantaged, compared with the ‘norm’ are left to struggle on or fall further behind, deprived of any support. Yet, this group with a little ‘seed funding’ should not become a burden on the tax payer in later years.
Previously, special schools were available for students unable to cope in mainstream education. Special needs students gained confidence and coped well in an institution predominantly tailored to suit their needs, whilst under the direction of trained staff to help them reach their full potential. Such schools were also able to offer a better student to teacher ratio, than is feasible in mainstream schools.
The decline of special schools has been further complicated with the abandonment of what is now considered the politically incorrect practice of ‘streaming’. Students used to be allocated to classes based on ability groupings which saw students with similar academic abilities sharing the same class. This is now a practice that cannot be condoned openly as it seen to label a student. However, students label each other very effectively within grade years and mixed ability classes anyway, they do not act as a homogenous group; they clump together based on a number of criteria that also includes academic ability. Streaming of classes simply identifies students of similar academic ability in a particular subject and would greatly improve their progress as a group precisely because the teacher can pitch their learning to the group’s ability levels, rather than deliver a programme aimed at some intermediate level in the hope that those in the class at the bottom end of the spectrum can keep up, whilst those at the top, do not become bored. Good in theory but very difficult to put into practice effectively day in, day out, throughout the year. The closure of special schools for the educationally disadvantaged has only exacerbated this by further widening the academic gap between students in the classroom.
Meanwhile, the possibility of failure was always a component of normal education until recent times. Progress in education presumed that the individual had learnt sufficiently in the present academic year to be able to cope with the next. In the last twenty or so years this presumption has largely been abandoned in primary and secondary education. Students progress from one year to the next irrespective of what they have learned. There are arguments for and against this trend. In favour is the fact that the student progresses with his peer group and thereby avoids the social stigma attached to being ‘held back’. Their self esteem is thereby not undermined. Unfortunately, this trend also means that the student hardly experiences failure until after they leave school, at which point the real world teaches them a very hard lesson, namely that they cannot be protected from failure and that contrary to what we may wish for, the adult world is competitive and there are winners and losers in all aspects of life.