Monday, 25 July 2011

Is Inclusion a Misnomer?

In 2005, speaking at a Special School in Gloucestershire, David Cameron, the then education spokesman for the Conservative party called for a halt to the number of special schools being closed. Since coming to power in 1997, the Labour government had overseen the closure of around 10 percent of all Special Schools by 2005. Every teacher knows that one of the biggest buzz words in education under New Labour was "inclusion". In relentless pursuit of this ideal, schools had more and more pressure put upon them to make provision for students with any type of special educational need. Clearly there is an ideal, a deeply held philosophical belief here. Students should not become social outcasts because they have been born with challenges such as physical or mental disabilities. It is hard to not agree. It is hard to think that anything other than full inclusion is right. But, in my opinion, what stemmed from an ideal, a dream, has turned in to something altogether different. Students who were happy, successful, social and ambitious have been thrown in to mainstream schools and been poorly provided for, bullied, marginalized and lost their self-esteem.
Let me pause for a moment and state that I do not mean that this is always the case. Far from it. But I do think that Special Schools have a place in our education system and that for many, many students the personalized support and care that these small educational establishments can offer them through a dedicated and highly trained and specialized staff far outweighs any disadvantage there might be to not being able to attend the same school as their neighbours. Indeed, I am sure that many Special Schools are more socially inclusive and inspiring than their mainstream siblings.
Of course there are those in government who can clearly see this too. Ruth Kelly, former Secretary of State for Education removed her dyslexic child from a state school and enrolled him in a £15,000 per year private school. And I don't blame her, a mother should do what ever she can to ensure that her child has the best possible opportunities in life, but what a pity that she couldn't fight for the same right of other parents who wanted to be able to send their children to a local Special School with dedicated provision whilst she was in charge of the school system. Instead, she oversaw the continued push for inclusion.
There is also an elephant in the room when talking about inclusion. One, it would seem, that most teachers and those involved in education feel unable to point out or discuss. At the moment, the drive for inclusion is so strong, so unshakeable, so unquestionable that it has led to the situation in classrooms across the country where teachers are afraid to put the needs of 30 students before the mantra of inclusion. Often through no fault of the individual student, teachers are providing a poorer quality of education to an entire class of students because they are not trained and do not have the resources to adequately orchestrate a lesson in which a single student with severe special needs is a member. So 30 students are losing out for the needs of the one. And I can almost swallow this, almost see the altruism shining through but for the fact that the said individual is also getting a poorer quality of education than they could receive in a Special School.
The spectrum of students that fall under the term Special Educational Needs is so wide, so diverse, that I am clearly not talking about all situations here. But it is time that we talked about that elephant in the room. Time that we re-looked at the inclusion agenda and asked everyone involved "who is gaining what?"
I have taught many students with severe Special Educational Needs and I must say that many of them have enriched the class for all. Many of them have been studious, delightful, witty, driven, interesting and caring and they have brought a great deal to my lessons. I wouldn't change that for anything and I can see no reason why such students and their parents should not be able to choose the right school for them just like everyone else. But I have also inspected lessons where children with challenging behaviour, wearing the cloak of ADHD, have simply ensured that the lesson was a complete waste of time for the other students. I have interviewed children who have passionately argued that their education is being ruined, lesson after lesson, because the teacher has all their time, energy and focus taken up dealing with one child. I have witnessed up to 20 percent of a lesson be taken up in accommodating a blind child in a science lab experiment. Worst of all, I have seen the sheer despair on that child's face and have heard them say that they wish they were back at their special school where the teachers and facilities were specialised to their needs and their peers, the other students, understood how they felt. This was not self-pity, but he knew that back in his old school the students would get frustrated together, laugh together, succeed together with the comfort that shared experience brings.
When we have a system that allows the following scenario to arise, then we should stop and reflect upon what the heck we have done to these kids. A few years back, I was called in to a classroom at the end of the Humanities corridor to deal with an 'incident'. When I arrived the class was in chaos, children were shouting and screaming, all up out of their chairs, the teacher looked close to tears and there had not been one single second of learning. A noise at my feet startled me, I looked down and saw peering out from beneath a table the face of a little boy. He looked me up and down, as though considering a magnificent find of treasure. "what are you?" he asked. I told him to come out from under the desk, but he ignored the request, not with the disruptive desire of a naughty child, but as though my words were entirely meaningless to him. Again he asked me "what are you?" I kneeled down next to him, he retreated deeper under the desk. "I don't know what you are," he told me, "explain."
I told the boy that I was a teacher at the school and that I had come to help the class settle down. He furrowed his brow and snorted, "yes, but what are you?" I couldn't think of any words to say. "Are you a human?" he asked me. "Yes," I told him simply. "Such curious things, humans," he mused to no-one in particular.
The situation carried on for quite some time and it became increasingly apparent that the child believed himself to be an alien visitor, lost in our world. I was only able to coax him out from under the table by accepting his reality and talking to him on those terms.
Later that day, I sat with his parents and discussed the incident. They explained to me with tense tears rolling down their cheeks how hard they had tried to get their son in to a special school, but that the nearest one was now 30 miles away and was completely full.
There is something deeply wrong with the system.
David Cameron is no longer an opposition party spokesperson, he is Prime Minister. But I have seen little evidence as yet of the relentless march of inclusion ebbing away or a full and reasoned debate bearing fruit.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Bully the Protest our of Students

When I was 16 years old, I plodded off across Europe in the hope of seeing the astounding Pink Floyd in concert.  In a field somewhere north of Paris, with one hundred and fifty thousand other fanatics, I spent a hot summer afternoon waiting for the band to begin and then another three happy hours immersed in music and fuelled by the spirit of the night. As the concert ended and the crowds dispersed, I became separated from my friends and was left alone wandering around the tiny village a couple of miles from the concert venue trying to catch a train.
Of course, there were no trains. It was by now the early hours of the morning, so not knowing what to do or how I might get back to Paris, I ambled back to the scene of the concert in the hope that I might stumble upon a friendly security guard or roadie. Instead, I stumbled upon an impromptu gig being held at the side of the sound desk in the middle of an otherwise empty meadow. Floyd technicians and engineers were playing blues songs and getting drunk. I sat down crossed legged on the cool grass and listened, happy to spend the night sleeping there and working out what to do in the morning. “Hello young man” a soft English voice said behind me. I turned around to see the smiling chap staring down at me. He was holding an old acoustic guitar, on his way to join in the jam session. We spoke for a moment, me explaining the situation, him listening with the look of a concerned parent. He sat down next to me and started to play the guitar gently while asking me about my summer. We chatted for a few moments and then he put his arm around me, “come on” he said, and we walked off together towards the stage. The next couple of hours were magical as I formed an audience of one to this amazing private concert. He played with ease and sang like a much younger man for an hour or so. As the roadies packed away, he approached me again, holding a blanket and asked me if I was going to be ok. I assured him that I would be fine and could catch the early morning commuter train in to the city. He touched my shoulder, handed me twenty Francs, smiled and said goodnight. I watched him walk off casually in to the darkness. I have always remembered this act of kindness and gentility, and would like to have been able to thank him properly. The man’s name was David Gilmour, and he was the lead guitarist in Pink Floyd.
Some people emanate a warmth, an empathy, a caring nature, and David is one of those men. Since that night, my ears have pricked up when I hear his name mentioned and am always reminded of the kindness that he makes part of his life, such as the time in 2003 when he sold his own London home for £3.6million and then handed the cash straight over to the homeless charity Shelter.
So when, during the recent student protests in London, his son Charlie was seen hanging from the Cenotaph and kicking at plate glass windows I paused for a moment and tried to imagine the life that the young student must have had and how his actions must have affected his father.
There is no doubt that what Charlie did that night is wrong and condemnable, that his actions were offensive and upsetting to many and that what he achieved was to draw the attention of a debate away from the student’s cause and give the establishment the ammunition that it needed to twist the emphasis in the press headlines. He should be ashamed, very ashamed. And I would also say that he should expect to undertake some penance – perhaps a public apology, perhaps some work for the community, perhaps a way of honouring the fallen.
But this is not what has happened to Charlie.
Charlie, a 21 year old student, who was foolish in being out of control on drugs (but perhaps no more foolish than many of us were at 21), has been sentenced to a 16 month custodial sentence.
This is not justice. This does not even resemble an appropriate punishment.
It would appear that the courts have used this young man’s life as a way of sending a signal that this behaviour will not be tolerated. But is that the purpose of the court? Should he not be punished according to the enormity of his crime.
Pause for a moment and consider the short sentences handed down for some major crimes in England, or the ASBOs given to 21 years olds up and down the country who continually terrorise neighbourhoods or repeat offend.  The scale of the punishment given to Charlie is not balanced and considered, it is not fit for purpose.  Much has been made about the fact that Charlie is from a priviledged background and that he is well educated - the establishment loves to frown upon the digressions of those with "good" backgrounds, but then tilts it's head sympathetically if the defendent is from a council estate with a troubled history.   This is neither fair nor right.  Being priviledged should not mean being punished more severely.
Charlie apologized and pleaded guilty.
Has the establishment ruined the life of a normal young lad in an attempt to quash further student protests, in an attempt to control?  Will students now be dissuaded from using their absolutely just and correct right to show their alarm and disgust at what they perceive as a misguided policy?
And what of the rest of us? What is happening in the UK?
It would appear that some have forgotten that rules are there for the obeyance of the fool, but only the guidance of the wise. It is right and proper that the masses are able to show their dissatisfaction at the law makers and policy writers. I meet too many career politicians, police officers, teachers, councilors and civil servants who have allowed themselves to be fooled in to thinking that if it’s written down it cannot be questioned. Au contrare! It should always be questioned and debated. I don’t recall voting for a police state.
I’m sure that Charlie is a pretty normal young chap. For sure, this was not his finest moment and there should have been some recourse. But what good will come of sending him to prison? In what way is that contributing to society? I venture none. Instead a life is thrown in to turmoil, a family broken, and yet again the law is made to look an ass.
Can it be acceptable that the law will take a young man, who should have been made to make amends but then been able to move on with a good life, and subject him to the brutalism of prison? This will not reform the boy, this will lead him astray further still.
I was very happy to see the students protesting again. I had started to worry that young people in Britain had become so apathetic, so hypnotized in to believing that the State knows best, that all they could passionately care about was getting their hands on the newest best pair of hair straighteners or making sure they had the most shiny of shiny Apple products. When the system makes unjust decisions, the collective voice (through protest where appropriate) can be a powerful tool. Remember, those who made the choices, those who made the rules are but a tiny number of men – who is to say that they know best?