Social Inclusion of children with Learning Disabilities in education

by endlesspsych

What is social inclusion? A question raised recently by Paul Cooper in 2004 and by many other psychologists over time. Is it a synonym for integration, an antonym for ‘exclusion’ or is it a buzz word for politicians and policy makers? No matter what definition you subscribe to it rapidly becomes apparent that various different bodies within education and individuals associated with the educational system view social inclusion – its benefits and pitfalls. Teachers, parents, careers and policy makers have different perspectives, and strong opinions, on the subject.

Since Labour came to power in 1997 Social exclusion has been one of the issues that have been a key policy theme and has been closely associated with the education system. Part of the government’s commitment to social inclusion has been to set up the social exclusion unit within the office of the deputy Prime Minister. The purpose of the Social exclusion unit is to explore the causes of Social exclusion and explore how to combat it by creating a globally competitive economy through the education system. However as Yusef Sayed points out; “educational inclusion and exclusion are primary concerns for governments aiming to advance their societies and foster fuller participation of their citizens. The concepts are framed by a global rhetoric of social inclusion and exclusion that does not necessarily address issues of poverty or the tensions between growth and equity.” Essentially there is a movement in politics, a need to be seen, to encourage and promote policies with an element of social inclusion but this has been done without any real consideration for the needs and wants of individuals or groups involved. Yusef argues that without due rigor and care socially inclusive policies can become nominal and superficial and in fact instead of leading to a more inclusive society, and educational system, can lead to one that is more exclusive even creating new forms of exclusion and fostering historic means of exclusion within a supposedly more inclusive system.

Social inclusion in education can be a source of great contention; individual departments, in fact different levels within the departments, within the education system interpret the Government mission statement differently. Under the principles of inclusion every child should have access to the same services and opportunities regardless of mental or physical ability. In practice this entails socially exclusive special needs schools and special education units within mainstream educational establishments. This is not done out of any overt malice, although it could be argued that the attitude of the majority towards any different minority has a detrimental effect, towards the children with behavioural, mental or physical problems in fact it appears to be more motivated by budget and time concerns. Schools like the new Ysgol Pendalar in Wales are being constructed to provide special needs facilities for pupils within certain educational areas. This example undertaken by Gwynedd Council will cost 4.6 million and provide for 85 pupils. This will allow them access to the facilities and specialist services and teaching they require, in the context of the general principles of the mainstream educational system, but keeping them physically separate from their peers within that system. Aberdeenshire council has created several special needs annexes within established schools to provide for the regions special needs students. To an extent special needs children are excluded from the mainstream pupils during lessons but some inclusion does occur during designated break and lunch times. Facilities such as the school library, canteen and social areas are shared by both special needs and mainstream pupils as opposed to being in an entirely separate school as will be the case when Ysgol Pendalar is completed. It has been suggested in research undertaken by the Moray House School of education in Scotland that inter-agency approaches, collaborative approaches between the education service and local and national government departments, to the provision of socially inclusive services can be viewed as cumbersome and time consuming. The research by Lyn Tett then goes on to show that a successful meta-strategy across different educational bodies, authorities and departments can lead to inter-agency initiatives having a larger positive impact on social inclusion than individual agencies competing for funding and kudos. The research goes on to further recommend an inter agency collaborative approach in order to effectively provide socially inclusive services. It could be argued that Aberdeenshire council’s choice to build a specialist unit attached to established schools is indicative of this collaborative approach as different agencies have come together to provide a more inclusive solution than that seen in Wales.

Although teachers attitudes have changed over the years, due to more support and more information being available to them during their initial and in-service training, there are still negatives that they feel have to be addressed around mainstreaming. In other words, the process of providing special needs services within the established education environment as opposed separate institutions. Teachers in particular worry about the impact that children with behavioural and mental difficulties will have on the class. They also worry about their abilities as teachers, with no special training in dealing with disabilities, to cope with their perceptions of increasing class sizes and increased target driven assessment as well as the added challenge of pupils with special needs. When a child with learning difficulties enters into a mainstream education situation they are allocated a support worker, whether this is a means of trying to appease parents and teachers or as an effective means of providing a social inclusive environment is sometimes the subject of staffroom debate. However, in these situations, teachers still worry about the potential for disruption that a pupil with learning difficulties can represent when introduced to a mainstream class whether through their own inability to adjust to their educational needs, a stated skills shortage and fear of over or under compensating, or because the children in the class will welcome a new excuse to disrupt the class and treat the child with learning difficulties as a means of achieving this. Despite these concerns, in a study by Scruggs and Purdue, only one third of teachers reported they felt they did not have the time, resources or ability to deal with a pupil with special educational needs. Around two thirds supported the general principles of mainstreaming and social inclusion however, only a small minority indicated that they would be happy to accept children with disabilities into their classrooms. This depended on the nature of the disability and the implicit obligations on the teacher.

One of the ideas behind including children with learning difficulties in mainstream education is that both those children already in mainstream education and those with learning difficulties can benefit from social contact with each other. However, a study from Australia, undertaken by Janet Alston and Chris Kilham in 2004, cast doubt on whether teaching assistants fostered an environment in which social inclusion could flourish. They noted that accommodations made for the children studied were not always consistent across mainstream and special needs situations. They also felt that the addition of planning time and training would be important means of fostering and improving exclusionary practices. In the specific case of autism they also found that the tendency towards a high staff turnover meant that the structures, consistency and routines commonly associated with Autistic children were not provided for.

There is also the issue of how parents view their children’s educations. In a study by Skarbrevik a disparity was found in how teachers scored the child’s level of social inclusion and how parents believed they were performing socially. Where teachers had, scored the child’s level of social inclusion as particularly low, parents still reported that the child thrived inside and outside of school socially. It could be argued that this is because teachers are too focused on the educational aspects of a socially inclusive environment and feel that lesser educational attainment is somehow correlated with lower social inclusion whereas parents do not see this correlation. In other words, they see the social contact as separate from educational achievement in assessing the child’s level of social inclusion. It is notable that parents reported satisfaction with their children’s education and that this does not differ greatly between those in inclusive situations and those in exclusive. Also it is worth considering a study undertaken in the Netherlands which addressed the disparity between teachers’ views of a child’s social position and their tendency to underestimate the level of bullying and exclusion the child is subjected to. The results of both studies suggest that there is a tendency for both parents and teachers to be overly optimistic and positive about the child’s level of social inclusion with parents markedly more optimistic than teachers. Also the study discovered that the children studied were not only on the receiving end of bullying but were bullies themselves.

There is an interesting case study, Ring and Travers (2005) that follows a special needs pupil in a rural Irish Primary school. The teachers report the same concerns as their counterparts in other studies on the same subject. They display an understanding of the child, named as James, abilities discussing with the researchers the pointlessness of attempting to teach some parts of the curriculum to James with particular regard to history and religious studies. However, the teachers and the pupils treat James very well in a social regard – the relatively small size of the school no doubt contributing to an atmosphere where, far from being excluded by his peers, James’ fellow pupils had learnt to be patient and understanding towards James and included him in the majority of playground activities. James also took part in classroom activities but due to his learning difficulties was required to follow an alternative lesson plan from his peers. When James was asked to draw a picture depicting his school life he drew a sunny and happy picture of playing with the other children in the playground; this is in contrast with research undertaken by Lewis in 1995 in which special needs children portrayed themselves pictorially in the centre of taunting and sometimes violence.
While James’ experience is portrayed as an example of how inclusion can work, also voiced within the study are concerns by the teachers that James’s education is suffering and that, because of the extra work and effort required by them to provide alternative lesson plans for James, the overall learning experience of the class may also be affected. They also voice the view that the state should provide assistance to teachers to help deal with special needs pupils. Either providing special schools for them to attend so they can get the attention they require or provide teaching assistants to assist the teacher in coping. There is also a political element to some of the teacher’s comments criticising government policy and in effect using the study as a political soapbox rather than concentrating on James situation.

The above case study ties together a lot of the themes and issues that are involved in the provision of special needs education and the current trend towards social inclusion. However by virtue of its narrow focus, on a school where there is only one disabled child, it could be argued that it does not give a true reflection of the reality of social inclusion. Here the pupils and teachers have learnt, quite well, to cope with one child who has special needs however, if this number were to increase would they still be able to cope or would more detrimental effects be noticed and observed? There are arguments that large groups of disabled people make the majority feel uncomfortable and that social inclusion is another means of stopping minority groups from gathering. That if we include all minorities within the majority then they will be deprived of a shared history and common experience and they will be denied the chance to explore issues that directly affect themselves and others with the same grievances.

There is a tendency amongst policy makers to view social inclusion as a be all and end all of our legislation and as a model for our institutions. However most of these policies appear, to an extent, to have been formulated without much consultation of the people they are created to assist.


Electronic sources – office of the deputy Prime Minister Social Exclusion unit.

Journal Articles
Inclusive Education: Ainscow M., Booth T. (2003) The Index for Inclusion: Developing Learning & Participation in Schools. Bristol: Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education

Journal of Education Policy Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group Issue: Volume 17, Number 1 / February 01, 2002 Pages: 71 – 86
Teacher Perceptions of Mainstreaming/inclusion, 1958-1995: A Research Synthesis Journal article by Margo A. Mastropieri, Thomas E. Scruggs; Exceptional Children, Vol. 63, 1996
International Bibliography of the Social Sciences Alston, Janet. Kilham, Chris. Adaptive education for students with special needs in the inclusive classroom Australian journal of early childhood. 29(3) 2004 September, 24-33. AN: 2848797 Year of Publication 2004

International Bibliography of the Social Sciences. Sayed, Yusuf. Educational exclusion and inclusion: key debates and issues Perspectives in education. 21(3) 2003 September, 1-12. AN: 2762689 Year of Publication 2003

Tett, Lyn. Inter-agency partnerships and integrated community schools: A Scottish perspective. Support for Learning. Vol 20(4) Nov 2005, 157-161. Year of publication 2005

Skarbrevik, Karl J. The quality of special education for students with special needs in ordinary classes European Journal of Special Needs Education. Vol 20(4) Nov 2005, 387-401.
Year of Publication 2005

Cooper, Paul. Is inclusion just a buzz-word? Emotional & Behavioral Difficulties. Vol 9(4) Nov 2004, 219-222. Year of Publication 2004

de Monchy, Marleen; Pijl, Sip Jan; Zandberg, Tjalling. Discrepancies in judging social inclusion and bullying of pupils with behavior problems. European Journal of Special Needs Education. Vol 19(3) Oct 2004, 317-330. Year of Publication 2004
Barriers to inclusion: a case study of a pupil with severe learning difficulties in Ireland. Ring. Emer, and Travers. Joseph, European journal of special needs education Vol 20, No 1. Feb 2005 pp.41-56
Lewis, A. (1995) Children’s Understanding of disability (Routledge, London)