A lot has been said about the importance of creating an inclusive environment for special needs and disabled (SEND) children. The principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) expresses the importance of spending as much time as possible with students who don’t get special education services and extensive research shows that inclusive education has positive short-term and long-term effects for all students.
In England, as of January 2019, nearly half (47.9%) of children with EHC plans and 91.6% of children identified as needing additional SEN support at schools, attended mainstream schools*.
The far-reaching benefits of inclusive educational settings include:
- Reduced absenteeism
- Higher attainment in maths and literacy skills
- Improved self-esteem
- Greater possibility of pursuing higher education
- Improved employment prospects
However, in our current mainstream educational system, excessively focused on academic achievement and exam results, SEND children are often considered a burden and a detrimental factor affecting the school’s ability to achieve desired rankings and academic performance. Indeed, off-rolling (the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil), has been highlighted by most of recent government and Ofsted reports as a matter of great concern and urgency.
The figures show that pupils with SEND, particularly those without EHC plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than pupils without SEND. In 2017/18, children with SEND accounted for 44.9% of permanent exclusions and 43.4% of fixed-period exclusions. Survey evidence in 2019 also suggests that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling than other pupils.*
These figures make for sad and worrying reading for parents of SEND children who are not only battling with schools’ reluctance to accept or accommodate their children but, more often than not, are also faced with isolation and animosity from other parents who may see SEND children as an undesirable presence in the classroom.
Sadly, such attitudes totally neglect the rarely discussed but significant benefits that the presence of SEND children in mainstream classrooms can bring to their peers. With our schools now so focused on academic attainment, the teaching of values such as kindness, compassion and tolerance often remains sidelined. Yet, without teaching these values effectively, we are neglecting an essential part of what education should be - raising a well-rounded and humane generation of young people who will embrace their responsibility of inclusion of those who are different, and who will see neurodiversity as a difference in cognition, and not always as a disability.
Aristotle famously said - “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”, and there are few ways to educate hearts better than opening them up to diversity and compassion that comes from understanding those who are different to us.