Inclusion : A flawed vision


The recently published Circular – Guidance on the Presumption of Mainstream Education issued by the Pupil Support and Inclusion Division of the Scottish Executive (2002) is clearly permeated with an inclusive vision.  Such a vision is traditionally coupled with a commitment to the enforcement of civil rights for all disabled people. Too often this inclusive vision is seen as part of a mission or moral crusade.  If the National Debate on Education is to involve a serious discussion of the different purposes of education then there should be an opportunity to challenge the notion of inclusion to be found in this Circular. 

One has only to witness the single-minded way in which the philosophy of normalisation, which embraces this inclusive principle, has been promoted in the UK and USA to see the dangers. The propagation of the normalisation principle within a crusade is both dangerous and counterproductive, for it can:

  • foster professional intolerance, division and disaffection (Hansen, 1976);
  • lead to the application of powerful and insidious pressure on professional staff to conform (Boucherat, 1987);
  • devalue the worth of those who, for valid professional reasons, find ground for criticism (Mesibov, 1990);
  • promote the growth of a propaganda industry which places a low value on  objectivity and truth (Jackson, 1989);
  • prompt the use of strategies and techniques which indoctrinate rather than teach (Renshaw, 1986);
  • encourage poorly trained professional staff to believe that the application of   a simple formula will resolve the complex problem of delivering effective and humane services (Tadd, 1992); and
  • result in the creation of an inflexible service that is unresponsive and insensitive to children’s needs (Rhoades and Browning, 1977).

A major problem with presenting the case for inclusion in civil rights terms is that people with a disability do not constitute a homogeneous population.  They do not share a single defining feature that sets them apart. Whilst no reasonable person can argue against the full inclusion of a child with a physical or sensory disability in a mainstream class, there is no convincing research evidence that conclusively shows that inclusion benefits a child with a marked learning disability.

Discussion on the topic of inclusion is not assisted where it is represented in civil rights terms and where the emotive language and rhetoric is drawn from the debate on racial and ethnic issues. Also worrying is the way in which lobbies representing people with a physical and sensory disability presume to speak on behalf of all people with a disability. These minority lobbies have no mandate, moral or actual, to speak for the majority population which comprises people with mild, moderate, severe and profound learning disabilities.

Politicians who seek to justify their pro-integrationist policies on the grounds that they are consistent with Warnock philosophy should note that whatever else it was, the Warnock Report was not, as many education authorities would like others to believe, a resounding affirmation of the virtues of integration (DES, 1978). Most of the evidence submitted to the Warnock Committee by professional associations and voluntary organisations supported the retention of segregated provision. Only those organisations concerned with the physically handicapped/intellectually able unequivocally backed integration. It was the actions of this lobby that forced the Warnock Committee reluctantly to support an integrationist position. No hard and convincing evidence has been advanced to demonstrate the educational and social benefits of integration, a fact that Mary Warnock was later publicly and repeatedly to acknowledge.

It is worth noting that in the USA, that most inclusive of societies, there has been increasing criticism of the inclusion movement (Hornby, Atkinson and Howard, 1997).   Full inclusion is seen as unhelpfully focusing on:

  • the process of education rather than educational outcomes;
  • mainstream curricula rather than functional curricula;
  • advocacy for programmes rather than advocacy for children; and
  • rhetoric rather than research evidence.

The crucial point that advocates of the normalisation principle miss but which earlier writers took pains to stress is that normalisation is a philosophy and not a technology (Nirje, 1969; Tizard, 1964). It is a system of values and beliefs which should help guide not dictate thought and action.  This necessitates a sensitive and pragmatic approach not an inflexible and dogmatic one.

The contention that normalisation is an ideology lacking the practical means for its implementation is, of course, not new. Zigler and Balla (1977) pointed out that the social policy of moving people with learning disabilities from large, central institutional to small, residential, community settings, which started in the early 1960s, evolved almost completely without an empirical base.  They warned that the: ‘the almost total lack of data on what constitutes the most adequate care setting for retarded individuals is potentially disastrous for those involved in the creation of social policy’. A decade later the same authors were to repeat this point (Zigler, Balla and Kossan, 1986).  Empirical examination, they argued, should replace polemics, not to do so was to engage in a massive programme of social engineering.  That is what is happening with respect to the policy of inclusion.

Semantic sleights of hand

Ten years ago the former Strathclyde Region published a policy paper on special education entitled Every Child is Special. The three key philosophical principles, which shaped Strathclyde’s policy, were:

  • that each child has individual learning needs;
  • that positive discrimination should be exercised in favour of those who are  disadvantaged; and
  • that children with special needs should not be segregated.

The document argued that it was necessary to take a broad view of what constituted special educational needs. Reference was made to the 1978 HMI report that extended the Warnock Committee’s estimate that 20% of children experienced learning difficulties to 50%. It was then asserted that any individual could experience difficulties in some contexts.  Thus we have a progressive widening (or dilution) of the definition of special educational needs to the point where it becomes virtually meaningless.

The logic underpinning the first principle took the following form:  all children have learning difficulties; special educational needs derive from learning difficulties; therefore, all children have special educational needs. Notwithstanding the suspect nature of the above propositions, the conclusion is drawn that every child is special, the snappy but empty title of Strathclyde’s document. The logical coup de grâce is that if every child is special then there must be a sense in which no child is special.

One possible consequence of the proclamation and acceptance of this slogan is that the case for retaining and supporting existing specialist services for what might be termed the Warnock 20% is seriously weakened. One is left to speculate whether the logical shortcomings and the semantic confusion here result from careful or careless deliberation on the part of the policy-makers.

The second principle is that a policy of positive discrimination must be more than a general recognition that some people have greater needs than others - it should constitute a commitment to deploy resources to meet their needs.  Precisely how Strathclyde reconciled its notion that every child was special with a policy of positive discrimination is unclear.

The third principle advanced was that children should be placed in ‘the least restrictive environment’ compatible with meeting their needs.  This principle has been borrowed directly from the least restrictive alternative principle which has guided judicial and legislative thinking and decision-making in the USA. This principle can be succinctly described in the following terms: ‘The right to the least restrictive alternative is little more than a requirement that common sense and respect for the humanity and individuality of every person be the touchstone of the law’.

It needs to be stressed that in promoting this principle, it does not follow that an education authority has to be committed to mainstreaming.  The principle recognises the existence of a continuum of provision in which segregation is an accepted and integral feature. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, a former Scottish Education Minister, pointed out at a conference of the National Association for Special Educational Needs:

‘There is a misconception that attending a special school means segregation from community life. I have visited special schools where the pupils are more fully members of their local communities than many of their counterparts in mainstream schools’.

Inclusive theory: exclusive practice

To be credible the principle of inclusion has to be applied universally to all sectors of the educational system, regardless of political cost.  The fact that the Scottish Executive has expressed no wish to abolish the small but powerful and influential independent school sector or to remove the considerable financial advantages conferred on independent schools by virtue of their charitable status, calls into question the meaning of inclusion and the credibility of the inclusion policy. How can the Scottish Executive reconcile its forthright commitment to the principle of inclusion with its acceptance of a (non-inclusive) independent school sector? The message clearly conveyed is that non-inclusion is acceptable but only for those parents who can afford to purchase it.

The continuing existence of a strong independent sector means that a small minority of parents are afforded a choice, a privilege which is withheld from the overwhelming majority of parents.  If the Scottish Executive is prepared to concede to parents of independent school pupils the right of choice, it can have no ethical justification for denying that right to other parents, including the parents of children with special needs. For that choice to be meaningful, real and not paper options have to be offered to parents.  No government can sensibly argue that one of its key policies has a compelling moral and ethical basis and then, at the same time, grant exemptions to such a policy.

Or is the Scottish Executive arguing for a weaker definition of inclusion which simply means the opportunity for pupils with special needs to meet their peers socially in different settings within the school (e.g., playground; meal-times)? What research evidence, as opposed to merely anecdotal evidence, can the Scottish Executive advance that unequivocally demonstrates the benefits of this kind of social inclusion?

The most important right of children with special educational needs is the right to an appropriate education and the right to be fully integrated into society. Inclusion in mainstream classes or segregation in special classes or schools is only justifiable where it facilitates these two rights.  It is, therefore, essential to maintain a range of special educational provision, along a continuum from special schools, through units in mainstream schools to ordinary class placements.  Once this is recognised then our attention can return to the necessity of devising the most appropriate education for children with special educational needs rather than profitlessly devoting time, effort and money on ways of achieving greater inclusion.

The inclusive vision offered by the Scottish Executive in its guidance circular Presumption of Mainstream Education (2002) is fundamentally flawed, as inclusion is defined in the most general and superficial terms, no research evidence is presented which demonstrates the efficacy of inclusive education, and no attempt has been made to learn from the experience gained in other countries.

Residential special schools: an option of first or last resort?

This presumption of mainstream education clearly calls into question the purpose and value of residential special schools.  However, the notion that residential special schooling is in some way educationally and socially undesirable, implicit in the Scottish Executive Circular, deserves closer inspection. 

What is the case for residential special schooling?  The fact is ignored that there are families which are forced to withdraw into a state of self-imposed isolation either through fear that their child with special needs will be bullied and tormented by other children or verbally abused by neighbours.  Parents recognise this kind of isolation for what it is – enforced imprisonment both for their child and themselves.  In choosing the term ‘imprisonment’ parents are not seeking a convenient metaphor to describe their existence – they are selecting a word which precisely mirrors reality, for prejudice, rejection and hostility can combine to create a barrier as real and enduring as a prison wall.

In some respects this form of imprisonment is even harsher than that experienced by inmates of penal institutions. At least most prisoners have visitors, opportunities of parole and an expectation of eventual release.  Living with a child with a severe learning disability can seem to some parents like an indefinite sentence with no possibility of remission. The seemingly endless nature of the ‘sentence’, when coupled with the reluctance or refusal of a local authority to recognise that there is a problem, can engender depression and feelings of hopelessness and bitterness.

It is not unusual for some parents of children with special needs to find that as their child grows up, visits by friends, relatives and neighbours decline. This stigma by association leads many parents to be excluded from the outside world.  Partly by choice and partly by circumstance, they are obliged to live a segregated life.

A family has to be extraordinarily resilient and resourceful to withstand the pressures generated by this exclusion. Whilst there are some families who find that the presence of a child with special needs can act as a positive and integrative force, many do not, with the result that all too frequently one finds marital disharmony and conflict, psychological breakdown of a parent (usually the mother) and acute difficulties in the management of other children.  Such families are asked to cope with degrees of stress about which most people can have little knowledge, experience or understanding. But these are families which have a love for their children.  Indeed their love coupled with their inability to cope and the frustrations that flow from that inability engender feelings of guilt which are difficult to assuage.

The view held by some local authorities that the problems experienced by parents should be tackled in the home can be at a heavy economic cost. Where there is a family breakdown or problems with siblings (e.g., truancy; delinquency; disruptive behaviour), there is usually a need for intervention (e.g., social worker; educational or clinical psychologist). As it is rarely the case that the kind of problems created can be resolved quickly, intervention is likely to be long-term and expensive.

Insistence that the child should remain at home often leads to a particular form of deprivation – the lack of an opportunity to play.  What play opportunities can there be for the child physically confined to the home? It needs to be stressed that play is not an inconsequential and ephemeral activity; it is an important social activity which is universally recognised to be an essential element in the process of healthy child development. Not surprisingly, it is accorded the status of a basic right for all children. A child needs play not only to release physical energy in a relatively uninhibited and socially acceptable way but also to learn the norms that govern social conduct.

At a time when increasing attention is being directed by the government to finding ways to protect and support the family as a unit some local authorities – out of what can only be described as blind subservience to a principle – choose to ignore an option that provides family protection and support. There are local authorities that appear to take a perverse pride in drawing the attention of the public and professional audiences to how few (if any) children have been referred to residential special schools.  They may believe that such proclamations provide an indication of their authorities’ ideological commitment to the principle of normalisation.

But adherence to the normalisation principle does not require a local authority to insist that parents of children with special needs should retain their children at home whatever the human cost Physical integration is only meaningful if it involves social interaction and acceptance.  Dogmatic insistence on physical integration – whether in the home or mainstream class – often leads to social isolation and rejection the very opposite of what the normalisation process seeks to achieve.

What kind of ‘normality’ is it – being physically confined to the four walls of the home, rarely ‘integrating’ into the community for any kind of social or recreation activity and living in a highly emotionally charged and psychologically corrosive family atmosphere?

What some professional workers find hard to understand is that one can be an advocate for the principle of normalisation yet at the same time acknowledge that residential special schools have a valuable role to play.  There is no inherent contradiction in holding both viewpoints.

The value of a residential special school does not rest simply on the advantages it confers on the child.  The residential special school serves two purposes of equal importance – it seeks to meet the individual needs of the child and the collective needs of the family.  It provides time for parents and siblings to re-establish links with the world outside the home and to return to a more ‘normal’ family regime.

My concern is that the presumption of mainstream education strengthens the perception of residential special education as a last resort option. The ideology upon which this principle is based and behind which politicians and local authorities tend to shelter merits direct challenge. In short, there needs to be a more honest and open debate about the meaning of inclusion: a debate which is shorn of semantic sleights of hand and conceptual confusion. 

Robin Jackson
Professional Development Consultant
Camphill-Rudolf Steiner-Schools


Boucherat, A.  (1987)  Normalisation in mental handicap – acceptance without questions?  Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 11, 423-425.

Department of Education and Science (1978) Special Educational Needs (The Warnock Report).  London: HMSO.

Hansen, D.G. (1976) Slogans vs realities – more data needed. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 6, 366-367.

Hornby, G., Atkinson, M. and Howard, J.  (1997)  Controversial Issues in Special Education. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Jackson, R.  (1989)  The road to enlightenment.  Social Work Today, 21, 24.

Mesibov, G.  (1990)  Normalisation and its relevance today.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20, 379-390.

Renshaw, J.  (1986)  Passing understanding.  Community Care, 17, 19-21.

Rhoades, C. & Browning, P. (1977) Normalisation at what price? Mental Retardation, 15, 24.

Scottish Executive (2002) Standards in Scotland’s Schools Etc Act 2000: Guidance on Presumption of Mainstream Education.  Scottish Executive Circular No3/2002.

Tadd, V. (1992) Dogma or needs?  Special Children, 59, 20-21.

Tizard, J. (1964) Community Services for the Mentally Handicapped.  London: Oxford University Press.

Zigler, E. & Balla, D. (1977) Impact of institutional experience on the behavior and development of retarded persons. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 82, 1-11.

Zigler, E., Balla, D. & Kossan, N. (1986) Effects of types of institutionalisation on responsiveness to social reinforcement, wariness and outerdirectedness among low-MA residents. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 91, 10-17.


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