Change that leads to better lives

Insights from the Inclusion International 17th World Congress 2018

My lifelong passion for inclusive education is well known. Last year, David Towell from the Centre for Inclusive Futures asked me to ask if I’d join an international team of colleagues to run a workshop at Inclusion International's 18th Annual Conference to be held in Birmingham in June 2018.

Families as leaders 1

Back in the 80s and 90s, in my role as Chair of the Education Committee in the London Borough of Newham, I led the inclusive education policy and transferred most of the resources from special schools to mainstream, enabling children previously excluded to attend their local neighbourhood schools with their brothers, sisters and friends. David had also worked extensively in Columbia and Romania and had met colleagues Monica and Madalina who were both campaigning for inclusive education. The thing that all three of us have in common is that we have children with Down’s syndrome who have shown us that inclusive education is the only way forward.

We wrote a pamphlet - Families as Leaders in the Journey to Inclusive Schooling. The workshop went so well that we overran by an hour because there were so many questions and a brilliant discussion –fortunately, it was the last workshop of the day! Of the 62 workshops during the three days, 15 of them were specifically about inclusive education.[1]

The conference was attended by 1,000 people from 70 countries and at least half of the delegates were people with learning disabilities. It was humbling to hear from people living in some of the poorest countries of the world talking about their struggles to include disabled children in mainstream schools despite having no additional resources. A woman from Haiti asked the question “What can we do when we have 90 children in a class with no qualified teachers?” She went on to say that despite this they have a strong movement of families for inclusion.

Listening to these discussions led those of us from the richest countries to ask ourselves why we are still struggling to achieve inclusive education as an unquestionable policy when mostly we have good legislation. There was a general view that Portugal and England have the strongest legislation and yet in both countries about 1% of the school population are still segregated in special schools. The only conclusion that we could come to is that prejudice and discriminatory attitudes are stronger then the law.

Having reflected on the conference and listening to young people and families who I meet in my work takes me back to 1986 when we started to develop inclusive education in Newham. We were able to implement the policy because there was a focus on human rights, equality and what it takes to create schools where everybody belongs, are welcome and valued for their contribution.

My colleague, Julie Pointer wrote a blog last month Inclusion – what’s really stopping us? In which she concluded that we have made the discussion about inclusion so complicated that we have lost the fundamental point and created confusion. It is not acceptable that we have some schools which include children with the most complex needs and yet others which have no children with high needs at all.

The range of practice is evidence that we really do need a national strategy which:

  • Takes us back to basics – founded on the premise that the most vulnerable children and young people in our society must be valued for who they are, respected and supported with high expectations
  • Makes it clear that every school is a school for all, all teachers are teachers of all, and that every school puts in place a training and support programme which ensures that over time good practice in teaching and learning is shared and we develop a national set of quality standards
  • Addresses itself to culture and beliefs about disability and spreads the knowledge of what works to support young people with complex needs to be included, to have friends, to develop independence and other skills
  • Fundamentally understands that the inclusion of children and young people with disabilities and special needs is not only a human right for disabled children but for everybody. Fear of disabled people and prejudicial attitudes and behaviours exist because people do not learn to live together as children

A very common belief is that as the gap between mainstream children and disabled children widens, disabled children are left out of conversations and cannot be part of friendship groups. The evidence is that if adults in a school believe that disabled children should be there, children are the most useful resource. Children and young people who attend inclusive schools talk passionately about their disabled friends and how it is right that schools are for everyone[2]. These young people who will be the future will have disability equality in their bones and as the future workers will be part of building an inclusive society.

Last week, I was reminded how deeply embedded prejudicial beliefs still are. I was chatting to a woman in a café and in passing I said that my daughter is disabled. Her response was “Oh how dreadful, I am so sorry, what’s wrong with her?” I spent another hour talking to her explaining that there is nothing wrong with her but that there is something wrong with society. She was amazed when I told her how my daughter’s life is and thanked me for sharing this with her. Children and young people who attend inclusive schools won’t need to be told, they will know.



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