New research suggests the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs has positive effects that could be further improved upon, writes Rob Webster
The enduring debate about the inclusion of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can be as polarising as it is emotive.
Some argue inclusion is a human right, and that the very existence of special schools symbolises resistance to full inclusion. Advocates point to the positive impact that the presence of children with SEND can have on their peers, in terms of empathy and valuing individual diversity and difference.
Ranged against them are sceptical voices who say the very idea of the “everyone in one setting” form of inclusion is flawed. They highlight the lack of specialist skills, training and experience within the mainstream school workforce, less appropriate and less flexible curricula and the risk of social rejection. Some also argue that children with SEND absorb too much teacher time and attention to the detriment of their classmates.
This “who benefits” question prompted the SEN Policy Research Forum’s recent review of the international evidence on the impact of inclusion for children who do and do not have SEND. Conducted by Peter Gray, Brahm Norwich and myself, it addressed two broad questions.
The first was whether children with SEND do better or worse if they are included in mainstream schools? The second, whether children without SEND in mainstream classes where those with SEND are included do better or worse as a result?
Inclusion appears to have no overall negative effect for children with or without SEND
When it comes to the first question, we found that on balance research findings indicate greater academic gains for children with mild-to-moderate needs educated in mainstream settings, rather than in separate specialist settings. Gains are reported in literacy and maths, and the positive effects are more pronounced in primary schools.
Additionally, a large systematic review found positive outcomes for children with SEND in terms of social engagement, peer acceptance, behaviour issues and participation in school and community groups. It also revealed greater independence and social skills, but two other reviews covering this area reported a more mixed picture.
With regards to our second question, most studies generally show neutral or positive effects of inclusion on the learning of children without SEND. However, the impact associated with the inclusion of children with emotional/behavioural difficulties or more severe/complex SEND is less clear.
One review of 26 studies found 23 per cent showed positive gains on academic outcomes, 58 per cent showed no impact and 19 per cent reported negative effects.
We found comparatively less research on the personal/social effects of inclusion on children without SEND. However, one sizeable review provided strong evidence of a reduction in discriminating attitudes and higher responsiveness to the needs of others, particularly in relation to children with Down’s syndrome and peers with broader intellectual disabilities.
Research into the relative value and impact of mainstream schooling for children with SEND is beset by methodological issues and limitations. A particular limitation we noticed is that studies on inclusion tend not to differentiate between outcomes for groups of children with different types of SEND.
Our review seems to suggest that mainstream inclusion has no overall negative effect for children with or without SEND. If anything, the impact of including children with SEND in mainstream settings is moderately positive or neutral.
However, it is naïve to think the debate about inclusion is reducible to a straightforward ‘good/bad’ verdict. Echoing findings from my own longitudinal research, Ofsted’s new Supporting SEND report reveals concerning patterns of separation within mainstream schools, which “meant that some pupils were not able to participate in some learning opportunities and some pupils were missing entire chunks of the curriculum”.
So is our system hardwired to resist inclusion? Our review suggests not. Effects are stronger where teachers hold positive attitudes, where staff are well trained, use strategies geared to diverse needs and work collaboratively within a problem-solving school culture.
These factors moderate impact and are therefore amenable to change. With the findings from the government’s SEND review due later this year, this will be an encouragement to advocates who argue that having more inclusively minded people acting at every level of the system is as essential as additional resourcing.