This week the Premier of Queensland opened a Special School in Cairns, Australia. This was the first new Special School to be built in over 20 years. I feel a bit of a traitor to the disability community, but I don’t think this new school is a reason to celebrate. In fact, I see this opening as a step backwards for inclusive education in Queensland.
If we wish our community to be inclusive of people with disabilities, the inclusion of children with disabilities must start in their local schools. All children should be able to attend their local school with the children from their neighbourhood. If we grow up in and go to school in diverse communities we will learn to live in our communities more harmoniously.
The “Count Us In!” resources are a great set of lesson ideas for all age groups to develop an understanding of the value of our diverse communities. More importantly, the authors have provided much-needed reasoning as to why all children, including those with a disability, should attend their local school.
So what’s wrong with Special Schools?
I have been engaged in dialogue with teachers in Special Schools who like to argue that a Special School can be inclusive. They argue that within the school, parents and students are welcomed and staff strive to develop a sense of belonging to the school community. I certainly do not doubt that this happens. My son attended an amazing Special School. However, a child can’t attend a Special School unless they have a significant disability. The Special School in this sense is “exclusive” and usually “segregated”.
I need to reiterate that I am not saying individual Special Schools are harming our children in any way. I am concerned about the wider social implications for educating our children in exclusive and/or segregated settings. Cologon (2014) refers to this systemic exclusion as “macro- exclusion”.
Segregation or exclusion is experienced as a stigmatising mark of being a ‘lesser’ or inferior person. It is a process of dehumanisation. Macro-exclusion occurs when a child is excluded from mainstream education and segregated into a ‘special’ school or a ‘special’ class/unit for all or part of the day, week or year (or denied education at all).
Cologon, 2014, p. 14)
Cologon (2014) uses strong words and I agree with them completely. These comments are not just an opinion, they are based on extensive global research that supports these claims. In fact, there is too much research about inclusion done well to list here. In fact, research about inclusion is not a new thing as findings of Falvey’s 2004 research show.
I also emphasise that inclusive education done badly is NOT inclusion. So often we hear stories and urban myths about the “dangers of inclusion” based on horrible experiences by some children at some schools. These experiences should not be ignored. However, these stories are about bad education, not inclusion. There are many, many more great stories about inclusion done well. And so much eye-opening research to support the inclusion of young people with a disability. You can find the extensive research of just one well-respected researcher, Michael Giangreco here. Another extensive and recent summary of research about inclusive education can also be found here.
Meaning of inclusive education
There are many definitions of inclusive education globally and they don’t just refer to people with a disability. You can find a UK definition here; a definition from UNICEF in Europe here; and a definition from New Zealand here. In Australia, there are also many definitions that can be found and many academics ponder the meaning of these. Many texts and articles describe the history of inclusive education and provide contemporary definitions. On of the most recent definitions comes from Kathy Cologon (2014) in here booklet “Inclusion in education“. The most relevant sentence here is to welcoming of all children in mainstream educational settings.
I’m a little tired of hearing that development of inclusive schools will take time. Though not using the same terminology, I heard the same message some 30 years ago when I started teaching. Giagreco (1998), cleverly reflects issues of inclusive education for children with a disability through his comics. Now nearly over 20 years old, the comic below still does not represent common practice in many schools today.
The time has come where we don’t wait for politicians to get around to providing the relevant resources and placing them appropriately for inclusive education. The time has come when teachers, parents, and the community should demand it. Therefore, one day soon, inclusion won’t be spoken about as something difficult or unachievable but as everyday practice.