Those who can’t teach, socially include

Education or social inclusion? A teacher argues that you can't have both.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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‘This National Curriculum includes for the first time a detailed, overarching statement on inclusion which makes clear the principles schools must follow in their teaching right across the curriculum, to ensure that all pupils have the chance to succeed, whatever their individual needs and the potential barriers to their learning may be.’ (1)

The above statement from Britain’s National Curriculum online shows that inclusion has been placed at the heart of the UK’s school curriculum. Today, cradle-to-grave educational initiatives are justified in terms of social inclusion. In July 2004, UK chancellor Gordon Brown announced significant extra funding for the Books for Babies project, a government backed initiative to encourage parents to read to their children, on the basis that it was ‘an investment not just in every child but an investment in the future of our country’ (2). The optimistic assumption is that a more literate nation will be more cohesive and socially inclusive: polite society need no longer fear the disengaged illiterates.

Likewise, the National Strategy for Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills aims to tackle ‘disengagement’ by giving ‘all adults in England the opportunity to acquire the skills for active participation in twenty-first century society’ (3). Policymakers for the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) seem to think that a significant number of adults choose not to vote, work, run voluntary organisations or take part in sports because of a lack of basic literacy skills.

It is barely acknowledged that participation in all of these activities was higher a generation ago, when we didn’t have television advertising campaigns instructing us to ‘stamp out our gremlins.’ Now, it seems that it is no longer sufficient to promote reading because it allows people access to great works of literature; instead, we need to encourage reading in babies and adults for the social and economic good of the country.

In schools and colleges, policies that seem to be purely concerned with education or training are being re-written to promote social inclusion. The government’s strategy for skills, encompassing basic literacy and numeracy skills, vocational skills, common, key, essential and transferable skills, is considered important because ‘by increasing the skills levels of all under-represented groups, we will develop an inclusive society’ (4). Nothing to do with the shortage of plumbers, then.

In schools, teaching in an inclusive style is a compulsory requirement of the curriculum, to be inspected by the Office For Standards in Education (OFSTED). Teachers will be checked to ensure they ‘plan their approaches to teaching and learning so that all pupils can take part in lessons fully and effectively’ (5). The logical consequence of this is either individualised tasks for each pupil, or a lesson that lacks challenge for anyone.

The National Curriculum also outlines values that are to be incorporated into inclusive teaching. In a successful lesson, ‘stereotypical views are challenged and pupils learn to appreciate and view positively differences in others whether arising from race, gender, ability or disability’ (6). Subject guidelines are used to promote the values of inclusion. Geography teachers must ‘inspire pupils to think about their own place in the world, their values and their rights and responsibilities to other people and the environment’ (7), while Physical Education (PE) teachers should ensure pupils are taught ‘how to go about getting involved in activities that are good for their personal and social health and well being’ (8).

In today’s secondary education, the specific body of knowledge attached to individual subjects takes second place to children taking on board the ethos of inclusivity. But what does this ethos actually mean?

What is social inclusion?

Writers have commented that the term social inclusion is being used with such frequency that it has become a politically correct cliché – according to one author, ‘obligatory in the discourse of all right thinking people’ (9). An irony is that the more frequently the term is used, the more difficult it becomes to pin down exactly what is meant by ‘social inclusion’. Projects aiming to promote social inclusion have a wide array of aims: to tackle teenage pregnancy; obesity; high unemployment rates; low literacy levels; low life-expectancy rates; higher incidences of criminality or non-participation in elections.

It is this all-encompassing nature of social inclusion projects that makes defining the term so difficult. Indeed, it has been argued that the elasticity of the term ‘may be a source of analytic difficulties, but it is unquestionably a source of strength in terms of political rhetoric’ (10). This ‘strength’ is based on the assumption that we accept inclusion as an unquestionable good: an inherently positive goal for society to cohere around.

The term ‘social exclusion’ is no less elastic. The New Labour government set up a Social Exclusion Unit in 1997 in order to ‘reduce social exclusion and tackle disadvantage, as well as to reach out to those in hard to reach groups’ (11). While ‘social exclusion’ is sometimes assumed to be a euphemism for poverty, it is important to recognise that social inclusion projects do not aim to tackle poverty or inequality, but rather to alleviate what are perceived to be some of its effects upon individuals and society, such as ‘low self-esteem’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’.

Campaigns for social inclusion are a symptom of political defeatism. Proponents of such campaigns have given up on challenging inequality and instead seek to find new ways to contain its worst effects by altering individuals’ lifestyles and behaviour. The ultimate aim of such projects is to increase social cohesion – the core idea of inclusion is that ‘every member of society should participate fully in it’ (12).

This emphasis on participation leads to a focus on employment and ‘equality of access to the labour market’ (13). Unemployment comes to be seen as a problem not because of its resulting lack of income, but because it is considered a threat to an individual’s self-esteem. As UK social security secretary Harriet Harman commented in 1998: ‘Work is central to the government’s attack on social exclusion … Work is an important element of the human condition … it is a key to independence, self-respect and opportunities for advancement.’ (14)

In education, the social inclusion debate emerged from policies aimed at integrating children with special needs or behaviour problems into mainstream schools. From the mid-1980s onwards, campaigns by parents and teachers gathered momentum to keep children with learning difficulties, Down’s syndrome or a range of physical disabilities, in mainstream schools. ‘Special schools’ began to close. Including special needs children within the mainstream of the education system was considered to benefit not just the individual concerned but all the other children in the class who would gain ‘a greater degree of understanding, more knowledge about certain disabilities and a generally more positive outlook towards those who have them’ (15).

Today, the debate has moved on. Ever-expanding definitions of ‘special needs’ mean that, incredibly, in 2001 21 per cent of primary school age children in England and Wales were on the special needs register (16). The concept of special needs has been relativised to such an extent that all children are now considered, to apply the euphemism, ‘special’. This may mean the child has special gifts or talents or has any one of a long list of learning or social difficulties from ADHD to dyslexia via Asperger’s Syndrome. Teachers concerned with special needs are finding more and more parents queuing at their doors demanding labels for their child.

At present, schools are in the process of changing SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Coordinators) to Heads of Inclusion. This is not merely a change of job title but reflects the changing and massively expanding nature of this job. Heads of Inclusion are ‘more concerned with developing an education system in which tolerance, diversity and equity are striven for’ (17). Inclusion, as a political project, has superseded the arena of special needs to encompass all children at risk of exclusion, be it socially, academically or behaviourally, or because they just happen to live in the wrong postcode.

Today, inclusion is no longer about how best to teach special needs pupils: it is about how to foster certain values in every child. Where inclusion policies are challenged, it tends to be in cases of older pupils with behaviour problems. Previously, expulsion from school was the punishment of last resort for head teachers. Now, with the closure of Pupil Referral Units and Home School Services, head teachers are under pressure to keep such pupils within the mainstream. For the most part, however, it is assumed that ‘anything other than the total integration of all pupils is tantamount to supporting a form of educational apartheid’ (18).

The key issue about inclusion in education is that tackling inclusion is a political goal, not an educational one. As secondary education finds itself under increasing pressure to include all children, by modifying their attitudes and boosting their self-esteem, educating them becomes less and less of a priority.

Self-esteem through participation

The emphasis of many social inclusion projects is on building self-esteem through active participation in the labour market. This has important consequences for education. The first is to turn learning into an entirely functional activity geared towards the perceived needs of the workplace. Employers are to be given unprecedented access in determining syllabus content, and subjects are to become increasingly modularised, with students given the flexibility to sit only those modules deemed relevant to the needs of their employers (19). Few things can be more demoralising to a learner than being told they can learn only part of a subject – ‘because that is all they need to know.’

The tyranny of relevance dominates the curriculum. ‘Essential skills’ in communication, working with others, numeracy, and Information Communication Technology (ICT) must appear in every teacher’s scheme of work – because this is deemed to be what employers want. It doesn’t matter that an ability to use a computer will not enhance my students’ understanding of Wuthering Heights one jot. They are still expected to use ICT within my English lessons on a number of occasions throughout the year.

The pervasiveness of relevance influences subject content: not only must skills taught be relevant to the world of work but content must be relevant to the lives of the students. As an English teacher, I am encouraged to look for books my students can ‘relate to’. This means tedious lessons studying material that reflects back to students the minutiae of their own dull lives. At the same time, great works of literature become reduced to ‘issues’: Lord of The Flies – bullying; Romeo and Juliet – boyfriend trouble; To Kill A Mockingbird – racism; all the better to nurture the values of inclusion.

For even the very youngest children, creative and imaginative pursuits are banished in favour of a focus on relevant basic skills. Primary schools appear to be dominated by literacy hours and numeracy hours to such an extent that even PE needs squeezing into a half-hour window of opportunity. The rhetoric is that ‘achieving basic skills reduces inequalities’ (20).

The problem for those concerned with education is not with teaching basic skills, but the fact that teaching anything beyond basic skills is called into question. Recent government legislation alters the financing of Further Education. In future, students without a level two qualification (equivalent to GCSE) will receive free tuition, whereas those wishing to enrol for higher-level courses will have to foot the bill themselves (21). Statements such as: ‘We recognise the importance of enabling students with learning difficulties … to have an equal opportunity to participate and achieve in learning’ (22) lead to accusations of ‘dumbing down’. What is really going on is a shift of focus away from education entirely towards aims of participation and raising self-esteem.

Citizenship, for example, has become a compulsory component of the National Curriculum, which requires 14-year-olds to: ‘Take part in school and community-based activities, demonstrating personal and group responsibility in their attitudes to themselves and others.’ (23) There is no indication as to what types of school- and community-based activities pupils should be engaged with: they may well be voting for toilet roll preferences, but as long as they are participating, that’s all that matters. In fact, just sitting in a classroom can count as participation for older students.

The obsession with self-esteem is the second major consequence of building education around social inclusion. This is a very recent phenomenon; when I trained to be a teacher 10 years ago, not one reference was made to our self-esteem or the self-esteem of the pupils we were to meet. Low self-esteem was never articulated as being a problem. Today, every pupil a teacher comes into contact with is deemed to be at risk of low self-esteem and it is the assumed responsibility of teachers to do all they can to challenge this epidemic.

Kathryn Ecclestone exposes the common assumption that ‘education plays a fundamental role in remedying the apparently growing problem of low self-esteem’ (24). A widespread fear of confronting students with failure results in teachers suppressing anything considered too challenging for pupils: the role of the teacher is now not to challenge but to praise and ego-massage pupils. This inevitably results in a focus on pupils’ feelings as opposed to pupils’ learning. Teachers become therapists, counselling pupils about their state of mind; the danger is that, ‘therapeutic pedagogy starts where learners are and leaves them and their teachers in the same ‘safe place’ (25).

As Claire Fox notes: ‘Scared of failing people, and being held responsible for social exclusion, teachers constantly cave into their new role. Teachers are now not focused on subject knowledge because the subject has been sidelined in favour of social policy and state education has been politicised for non-educational instrumental ends.’ (26)

Why now?

It is important to ask why many of today’s teachers seem happy to go along unquestioningly with the New Labour aim of turning education into one large social inclusion project. Why would teachers want to sacrifice their role as educators to become ‘inclusion monitors’? Why do significant numbers of teachers wish to promote an education system in which nurturing values of ‘tolerance, diversity and equity’ is considered more important than the academic attainment of their pupils? The answer lies, not in some peculiar shift in the psyche of today’s teachers, but in a new official philistinism about the purpose of education.
To a certain extent, the education system and its practitioners have always been dogged by political motivations. There has never been a ‘golden age’ where teaching and learning were given time and funding merely for the sake of intellectual curiosity. In a reflection of the political values held dear at the time, grammar schools were considered vitally important in educating the elite and in allowing a tiny minority of bright working-class children the opportunity to aspire towards that elite. The ideology behind comprehensive schools was to bring about a more egalitarian society by educating all the children from a local community alongside one another and not segregating children aged eleven.

Crucially however, in both cases it was the role of knowledge and learning that was considered to bring about a transformation in the social circumstances of the individual pupil. Bright, aspirant, working-class children could hope to get on by grappling with the same syllabus content as their more wealthy classmates. It was in imparting this knowledge that teachers gained their sense of purpose. Teachers could argue the toss about the distinct political ideology driving through educational policy, but of most importance was inspiring children with subject knowledge.

Today’s government, by contrast, has no broader purpose for education. It does not consider that subject knowledge or academic achievement might benefit young people: indeed, it worries that such educational endeavours get in the way of the goals of inclusion, by focusing children away from what is directly relevant to their lives, and encouraging them to compete. Devoid of any appreciation of the role of education, the government has resorted to robbing schools of their educational function in order to engage in a project of social engineering on a despicable scale.

The government of today sees the purpose of schools as being at the front line of child protection and social services. The Children’s Act of March 2004 involves a radical overhaul in the purpose of teachers and schools. Extended schools, open from 8:00am until 6:00pm, will provide a one-stop shop for government agencies, involving teachers working alongside social workers and health professionals in order to seek out and protect children at risk of playground bullying, abusive relatives, drunken parents or obesity.

This new legislation shifts child protection concerns to the heart of a school’s purpose. Teachers will be expected to turn into counsellors, being permanently approachable and ready to listen to a pupil’s problems – held to account for any problems they fail to act upon. This role is clearly incompatible with disciplining unruly youngsters or putting children under pressure to undertake new challenges. The proposals emphasise child protection at the expense of education, while the new orthodoxy suggests that children cannot learn if they are troubled by emotional upset – ignoring the fact that emotional ups and downs are part of growing up and the children for whom school and learning actually provides a much-needed escape from domestic strife.

The Children’s Act encourages teachers to focus on the emotional health of individuals rather than their academic potential. Teachers who have given up on engaging pupils with a love of learning instead focus their energies on counselling children through the inevitable trials and tribulations of being young. Is this the best that schools can do for today’s children?

Opposing the inclusion ethos

On one level, the problem with the inclusion ethos seems quite straightforward. More time and money spent on inclusion means fewer resources for teaching subject knowledge and this can only be to the detriment of the academic content of children’s education.

Teaching and including are two distinctly different aims. Including involves promoting values, boosting self-esteem and seeking whole group participation in an activity that may be essentially contentless; teaching, by contrast, involves rigorously challenging pupils with new and unfamiliar material, pushing them to the boundaries of their understanding and potentially making them feel uncomfortable with their limited understanding of the world. Teachers cannot use the same finite pot of time and money to do both. Put simply, while I’m organising a whole class litter-picking activity or investigating playground squabbles I am not teaching literature.

But there is more to it than this. Teachers are not expected to teach and include as separate activities but to turn teaching itself into an exercise in social inclusion. Yet because including and teaching are fundamentally contradictory aims, it is just not possible to fulfil the requirement of the National Curriculum and teach in an inclusive manner. I cannot include everyone in my mixed ability class and create an environment that is stimulating and challenging to all. It is impossible to boost the self-esteem of my pupils while simultaneously making them feel uncomfortable as they are pushed to the limits of their understanding. It is impossible to inculcate a prescribed list of values while undertaking a rigorous analysis of academic content. To include everyone means no one gets challenged and lessons are reduced to the lowest intellectual common denominator.

The ideas behind socially inclusive teaching radically alter the purpose of education and training so that the function of schools and teachers ceases to be about engaging pupils with challenging new ideas. A government genuinely concerned with children’s learning would not sacrifice the educational function of schools and teachers in this way.

Joanna Williams is a lecturer in English at Thanet College in Kent. She writes on a range of educational issues.

(1) National Curriculum for England website

(2) News and events section of the Bookstart website

(3) Skills for Life, Department for Education and Skills, 2000

(4) 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

(5) National Curriculum for England website

(6) National Curriculum for England website

(7) National Curriculum for England website

(8) National Curriculum for England website

(9) Inclusion: The Dynamic of School Development, D Skidmore, Open University Press, 2004

(10) Social Inclusion: Possibilities and Tensions, A Stewart, Macmillan Press, 2000

(11) Social Exclusion Unit website

(12) J Gray, in Social Inclusion: Possibilities and Tensions, ed Askonas and Stewart, Macmillan Press, 2000

(13) J Gray, in Social Inclusion: Possibilities and Tensions, ed Askonas and Stewart, Macmillan Press, 2000

(14) R Lister, in Social Inclusion: Possibilities and Tensions, ed Askonas and Stewart, Macmillan Press, 2000

(15) Special Children: Meeting the Challenge in the Primary School, J and P Leadbetter, Cassell, 1993

(16) Reflective Teaching, A Pollard, Continuum, 2002

(17) Inclusion: The Dynamic of School Development, D Skidmore, Open University Press, 2004

(18) Special Children: Meeting the Challenge in the Primary School, J and P Leadbetter, Cassell, 1993

(19) See 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

(20) 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

(21) 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

(22) 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

(23) National Curriculum for England website

(24) ‘The rise of low self-esteem and the lowering of educational expectations’, K Ecclestone, in Key Debates in Education, ed D Hayes, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004

(25) ‘The rise of low self-esteem and the lowering of educational expectations’, K Ecclestone, in Key Debates in Education, ed D Hayes, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004

(26) ‘The philosophy gap’, C Fox, in Key Debates in Education, ed D Hayes, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004

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Topics Politics


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