I am very uncomfortable with the marketization of education. Once children become commodities we lose touch with their humanity and personality and are in danger of forgetting what schools should be about. Yet I see some evidence that in legislations around the globe, schools are increasingly being treated as businesses with managers seeking to make a profit.
This came to the forefront of my thinking yesterday when Suchitra Narayan from Kochi in Kerala posted a response on this blog (Ever Decreasing Circles 12th May). Suchitra has been an advocate for inclusion for many years and has clearly been affronted by the attitude of a school in the area where she works. Here, a mainstream school had established a working partnership with a special school in order to begin a process of moving a child from segregated provision to learn alongside his peers. Examples of this joint approach to working have been cited from many parts of the world and have been seen as a positive step towards enabling children to be gradually accepted into a mainstream classroom. In schools where the staff may lack the confidence to move directly into fully including a child, the support of specialist provision has often been seen as an appropriate way of working. However, alarm bells are now ringing for Suchitra who tells us that:-
“Apparently the special school has told them yesterday, that unless they attend all days in the special school, their names will be struck off the list…as only full attendance will help the special school get grants!!”
So then, here is the motivation for keeping a child on roll, his or her presence there will attract financial rewards!
What does this tell us about the attitudes of the managers of a school that sees the child in financial terms rather than as an individual with a need, and indeed a right to receive an education? The school apparently wants this child, not because they can provide him with the best of educational experiences, but simply because he will attract a financial grant to boost the coffers of the school.
I promised yesterday that I was going to post a series of optimistic reports – or to be more accurate I asked for positive responses to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action that would enable me to tell positive stories. So far everything I have posted in today’s piece sounds rather negative, for which I apologise. So let me then turn this around and tell you of a story that is the direct opposite of that provided by Suchitra.
Here in Northamptonshire, in a small town often regarded as having many social problems, a local head teacher declared that any child living within the catchment of his school would be welcome to attend. Furthermore, he would never exclude a child from the school and saw it as his responsibility and that of his staff, to serve all children in the area. Over the next few years he fought many battles, initially with some anxious teachers, some with parents who didn’t want their children taught alongside a pupil on the autism spectrum or with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some with psychologists who insisted on labelling children in inappropriate ways. He was, however, firm in his belief that children had a right to attend their neighbourhood school. He always listened politely to parents and won most of them around to his way of thinking, though sadly, a few decided to take their offspring elsewhere.
This head teacher committed himself to ensuring that all of his staff, not only the teachers, had access to high quality professional development and that there was open discussion about some of the challenges that existed around teaching and learning in inclusive classrooms. The reputation of the school grew and it was soon recognised as a centre of excellence for teaching in respect of all children. Consecutive inspection reports applauded the school for its contribution to the local community, its commitment to social justice and the quality of teaching and learning.
All this happened around twenty years ago and raised the eyebrows of many other headteachers in the area. When the head teacher left twelve years after beginning this initiative, I observed the school with some concerns. Would the new school leadership be able to continue along these inclusive lines or would there now be issues around children labelled as having special educational needs? I need not have worried. The culture of inclusive teaching and community commitment is now so embedded in that school that all of the staff, parents and other professionals simply see what is happening as the norm. The school continues to serve all children in its neighbourhood, regardless of need or ability.
How have they succeeded? I think the answer to this is quite simple. For the school community every child is a valued and respected individual. Not valued in monetary terms, but rather as a child with an entitlement to learning.
Take heart Suchitra. Development takes time, but with determined teachers who are committed to inclusive principles much can and will be achieved. So I hope that my confidence in and admiration for the dedication of colleagues in a school here has begun to fulfil my promise of a few days at least of optimistic postings.