Have We Made any Progress Towards Inclusive Secondary Schooling?

My thoughts based on the article by Michelle Pearce & Chris Forlin (2005): Challenges and potential solutions for enabling inclusion in secondary schools, Australasian Journal of Special Education, 29:2, pp.93- 105 

"it is possible that including students with disability into mainstream classrooms is in fact a gift for school restructuring. Their presence requires and pushes educational goals, theories and best practices."

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How far have we come in achieving inclusive schools in Australia. I came across this article a few days ago and was drawn to it by the relevance it had to my own setting in Australia. I have read a number of Chris Forlin's articles and I admire the straightforwardness of the language used. She escapes the theoretical minefield that exists in much of the literature surrounding Inclusion and gets straight to the point that for inclusion to work in Australia and the World we need to meet the challenges head on.   No more are these challenges apparent than in the highly structured secondary school system, characterized by bells, timetables and the compartmentalizing of subjects.

Inclusion has been on the Governments agenda for some time and whilst the notion of an inclusive schooling system whereby students with disability are educated in mainstream classes has been philosophically established as just the practicality of it has met with resistance.  This is especially the case for students with intellectual disabilities (p.94).  Whilst the largest numbers of students with disability are in primary schools there is a growing demand for students with intellectual disability to be educated in mainstream secondary schools.  Whilst many parents want their children to have all the opportunity to reach thier potential there is a real fear that the children will not cope within a large secondary school.

Forlin and Pearce outline that as the curriculum becomes more specialised and a greater emphasis is placed on higher order literacy and numeracy skills students with disability face greater marginalisation and ostracism from their peers.  It was interesting to read that an Australian study into the accptance of disability by students found that boys with disability were the lowest ranked on the acceptance scale second to girls with disability.  This further excacerbates the problem of providing support for these students who do not want to be seen as different among their peers.  On personal reflection I see this as a negative of the current support systems in place of placing a teachers aid in the classroom to support a student with an intellectual disability. In most cases the support person is generally a middle aged female.  In primary school there is little stigma attached to this however when students move into secondary school and with to gain greater autonomy like their peers a stigma becomes attached to being the boy or girl who has an aid next to them during the lesson.  I also find that the exclusive placing of teachers aids to support just students with disability can create a crutch for the student and an attachment that prevents social and academic independence.

The rigidness of secondary schools presents great difficulties upon those seeking to foster inclusion. The pressures placed on students to conform to timetables of discrete learning opportunities that are presented from the front of the classroom present even more barriers for students with disability.  The pace at which a secondary school operates and the demands placed on teachers to manage greater numbers of pupils means there is less time for individual students and less time to collaborate on developing individual strategies for students.  The constraints placed on teachers also dictate the lessons they present. One of the major issues faced within many schools is that teachers simply do not know how to plan for the diversity within their classrooms.  In response the teacher often teaches to the middle of the group to ensure the core content is covered. As Forlin and Pearce state there seems little time for teachers to collaborate and develop programs that support the diversity of learners teachers now face.

The author make an interesting note that
"it is possible that inlduing students with disability into mainstream classrooms is in fact a gift for restructuring and inclusion. Their presence requires and pushes educational goals, theories and best practices."

The driving force behind the success of inclusion is leadership and commitment to inclusion itself.  Currently many schools simply look for ways students can adjust to fit their systems (p.98). Whilst it may look like the student is 'fitting in' and being included it is no more than the old system of integration. The authors quote the work of Thousands who claims the greatest gift a principal can give the staff is time; time for collaboration, preparing and reflecting on practices. Unfortunately this is costly and competes with the many other time demands placed on principals and staff.

The second solution to the issue of inclusion in secondary schools is the involvement of the entire community.  Unless everyone has a shared ownership of the notion that the school has an inclusive culture then barriers will continue to exist. This includes getting students on board through pastoral lessons and student council discussions regarding the environment they wish to promote. This achieves two purposes it teaches out students to partake in meaningful democratic discussions and also it teaches the social responsibilities that we wish them to take on as they become socially conscious citizens.

In order to reduce barriers presented by the rigidness of the secondary school structure there has been much research to suggest that middle schooling has a positive effect on transitioning students from primary to secondary schooling.  Middle schooling operates on the notion that the students have more time with one teacher who may teach a range of linked subjects.  My first hand experience of this is that it does work in that the one teacher is able to monitor the student and is able to develop a greater understanding of the students learning needs. Block scheduling is also supportive of students with disability. Having to move to different classrooms, remember to bring books and folders and  shut off what was happening in the previous lesson is often too much for students who have a learning disability.  The longer lesson does provide more stability for the student and reduces the organizational pressures placed on him/her

The final strategy is collaboration and I cannot advocate for this enough. Having two teachers working together supporting a group of students is extremely effective when managed properly. Looking past the fact that ratio of student to teachers is reduced the impact of having two approaches reduces the pressure on the teacher in the classroom and provides a sounding board for reflection. Unfortunately most schools do not have the luxury of having a spare learning support teacher around to carry out team teaching.  However, from my experience I see an under utilization of teaching assistants in classrooms.  Whilst they do not have the skills to manage the entire class an assistant can be of great use when the class is set group work. The assistant can monitor progress enabling the teacher to support students who may be facing difficulty.

In closing I feel that we have come such a small way since 2005 (7 Years) in achieving inclusion and many of these achievements have been made in primary schools.  The inclusive practice that exists within secondary schools is piecemeal and often tokenistic hampered by funding constraints, systemic barriers, lack of priority and misguidance as to what inclusion really means. Please prove me wrong.

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