The Realities of Inclusion In Australian Secondary Schools

Whilst philosophically inclusion is considered the pinnacle of education equality, its broad nomenclature has caused some to become lost as to it's exact meaning.  The focus of my piece this week is on the realities of inclusion of students with an intellectual disability within a mainstream secondary setting.  Whilst I find integration easy to provide through in class support and alternate courses within the classroom, there comes a time when the student cannot be included as the concepts are beyond him or her.  Therefore I would argue that inclusion is best viewed as what a student does at school as opposed to where a student is placed. 

Thinking about inclusion as the right for all children to partake in the same experience of education as their able peers is met with the unfortunate reality that many secondary courses go through a quantum shift, as the material presented requires higher order processing skills and moves away from the concrete towards the more abstract.  Whilst a student with an intellectual disability can be integrated into the classroom often the challenge is for inclusion within the lesson. Whilst many teachers are supportive of inclusion, the demands of time, curriculum and administration make the adjustment away from the center of the class difficult.  There is research that shows that teachers are generally more proficient at setting tasks for the whole class than teaching to meet the needs of diverse learners (Tomlinson, Callahan, Tomchin, Eiss, Imbeau , & Landrum, 1997). The unfortunate reality is that unless the special education teacher sets and monitors an alternate program for the student in collaboration with an Educational Assistant then the student with disability is left to struggle.
It is easy sometimes to understand why some parents make the choice to send their children to smaller schools that specialize in catering for the disability.  
Pearce and Forlin (2008) outline that

"funding for an Educational Assistant (EA), tutoring, or alternative program is difficult to obtain because priority is given to students who need support with toileting , feeding, mobility ,behaviour and safety, primarily children in the early years of school or those with severe physical or intellectual disabilities (Meyer, 2001)" (p94).

  As a result, some parents choose special education facilities , with smaller classes, trained and experienced teachers, a curriculum that focuses on the needs of the students, partial integration in learning areas where the children are more likely to experience success and at least one EA per class.

It is evident that we are still looking to make students with disability fit into the secondary school structure.  Providing support to fit into a system is always a loosing battle as the inclusion of students with disability become the responsibility of the learning support or special needs teacher.  The ridged systems of a secondary school were not designed with students who have a disability in mind.  Having to negotiate the expectations of multiple teachers, remember to take books to lessons and in the technology age to remember to bring a charged laptop to lesson it all compounds to become a battle against organization instead of a pursuit of learning.

Students with disability are still on the periphery of the education system and despite moves to create a National Curriculum that is inclusive there still continues to be a hegemonic culture in place that puts the student with a disability as an obstacle the teacher has to overcome in his or her already demanding position.

Whilst many ardent inculsionists will jump up and down at the mere acknowledgment of a special or alternate schooling system for students with disability I think we can learn a lot from the models that they have established.  Firstly the smaller school and class sizes do assist in the inclusion of students with disability.  If governments were serious about inclusion there would be a serious attempt to limit class sizes.  Even the most well trained secondary teacher cannot expect to foster inclusive practice with a full timetable and class sizes of thirty students.

Secondly, it is imperative that support is provided to classroom teachers.  This is especially the case for a secondary teacher who has gone from being a specialist in the field in which they teach to having this specialism diluted through the piling on of additional duties.  Provide an assistant within all classes that have a student with a disability. Provide a special education coordinator in every school.  The retort to this has always been the cost involved with staffing an aide in every class that has a student with disability.  In reality with effective coordination of classes you would expect to place two aides per Year group from Year 7- 12 in a large school of 1000 students.  This would amount to 12 teaching assistant and one full time coordinator.  At present I have three assistant and two teachers and we manage to visit most classes.  We run into trouble when we want to run intervention groups or anything in addition to our direct support. Demands are also placed on support when we need to undertake administration duties such as the annual Individual Profile meetings.  In essence if you expect inclusion to work you need to provide the support for teachers instead of placing increasing demands on them. 

Thirdly, if we are going to pursue ridged high stakes testing like NAPLAN and the National Curriculum then we need to think seriously, how do our students with disabilities fit into this system?  Having them opt out or become add on's is not a step towards inclusion.  One aspect that becomes alarmingly evident when students move into secondary school is the gap that opens up between students who have an intellectual disability and their peers.  Failing to provide opportunity for students to participate or providing token opportunity, further reinforces the divide that exists. Perhaps we need to readjust our paradigm of inclusion when we are seeking to include students within a system based on meeting academic outcomes. Perhaps we need to go back to the question of why are we sending students with disability into a system that is not yet resourced and set up for them?

Despite the many challenges inclusion faces in secondary schools it can work with a re-assessment of what inclusion actually looks like.  It is unrealistic to expect students with intellectual disabilities to be included in some classes whilst there is no reason they cannot be included in others. Focus needs to be placed on why parents choose to send their sons/ daughters to a specialist school. As Pearce and Forlin (2008) outline specialist schools offer smaller classes, specialist staff and curriculum that meet the needs of students with disability.  If we are to achieve inclusion we need to be able to offer these services within mainstream schools and not watered down or resource stretched versions of these. Inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities in secondary schools is not about being in the same class but it is about the experiences and learning that is carried out alongside their peers.

Michelle Pearce & Chris Forlin (2005): Challenges and potential solutions for enabling inclusion in
secondary schools, Australasian Journal of Special Education, 29:2, 93-105

Tomlinson , C., Callahan , C., Tomchin, E., Eiss, N., Imbeau, M., & Landrum , M. (1997).Becoming architects of communities of learning: Addressing academic diversity in contemporary classrooms . Exceptional Children, 63 , 269-282.