The short answer to the question of what I think inclusion in classrooms would look like is..... I have an idea, but I don't completely know.
I can, however, tell you what it is not.
It is not the current system we have in public schools in New South Wales, Australia. Both our Federal and State governments seem determined to remove funding and support for kids with extra support needs from the mainstream schooling system in our state. They have removed general funding from schools and specific funding for kids who are disabled. The result of this for our family was the removal of 3 of our 5 school aged kids from the public school system in one year. Those who did and would have qualified for individual support under the system that existed pre 2012 no longer receive it or are eligible to even apply because they are not "disabled enough", but the school system and the teachers in it are so stretched that they cannot provide adequate or appropriate supports for my kids.
To try to answer the question of what I think inclusion would look like I have been asking myself, How could this have been avoided? There is no simple answer.
The school staff did try. They, for the most part, were truly wonderful. They did their best to support my kids and make things easier for them. I understand how hard it is for them. I am a teacher myself.
I know what it is like to have a student not coping. The room is not right, the environment is too much, the day is too long, the breaks are not frequent or long enough, the number of students in the room is just too many and the number of staff on the floor is way too few. Controlling, rather than empowering, becomes the focus necessary for survival and very few children can thrive under those circumstances. I know the feeling of helplessness and inadequacy when you just cannot help a child from within the constraints the system places on you as a teacher.
Solving the issues I can see requires a change from the very core of the education system all the way out to the edges. It means new policy, new procedure, new minds to work on it and new funding to build it. It requires new research, new ways of thinking and new methods of training. It requires more teachers with better pay instead of funding cuts and pay deals that won't even keep up with inflation. It requires an investment that reflects the true value of society caring well for its most vulnerable. It requires an investment politicians seem unwilling to make.
Now, none of what I am saying is new to this discussion. Many others have said what I am saying. David Gonski and a team of people spent a number of years investigation and putting together a report of recommendations to the Federal Government. I read the report, and I hope Mr Gonski and those who worked with him will forgive my gross simplification of their work, but essentially what the report said was that there are some students who require more support than others and the schools those students attend need to be funded better if they have any hope of providing that support. Our current government wants us to believe they agree and so have promised to fund the first few years of the roll out of the suggested strategies hoping, I think, that no one will notice that all the really essential stuff that would make the implementation of the Gonski Report recommendations worthwhile won't happen within the timeframe they are willing to commit to.
But let's move away from the political and look at the idealistic stuff. What would a classroom that could successfully support my kids look like?
- It would be well lit by natural light rather than fluorescent lighting.
- There would be numerous chill out zones that the students could access as they felt the need to.
- There would be minimal large group instruction time, with enough teachers and resources to provide small group and individual assistance for all learning experiences.
- There would be minimal bookwork expected, and an awareness of the difficulty many students have with text heavy learning leading to facilitation of hands on and interactive learning experiences provided as a supplement or alternative to text based learning as appropriate to meet individual needs.
- It would look unorganised to an outsider, but be structured in a way that each students needs for routine were met and communicated in a way they understand.
- It would involve mess and noise and play and laughter, even for older students.
- It would involve teachers who are prepared to learn to be partners in education rather than leaders who must teach to the outcomes of standardised testing.
- It would require out of the box thinking.
- It would include students as planners and decision makers, with teachers as facilitators and collaborators whose goal is to assist rather than enforce compliance.
- It would recognise that much of the value of schooling is not the actual academics, but rather the process of learning to learn and be confident and follow your instincts and advocate for yourself.
- It would be flexible and responsive to students leadings and interests and ever changing needs.
- It would be indoors and outdoors and real life hands on practical learning as much a possible.
- It would allow for screen time as a coping strategy that is not frowned on.
- It would allow for communication methods that do not require vocalising.
- It would be gentle and encouraging and never coercive or manipulating.
- It would assume children know themselves and their needs and would listen carefully.
- It would value diversity in all its forms and would encourage children to genuinely be themselves, to confidently ask questions and explore answers, to see themselves as both learners and teachers, and it would hold sacred the right of each child to say no when they need to.
Those things in place in a classroom would begin to make public education more accessible to my kids and would be a start at making inclusive education available to all. You can call me unrealistic if you like, you can say I am asking too much. But I do think that it is pretty obvious that the current system is not working for many of our kids and if we aren't prepared to think differently about education we are only going to see things get worse. If we say we value education, and we want to serve all students well, the approach we are taking must change.
Inclusion is not something we can pull off by adding ramps and rails and lunch time library clubs and sticking kids in support units and saying we are trying our best. Real inclusion requires a complete change of approach that aims to not just add disabled peoples needs as an extra at the end of our planning, but incorporating them from the beginning.
Diversity is valuable and failing to plan to include all students is short sighted and narrow minded. Until the policymakers and funding providers realise this and are prepared to act on it, we will continue to see children like mine failed by the system that is supposed to exist to prepare them to be their best. And that is something we should all be ashamed of.