INCLUSION: Confusion about inclusion: patching up or system change?


  • Klaus Wedell

Klaus Wedell
Crown Cottage


In this article, Klaus Wedell, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, looks back over 35 years of developments in the worlds of special and inclusive education. He engages directly with the complexities – for example, the tensions between the standards agenda and policy on inclusion – that have led some commentators to adopt controversial positions and that have engendered heated debate. Klaus Wedell also discusses a dilemma that is emerging as a key issue in the field – the relationships between ‘difference’, stigma, equality of opportunity and ‘special’ or separate provision. The response provided here takes, as a starting point, the notion of a flexible education system that could recognise diversity among learners while making provision for all. Klaus Wedell explores this possibility in terms of the curriculum, pedagogy, school structures and local authorities. He indicates points at which policies contradict one another and where practice has not evolved to address the challenges raised by innovative thinking. He provides evidence of the need for systemic change. He argues that all young people should be valued as individuals so that the differences between them can be acknowledged without prejudice. Only in this way, suggests Klaus Wedell, can the artificial separation of special educational needs policy and mainstream thinking be ended.


It is good to celebrate milestones such as BJSE's 35th volume. Richard Byers has reminded us that this journal started in 1974 under its previous name – the year in which the Warnock Committee held its first session. To get some idea of the level of ‘official’ thinking about special educational needs at that time, one has only to look at the terminology used in the brief that the then Government gave to the Committee:

‘To review educational provision . . . for children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind, taking account of the medical aspects of their needs, together with arrangements to prepare them for entry into employment . . . and to make recommendations.’

(DES, 1978, p. 1)

At that time, ‘official’ terminology had not yet caught up with the ideas and thinking of those involved in special educational needs, and this was one of the main reasons for the pressure on the Government to set up an enquiry (Wedell, 2008). This conceptual gap between official policy and current thinking is very significant, and is one of the reasons for the choice of title for this article. The Warnock Committee had, by the end of its deliberations, caught up with current thinking, and had adopted the term ‘special educational needs’, which had been introduced by Professor Ron Gulliford of Birmingham University seven years earlier in 1971 (Gulliford, 1971). The Report also laid the foundations for early ideas about inclusion, subject to qualification:

‘By stressing that the aims of education were the same for all children, and that the concept of handicap was relative, the Committee laid the basis for promoting the integration of children with special educational needs into ordinary schools, subject to the requirement to meet these needs.’

(Wedell, 1990, p. 22)

Thirty years after the publication of the Warnock Report is therefore, as Professor Mittler (2008) mentioned in the first issue of this volume of BJSE, a good point in time to consider developments in policy about special educational needs – and about inclusion in particular.

Polices about inclusion

Over the last 30 years, policies about ‘integration’ and subsequently about ‘inclusion’ have been the subject of much controversy. Reviews of research comparing children and young people in segregated and non-segregated settings have not found clear indications that either leads to better educational achievement (Lindsay, 2003). This finding is hardly surprising if one considers the dilemmas that have been faced by those attempting to implement inclusion. Norwich (2008, p. 57) identifies three basic dilemmas:

  • 1whether and how to identify children with significant difficulties in learning as having SEN/disabilities – or not: the ‘identification’ dilemma;
  • 2whether children with SEN/disabilities should learn the same common curriculum content as other children without SEN/disabilities or not: the ‘curriculum’ dilemma;
  • 3whether and to what extent children with more severe SEN/disabilities should learn in ordinary classrooms or not: the ‘location’ dilemma.

Norwich's use of the concept of ‘dilemma’ is very helpful in that he shows that people often are not clear about which issues they are trying to reconcile. MacBeath, Galton, Steward, MacBeath and Page (2006), in a study carried out for the National Union of Teachers, point out that those who espouse inclusion as a principle seem to assume that inclusion can only be achieved if children and young people with special educational needs are subjected to all aspects of education as it is currently offered. Baroness Warnock (2005) herself launched a now notorious recantation of her Committee's recommendations: ‘the idea of inclusion should be rethought insofar at least as it applies to education at school’.

As many have pointed out, the second part of her statement raises the crux of the issue. The Government recognised the barriers to inclusion that exist in schools in its statement in 2004 (DfES, 2004), and set out its proposals about how the barriers should be tackled. OFSTED, in its report in 2004, found that more mainstream schools saw themselves as inclusive, but that only a minority met special educational needs very well. Members of the SENCo Forum (an electronic mailing list for SENCos) responded to the consultation on the Government's Special Needs Action Plan by stating that schools would have to provide a much higher level of flexibility in the way that learning and teaching take place, if the aims of inclusive education are to be realised (SENCo Forum, 2003). MacBeath et al. (2006) gave a description of some of the prevailing problems in schools' attempts to implement inclusion. Their conclusion was that the current education system itself made it difficult to implement inclusion. The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2006) in its report on special educational needs, reflected the general conclusion that ‘the government's changing definition of inclusion is causing confusion’, and that implementation required a higher level of flexibility in schools. Commentators now generally recognise the need for greater flexibility in the education system, and that the Government's espousal of inclusion is itself stymied by its overarching emphasis on accountability in terms of ‘standards’. It is evident that those schools that are successful in implementing inclusion achieve this despite the system, rather than because of it. In other words, the occurrence of ‘good practice’ does not validate the existing system, but rather indicates the need for system change. Consequently, Baroness Warnock's latter-day recantation is relevant only in terms of the system as it currently exists. Most commentators now acknowledge that efforts to ‘patch up’ the system in order to achieve effective inclusion are destined to fall short of what is needed. It is necessary to devise an educational system that starts from an acknowledgement of the diversity of the learning needs of all learners (Wedell, 2005). The further evidence for this lies in the continuing criticism of the limitations of the current education system for all learners, not just those with special educational needs.

There is also an increasing acknowledgement that current concepts of inclusion fail to address what those with special educational needs themselves really want. Gillinson and Green (2008) argue that it is essential to regard the consultation of children and young people themselves and their parents as normal practice. They make this point in the context of the current promotion of ‘co-construction’ in relation to public services: ‘A whole system of co-production is one in which that approach is evident in every interaction between a user and their services’. They conclude that the issue is not about treating everyone as the same – what is important is that everyone should be treated equally: ‘realising these entitlements would look very different for different children in different areas, but the quality of their opportunities would not be different’. Gross (2001) comments that what young people most want is the right to belong.

An interesting illustration of these points emerged in a study of young people with significant learning difficulties in secondary schools and colleges (Byers, Davies, Fergusson & Marvin, in preparation). The aim of this study was to facilitate the young people in expressing their needs and wishes. Young people in one of the secondary schools said that they wanted a room where they could get away from the social interaction demands of break and lunch times (it was interesting to note that some other children wanted this opportunity as well). The researchers also discovered that the young people had not been included in the consultations of the school council. When this was pointed out to the members of the school council, they were keen to rectify the omission. The young people then started to make recommendations to the council, which led to corresponding action in the school.

As shown by the points about ‘belonging’ and ‘value’ made above, there is a clear need for a decoupling of stigma from ‘difference’ (Wedell, 1995a) so that the perceptions of those who have special educational needs can start to change. With regard to the system of education in general, the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2006) made a most significant recommendation in its report about the place of special educational needs provision:

‘SEN policy continues to operate a separate system for special educational needs (SEN) and, as a result, SEN continues to be sidelined away from the mainstream agenda. This must not continue.’

(para. 48)

Such an assertion has immense implications for change. All education legislation, from the 1981 Education Act onwards, has referred to special education as provision that is ‘additional to or . . . different from . . . provision made generally in schools’. Is it possible to envisage the contrary – an education system which starts from the recognition of the diversity of learning needs among all learners, and which offers a corresponding continuum of flexible provision?

The following sections of this article deal with the current scope for meeting children's and young people's special educational needs within the general system of education as reflected in legislative and other proposals, focusing on four main aspects: the curriculum, pedagogy, the structure of schooling and the role of local authority Children's Directorates. In each case, the underlying question will be whether current legislative and other policy proposals represent a ‘patching up’ exercise, or whether they point in the direction of system change.


One of the main concerns about the National Curriculum has been that it does not address the breadth of education necessary to meet children's and young people's special educational needs. It is significant that the same charge has also been made with regard to what schools offer children in general:

‘we still have a curriculum model close to the one that prepared students for the much more stable and certain society of the 50s, where we knew what a “subject” was, and what you “ought” to know about it.’

(RSA, 2002, p. 2)

In light of this criticism from the RSA (Royal Society for the Arts), the formulation of the ‘five outcomes’ in the Every Child Matters legislation (DfES, 2003) constitutes a major system change in broadening the brief for schooling. Schools now come within the spectrum of services under a Children's Directorate, and so should be seen as contributing to the achievement of the ‘five outcomes’. These aim for children and young people to: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being. It is apparent that these aims extend the narrower subject concepts of the National Curriculum, and so have a greater relevance to meeting special educational needs. An OFSTED (2006) report found that this development had yet to ‘become a reality in schools’. The new Foundation Stage Curriculum for children under the age of five does reflect these broader aims.

One of the main current concerns among teachers is the problem of poor behaviour in schools. In response to this, the Government introduced the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) materials and procedures (DCSF, 2007a). These are aimed at developing the underpinning ‘qualities and skills that help promote positive behaviour and effective learning’. They thus represent what used to be called the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the ethos of schools, which engendered positive social attitudes within and among pupils. However, the SEAL initiative immediately raises the question as to why the nature of the curriculum as such in schools does not have this positive effect. One has to infer the corollary – that the curriculum in its present form may itself be a contributory cause of poor behaviour because it does not engage the whole range of pupils. Recent policy proposals regarding the Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 curricula have certainly been aimed at permitting greater flexibility in curriculum delivery, and, correspondingly, in scope for pupil engagement. In Key Stage 3, it is now possible to cover the curricular subjects in a cross-subject way through imaginative project work. At Key Stage 4, alternative curricula, such as the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) produced within the Awards Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN), provide accreditation opportunities for those with learning and behaviour difficulties. It is clear that young people welcome schemes such as CoPE because they enable them to find levels of success and satisfaction. Similarly it has been reported that a project is being devised whereby young people who find it difficult to cope with a school regime can be offered ‘e-learning’ in a ‘virtual’ Pupil Referral Unit, with wider curriculum coverage (Stewart, 2008a).

It is evident that these measures constitute ‘patch-up’ attempts to meet certain pupils' needs. Unless such measures are part of a general move to engender flexibility in response to all pupils in a school, there is the danger that the need for the manifest ‘valuing’ of individual pupils proposed by Gillinson and Green (2008) mentioned above will not be met. By contrast, it is significant that the Royal Society for the Arts ‘Opening Minds’ curriculum (RSA, 2005), being applied in some pilot schools to all pupils in a year group, is resulting in a reduction in behaviour problems among students. This curriculum covers the National Curriculum content, but with a major focus on the competences of learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. The approach also puts an emphasis on shared learning in groups.

A further concern about the National Curriculum is the current approach to assessment. This has been highlighted in another report by the House of Commons Committee for Children, Schools and Families (2008). Their report comments:

‘We find that the use of national test results for the purpose of school accountability has resulted in some schools emphasising the maximisation of test results at the expense of a more rounded education for their pupils.’

(p. 3)

The report follows concerns expressed in many quarters that children in England are exposed to a higher frequency of high-stakes assessment than those in other countries. Many of the concerns are the same as those expressed when the National Curriculum and its assessment by ‘Standard Assessment Tasks’ were first introduced in 1988. Because the assessment procedures were intended to make schools accountable, procedures were also introduced which enabled schools to ‘disapply’ pupils with special needs from assessment requirements, so that they would not lower a school's standing in the league table rankings. This is still an issue for schools that are known to be successful in meeting their pupils' special educational needs, and which therefore may be ambivalent about being given this accolade for fear of attracting larger numbers of such pupils. The Government is currently piloting ‘stage not age’ assessment procedures, to find out whether this may address some of the current concerns, but as the House of Commons Committee for Children, Schools and Families (2008) mentions in its report, there is still confusion about the mixture of purposes that a single assessment system should serve. So it seems that assessment is also still being ‘patched up’.


In the context of this article, pedagogy is relevant because it represents the interaction between the learner and the teacher, with respect to curricular aims and objectives. This issue therefore concerns the central operation in education, and, in principle, policy should specify the optimal circumstances in which successful learning and teaching can take place. The main current policy development relevant to pedagogy has been the promotion of ‘personalised learning’, which is intended to meet some of the main concerns about teaching in schools not being sufficiently responsive. The ‘personalised’ reference to ‘learning’ has been carried over from efforts to make public services less of a ‘one size fits all’, ‘take it or leave it’ operation. However, the transfer of this concept to the relationship between teacher and pupil is not as straightforward as has been implied in the promotion of this policy. Reports of research within the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning and Teaching Project (Pollard & James, 2004) have pointed out some of the particular difficulties in translating this concept into general educational practice:

‘Personalised Learning challenges the mutual accommodations which often grow up in routine practices and calls for high expectations, positive responses and new forms of learner aware pedagogy.’

(Pollard & James, 2004, p. 25)

With regard to achieving the necessary ‘learner aware pedagogy’, the problem for the classroom teacher concerned with the special educational needs of a pupil lies in identifying the ‘nature’ of the learning difficulty or disability, and assessing the implications for its consequences. The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice refers to this ‘awareness’ as the point at which a teacher has a ‘concern’ about an individual pupil (DfES, 2001). A crucial prerequisite for any teacher's subsequent decision for action is a clear understanding of the ‘nature’ and the ‘consequences’. Using the terminology of the 1996 Education Act, it is important, for example, to recognise that a given ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘disability’ may or may not ‘prevent or hinder’ an individual from making use of ‘educational facilities of a kind provided in schools’.

In an examination of how teachers can avoid a simplistic view of these elements of their decision-making, Figure 1 has been found to be of use (Wedell, 1995b). It indicates the variety of ways in which the interaction between a child's strengths and needs (in the horizontal dimension) and the resources and deficiencies within the child's environment (in the vertical dimension) may or may not affect a particular achievement – whether educational or behavioural.

Figure 1.

Compensatory and/or cumulative interaction

The interaction between the positive or negative balances of these two sets of factors may be compensatory or cumulative. For example, where the balance between the strengths and needs of a child indicates a learning need, this can be compensated for by environmental resources, such as a supportive home or responsive teaching. Correspondingly, where the balance indicates a child's strengths, such as sheer determination, this can compensate for negative environmental factors. Both of these aspects of compensation are illustrated by the mixture of pluses and minuses in the corners of Figure 1, which refer to the interaction between the prevailing ‘balances’ within the child and the child's environment. Correspondingly, the interaction may be cumulative with regard to the balance of the strengths or needs of the child, and the resources or deficiencies of the child's environment. This is illustrated by the uniform pluses and the minuses in the other corners of the square – showing optimal outcomes, as well as the overwhelmingly negative ones. The concept of compensatory interaction represents the most prevalent circumstances, and thus helps to avoid some of the simplistic associations that are often made in explanations of special educational needs. The figure also makes the point that the interaction occurs cumulatively over time, as illustrated by the diagonal lines, showing the uncertainty in predicting later outcomes from earlier states. The figure indicates the level of understanding that the implementation of ‘personalised learning’ demands of teachers in considering children's special educational needs. As the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2006) report points out, this is a level for which initial teacher training does not necessarily prepare teachers.

Another current policy recommendation relevant to meeting children's special educational needs is ‘assessment for learning’. Assessment for learning involves a sequence of decisions about the nature of the ‘gap’ between the existing level of attainment or behaviour of a child, and what is expected. The effectiveness of the assessment lies in the detailed analysis of what pupils can do as well as what they cannot. This allows the teacher to identify the ‘next step’ for learning, and to choose a likely means of helping the child to achieve this step. It should also involve prompt decisions in cases where progress is not being made, using the outcomes of the targeted teaching in order to conjecture better ways of intervening. This is an ongoing process of hypothesising about the nature of the difficulty, testing this ‘hunch’ through intervention, and selecting another if the hunch proves to be wrong. In other words, a child's learning problem becomes a teacher's teaching problem. This decision sequence represents a gradual understanding – both by the child and the teacher – of the nature of the child's needs, and the necessary forms of help, whether this relates to formal learning or to behaviour.

Initial training does not generally prepare teachers for the understanding demanded at the level of ‘assessment for learning’ in meeting children's special educational needs. Gifted teachers often show this flexibility in decision-making at an almost intuitive level (Wedell, 1995b). However, since this skill is not necessarily articulated in terms of the ‘hypotheses’ tested out, gifted teachers may be unable to pass their expertise on to others. It typically produces a situation in a school staff-room where such gifted teachers may say that they have no difficulty with a pupil about whom another teacher complains.

Both ‘personalised learning’ and ‘assessment for learning’ represent little more than tokenistic ‘patching-up’ proposals, unless teachers receive the training that provides them with the necessary level of understanding (and of course the working conditions) to apply it. Unfortunately, the emphasis on subject knowledge, rather than child development and the psychology of learning, in the initial training of teachers leaves them ill prepared. However, at least one initial teacher training course includes an introduction to the kind of understanding needed for the decision-making mentioned above (Golder, Norwich & Bayliss, 2005).

A particular potential source of specific help for special educational needs is information and communications technology (ICT). The effective ‘harnessing of technology’ is a current Government policy concern, and a number of projects are being promoted. Here again, there is a gap between the intention and the reality. Research by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency concluded:

‘There is a danger that ICT is being used to re-inforce 19th century models of learning rather than enabling 21st century models to be established.’

(Twining, Broadie, Cook, Ford, Morris, Twiner & Underwood, 2006, p. 19)

There are undoubtedly individual examples of excellent ICT practice within the special educational needs field, but the situation in general does not provide evidence of the needed systemic change. In my own experience of working as a voluntary learning support assistant in a primary school, commonly-used programmes for ‘remedial’ learning often do not provide the focused targeting that has been described above.

The cycles of decision-making in assessment for learning mentioned above often demand a progressive involvement of expertise beyond what can be expected of classroom teachers. Consultation with the school's SENCo may be required, and this may then extend to the involvement of support services from outside the school, as indicated in the successive stages of the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. The Children's Plan (DCSF, 2007b) refers to building up the ‘team around the child’– which also includes the parents. The relative position of teachers in relation to the rest of ‘the team’ raises the important broader question about how the respective roles and functions of members of the team should be conceived – and consequently of the perceptions of the respective professions involved. This issue will be addressed in later sections.

Although this article has indicated some of the limitations of the current policy initiatives about ‘personalised learning’ and ‘assessment for learning’, it is no doubt important to acknowledge that the promotion of both approaches can encourage progress towards better responsiveness to children's and young people's special educational needs. It is also important to mention that, within the Government's Inclusion Development Programme, teaching and learning materials are currently being produced to support the further professional development of school staff for ‘dyslexia’, and for speech, language and communication needs (DCSF, 2008).

A major determinant of the scope for progress mentioned above is the structure of schooling, which is considered in the next section.

Structure of schooling

The current structure of mainstream schooling has been found to be one of the main potential impediments to enabling inclusion. The OFSTED (2004) report on inclusion found that development towards effective inclusion was frustrated by ‘rigid timetabling, inflexible staffing and lack of inventiveness’ in some schools. These rigidities tend to be found in secondary schools more than in primary schools. Rigid class grouping, for example, is associated with high pupil–teacher ratios, which clearly make it difficult for teachers to give personal attention to individual pupils. Rigid timetabling usually implies short periods, which involve teachers spending proportionally more time on settling pupils to the learning task. In contrast, there are secondary schools that have started to tackle this problem in innovative ways; for example, by dividing the day mainly into two learning periods. This allows a much greater flexibility in planning for groupwork among pupils, and also enables pupils to gain much more satisfaction because they are able to complete tasks of interest to themselves. When this kind of timetable arrangement is also linked to team teaching (usually with larger groups of pupils), it allows for a much more flexible allocation of staff time to pupils – and of teaching assistant (TA) time. For example, a teacher in such a team situation can allocate time to work with individuals or small groups, and this allows the teacher to obtain more accurate information about specific pupils' learning needs and achievements. In this way, the pupils with greater difficulties in learning can benefit from the teachers' professional skills, rather than receiving this indirectly via delegation to a TA. During such time, the TA can monitor the progress of other pupils who are learning independently as individuals or in small groups through the use of computer technology to collect information, or through the use of learning programmes. Peer support can also be incorporated in longer periods. Needless to say, teaching and learning in such longer periods involves considerable prior planning, including the mutual sharing of responsibilities between teachers and TAs, and this is particularly needed in order to enable flexible responsiveness to pupils who have special educational needs.

In its Children's Plan proposals (DCSF, 2007b), the Government mentions more flexible grouping, including the intention to provide individual or small group ‘learning support’ for pupils in the seven to 14 age range who are showing difficulty with basic educational attainments. The above scenario, however, indicates the kinds of organisational conditions that are necessary to provide support with the necessary flexibility. In addition, the Children's Plan includes proposals for funding ‘coaching’ outside of school hours for those pupils whose families cannot afford to pay for it themselves. Whether or not one regards this kind of ‘patch-up’ support desirable, it would be difficult to organise in rural areas where pupils depend on school transport. An extension of this type of coaching is being developed through private enterprise. Companies have started offering online computer-assisted learning at supermarkets, using the RM SuccessMaker programmes for English and Mathematics (Stewart, 2008b). Parents can pay a fee for their children to take a course over several sessions, during which ‘tutors’ are available to monitor their learning.

A further proposal in the Children's Plan is to support home access to computers, so that pupils can access links with their schools. This forms part of the policy of encouraging schools to keep parents informed of their children's life at school, and more particularly to provide more regular information about their work and progress. Some schools already offer this kind of electronic link which can enable pupils to have support for their homework. In some instances, online support is also offered outside school hours. This kind of ‘anywhere, any time’ scope for learning begins to illustrate the possibilities for real systemic change in how schooling can be conceived, particularly in light of the various forms of mobile technology that are available. Electronic communication now means that time in school may only be a part of available learning time, and can offer access to support for those with special educational needs.

Transitions between school phases are another potential obstacle in the structure of schooling. Recent recommendations for Key Stage 3 have referred to ways in which secondary and primary schools can ease the stress of transition for pupils, and the Children's Plan calls for a reduction in the disruption caused by transition. For some time, innovative SENCos in primary and secondary schools have been taking the initiative to link up with each other, in order to smooth the transition for children with special educational needs (Wedell, 2004). A pyramid of one rural secondary school and its feeder primaries have been able to reduce transition problems for pupils with special educational needs by appointing a SENCo shared between all five schools. This SENCo is able to provide continuity of support across the primary–secondary transition (Evans, Lunt, Wedell & Dyson, 1999). The schools appointed the SENCo because they needed to obtain the specialist expertise that none of them could have afforded within their staffing.

Scope for a wider range of support is being created within the ‘extended school’ policy of developing ‘full service schools’ and engendering better integration of services by ‘co-locating’ them in schools. This enables schools to access a variety of specialist services on site; for example, social work or health service provision (such as speech therapy). Co-location is easier to organise in urban rather than rural areas. However, even in rural areas, it would be possible to organise a degree of integrated service support through ‘virtual surgeries’ in which school staff link up with central specialist services by secure email. Such communication could also ensure that, when specialist staff visit a school, they are already briefed about the particular learning needs of a given pupil.

Collaborative groupings of schools are currently being encouraged in a variety of forms, ranging from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ federations. This refers to the extent to which the schools come under unified governance. One example of a ‘hard’ federation is where a primary and a secondary school have come together, thus eliminating transition problems (see, for example, Collaboration for the purpose of enhancing schools' capacity to meet pupils' special educational needs has been occurring for many years, as Evans et al. (1999) found as early as 1994. The pooling of resources between schools indicates one way of achieving economies of scale. Some federations of schools have also included special schools (Lindsay, Muijs, Harris, Chapman, Arweck & Goodall, 2007). Such an arrangement can meet a wide range of special educational needs and make a real continuity of provision possible within one organisational structure. There are also instances where a special school is located within a mainstream school; for example, in order to serve pupils with more severe learning difficulties (see These kinds of arrangement clearly offer opportunities to explore how a whole spectrum of provision can realise the aim of ‘treating every one equally, but not necessarily the same’.

Collaborative arrangements between schools offer opportunities for achieving economies of scale in provision, in order to avoid the problems that large schools can have in establishing a more personal approach to individual pupils. Unfortunately, the current policy of establishing ‘academies’ within the ‘schools for the future’ programme tend to result in large schools. However, even in these cases, attempts have subsequently been made to establish smaller operational units within the large school to recoup the advantages of smaller schools.

It is evident that several of the current policy developments offer considerable scope to enhance schools' capacities to become more responsive to children's and young people's special educational needs. Flexible organisation, collaboration between schools and the scope for ‘any time and anywhere’ learning offer system change opportunities that are only beginning to be realised.

Local authorities

The development of Children's Trusts within local authorities is aimed at bringing education, health and social services together within one organisation. These have the potential for establishing co-ordinated support for children and young people which could constitute a major system change. It could increase overall effectiveness, and potentially also offer economies of scale, if the full challenge of collaborative working is addressed. Co-ordination could also encompass the spectrum of support required by children and young people with special educational needs – both within the area of a local authority, and across neighbouring local authorities where sharing of services is needed in order to achieve economies of scale. Needless to say, the word ‘could’ in these sentences indicates that there is a large gap between policy aims and reality.

It is evident that co-ordination of special educational needs support has to take place at the level of the local authority. However, this can be frustrated by the Government's encouragement of schools to seek greater independence through acquiring ‘trust’ or ‘academy’ status. This might jeopardise their taking part in any authority-wide plan to ensure effective provision for children and young people with special educational needs. For example, it might threaten the viability of support services run by a local authority if a high proportion of schools decide not to give priority to support for children and young people with special educational needs. The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2006), in its report on special educational needs, recognised this contradiction between policies:

‘At present, local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient schools for children in their area, and in doing so, must have particular regard to the need for special educational provision. When the finite resources available to local authorities are considered, this seems to be an impossible situation . . .’

(para. 176)

‘. . . local authorities must be allowed to continue to plan provision at the local level to meet need, but this should be within guidance of a clear National Framework linked to minimum standards to ensure consistency of outcomes for children with SEN.’

(para. 178)

There is a recognised need to establish standards that can ensure that the integrated services provision is fit for purpose in meeting children's and young people's special educational needs. Gray, Bullen, Duckett, Leyden, Pollard and Skelton (2006) point to the need for agreed standards as the result of a national audit of support services for children with low incidence needs. They recommended that it was better to have generic provision at the local level, with access to specialist expertise for the various forms of learning difficulties and disabilities, rather than specialist centres serving larger geographical areas. Gillinson and Green (2008) also point to the need for agreed minimum standards. Furthermore, they emphasise that the implementation of such policies requires a leadership style (at all levels within services) that is attuned to ‘co-construction’.

Effective operation of integrated services depends on the members of the constituent services knowing how to work together. If they cannot rise to this challenge, the whole purpose of co-ordination is frustrated. The Government's proposals for implementing a ‘Common Assessment Framework’ is an attempt to provide a communication framework between service personnel where the contribution of more than one service is required to achieve a solution. However, it raises the need for considerable further professional development to make it work, as Daniels, Leadbetter and Warmington (2007) found. They describe the scale of the challenge posed by effective communication, and a project that investigated an approach to tackle it. Effective communication would also go a long way towards dealing with the current controversy about the special educational needs Statement process. This applies to local authorities' decisions about making available provision that is deemed to be beyond the resources that schools can be expected to offer. The controversy arises because, in some instances, parents report that local authorities' decisions seem to be determined more by the funding available to them, rather than by the assessed needs of their children. The House of Commons Committee for Children, Schools and Families (2008) investigated this issue also, but the Government, in its response, stated that separating assessment of a child's needs from the local authority's decision-making about provision was not in the best interests of the child. It also set up the Lamb Inquiry to consider this issue further. Another worrying aspect of this decision-making process is that, as Daniels and Porter (2007) found, affluent parents are often more capable of demanding support resources for their children than those from poorer homes.

Although the setting up of Children's Directorates represents a system change which offers opportunities for providing a much more co-ordinated spectrum of support for children and young people with special educational needs – and indeed children in general – there are still a large number of unresolved issues to be sorted out, including the problem of conflicting policies.


Evidence of the need for system change, which has been discussed above, shows that some steps have been taken towards addressing the three dilemmas mentioned in this article's opening quotation from Norwich (2008). An education system has to start from an acknowledgement of the diversity of learning needs among all children and young people; and this view is reflected in the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee's (2006) concern that there must be an end to the separation of special educational needs policy from the mainstream agenda. Gillinson and Green (2008) emphasise that this development has to be based on an equal valuing of individuals, so that ‘difference’ can be separated from stigma (Wedell, 1995a). Flexibility of responsiveness is therefore essential within an education system. The discussion in this article shows that some of the current Government's policies do provide a context in which this flexibility of response could be achieved. Unfortunately, the policy makers seem to have had an insufficient grasp of the requirements for realising this goal. Furthermore, some policies act to frustrate the implementation of others.

The ideas behind ‘co-production’ offer scope for moving towards ‘treating everyone equally but not necessarily the same’. But there is still the question about formulating minimum standards, which can inform equality of treatment. Clearly, this cannot be resolved on a ‘once for all’ basis, and thus ongoing consideration is required. The Warnock Committee argued that a National Advisory Committee was needed which could consider longer-term policies rather than short-term responses to more immediate pressures. This recommendation was not taken up by the Government at that time. In 1984, the Voluntary Council for Handicapped Children – as it was called at that time – set up a working party to reconsider this proposal (Voluntary Council for Handicapped Children, 1984). The working party again identified the need for a Committee. It proposed a variety of forms in which this might be established, but emphasised that it should be independent of Government. However, the Government at that time did not support the proposal. In more recent years, the then Department for Education and Skills set up an advisory group under its own aegis, but then discontinued it. The issues raised in this article seem once again to indicate the need for a body which can take an independent and over-arching view about the direction for relevant system change, and the standards for provision. There is clearly a dilemma about setting up a Committee to consider meeting special educational needs, since this might again risk a ‘separation’ from the mainstream. However, the evidence presented in this article has consistently indicated that moves towards a flexible response to special educational needs have pointed to ways of increasing the flexibility of the school system as a whole. So should the brief for such a Committee in fact be to advise on the scope for flexibility? This might clarify the confusion about inclusion, and indicate system change requirements rather than patching up.