Inclusive or non-inclusive school settings, which is best for your child?
You have a child with Special Educational Needs and are considering whether to send them to an inclusive school or a school specifically for children with SEN. Which is better for your child? Where will they achieve more academically? Which one will help them to fit in better socially? How will this difference in schools affect their opportunities later in life? Ruljs and Peetsma (2003) conducted a study to compare the benefits of inclusive or non-inclusive schools on children with SEN and also looked at the effects on children in inclusive schools who do not have SEN.
First we must consider what we define to be an inclusive school. Schools use this label flexibly: in some schools this means that the child with SEN will be included in all mainstream lessons with children who do not have SEN; in others it means that the child with SEN attends one or two of the mainstream lessons per day; or the child with SEN may only attend the non academic lessons. Schools differ so extremely in the support provided for children and this also must be taken into account too. Will your child have one-to-one support whilst they are in the mainstream classroom? Is there an adapted curriculum for the children with SEN? How big are the class sizes? Such a multitude of factors makes it difficult to make comparisons between inclusive and non-inclusive schools, yet Ruljs and Peetsma (2003) have drawn general conclusions from a range of studies.
Academically, children with SEN appear to achieve more when attending an inclusive school. Most classes settle to the average level within the class, meaning that if a child who is low achieving is in a class of high academic achievers, this will raise their level as they will learn not only from the teacher but also from the other children in their environment. The inverse of this means that inclusive settings can have an adverse effect on children without SEN, as they receive less teacher attention (Dyson, 2004) and the general standard of the class is lowered to include the average of the low achieving child (Huber, Rosenfeld and Fiorello, 2001).
However, in terms of social effects on children, inclusive schools seem to have a negative effect on children with SEN. Results show that they often have a lower self-image as they are often less well liked by their peers without SEN (Estell 2008). Yet inclusive schools have a positive effect on the inclusive attitudes of children without SEN. Children without SEN learn to be more accepting of students with SEN, although it is unclear whether this can be transferred to all people with SEN outside of the school setting, or if they are just more accepting of class peers with SEN. Inclusive schools are still a relatively new concept, and so it is promising that perhaps over time, as they become more common place, students with SEN will be increasingly accepted and in turn their self-image will improve too.
We must consider the fact that there are many gaps in the research. For example, the types of SEN should be considered as this is an enormous factor and variable; children with autism can not really be compared to children with dyslexia, or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Outcomes on their academic achievements and social effects on being in an inclusive school will differ enormously depending on what their SEN is. The child’s background should also be taken into account; are they coming from a stable home life, are they in foster care, are their parents providing the support they require at home too?
In conclusion, these are studies of individuals, not of a label of a Special Educational Need, and so making an general conclusive statements disregards a multitude of other aspects in play on that individual child’s academic and social achievements, whether in an inclusive or non-inclusive school setting. Put simply, the results show that inclusive schools have a positive effect on a child with SEN’s academic achievement, but a negative effect on their self-image. This leads us to question whether or not a higher academic achievement would in the long run improve your self-image? But ultimately, when choosing between an inclusive or non-inclusive school, it raises the debate of which you value more, academic achievement or the self-image of the child.