IT’S a viral sensation to warm the chilliest of cockles: 10-year-old Kayleigh Rogers, smartly turned out in her school uniform, sweetly singing a pitch-perfect version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
She’s ably supported by a choir of fellow pupils from Killard House School in Northern Ireland, who patiently await their moment of glory on stage then join in with gusto on the chorus. Has this room got dusty all of a sudden?
In this era of YouTube sensations, flash-mob stunts and X Factor “journeys”, context is everything. It’s no longer enough to be able to carry a tune or do a dance – to stand out from the crowd you need to sing the song while wearing a Chewbacca mask, or teach your cat to jive like Ed Balls.
The context for this particular video – and undoubtedly the reason I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, clicked the link – was the BBC’s headline: “Special needs schoolgirl wows audience with voice”. When I read that, I winced. But it worked, and I watched.
What was I expecting? A beautiful performance, or a good effort? Talent, or bravery?
What was I expecting? A beautiful performance, or a good effort? Talent, or bravery? As well as entertaining and moving us, Kayleigh has helped challenge our expectations of young people with additional support needs. The staff and pupils of Killard House have also helped to demonstrate that “special schools” are not a second-best option for children who would struggle in a mainstream setting.
Since 2000 in Scotland there has been a presumption against sending pupils to these schools. Instead, where possible, disabled children and those with learning difficulties are expected to be educated alongside their peers, with the onus on the school to make the necessary support provisions. The origins of this inclusive approach can be traced back to a 1978 inquiry led by Baroness Mary Warnock, which was warmly welcomed by activists who had long argued that segregating pupils on the basis of disability was oppressive, disabling and socially isolating.
Since 2000 in Scotland there has been a presumption against sending pupils to these schools
So far, so progressive … or so it seemed. Fast forward to 2005 and Warnock was voicing dismay about how her recommendations had been implemented, describing the mass removal of children from special schools as a “disastrous legacy” and clarifying that inclusion goes beyond physically relocating children into the same classroom as their non-disabled peers. She expressed concern that this could lead to social exclusion and bullying, and emphasised that true inclusion meant “being involved in a common enterprise of learning”.
So how are we doing on inclusion in 2016? The BBC’s Ian Hamilton, who was educated at a school for the blind, set out to assess whether the policy is working for disabled children. The resulting documentary, Am I Included?, was screened this week and perhaps unsurprisingly there were no easy answers. One pupil spoke very positively about attending a mainstream school, another of his relief at being moved to a setting that was tailored to his needs. A young woman with cerebral palsy expressed frustration about the support she received, while staff at Hamilton’s old school voiced concern that non-specialist teachers were supporting too much, rather than helping prepare pupils for independent living. A bald statistic at the end of the programme gave cause for concern. In 2000, the rate of employment for disabled Scots stood at 40 per cent. Now, after a decade and a half of “inclusive education”, it’s 41 per cent.
Medical advances mean more premature babies are surviving than ever before, but often with complex challenges
Of course, participation in the labour market is a very crude measure of inclusion, and the category of “disabled people” is extremely broad. Hamilton highlighted the fact that medical advances mean more premature babies are surviving than ever before, but often with complex challenges. It is therefore surely possible that more blind, deaf and physically impaired people are working, socialising and living active lives, but that this group make up a smaller proportion of the disabled population than in decades past. When polices of inclusive education were first discussed, simply being a wheelchair-user might have prevented a child from going to his or her local school. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to defend such exclusion today. Talk to parents about inclusion now and they won’t bemoan the time teaching assistants spend helping a physically impaired child – they’ll talk about behavioural problems.
The Scottish Government intends to review its approach to inclusive education, and it would do well to recognise that while the disability rights movement has had a massive positive impact over the last four decades, disabled people are not a homogeneous group and one size does not fit all. While special schooling may have held back children with physical impairments in the 1970s (and inspired them to campaign hard against it as adults), mainstream schooling may have the same effect today on those with conditions such as autism and ADHD who simply cannot cope with sensory overload, busy corridors or complex rules.
Yes, inclusion is now built into every aspect of teacher training and yes, pupils should all be encouraged to be tolerant and accepting of those who are different, but when classes are being regularly disrupted by a distressed child who isn’t learning, everyone suffers. “All my kids have talents, as well as barriers,” said Kayleigh’s proud headteacher Colin Millar, and the same is true of all pupils. The challenge for us all is to remember that, with the right support, barriers can be overcome and talent can shine through.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.