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The Inclusion Illusion: How children with special educational needs experience mainstream schools

By Rob Webster

Abridged notes from this book will follow. Essential findings:

  1. TAs as they are currently used often lead to worse outcomes.

  2. SEND students are still excluded internally from mainstream experience and encounter much worse pedagogical experiences than their peers.

  3. SEND students tend to be in bottom sets, are removed from the classroom more often and when they are in the classroom - get less one-to-one time with the teacher due to the outsourcing of their learning to non-specialist TAs.

Their recommendations are as follows:

1. Create a central database for maintaining an up-to-date record of where pupils with an EHCP are receiving their education. •Develop and trial a ‘between school’ measure of inclusion to complement and contextualize a ‘within school’ measure of inclusion. •When writing an EHCP, ensure the emphasis is on the quality of pedagogy, not the quantity of support. •Make improving teachers’ confidence and competence regarding SEND central to all forms of ITE, and a recurrent topic of their on-going, in-service training.

•Make career progression for teachers and school leaders contingent on evidence practice that has improved experiences and outcomes for pupils with SEND. •Make judicious use of withdrawal for intervention and small specialist classes for pupils with high-level SEND, ensuring that time in these contexts compensates for time away from mainstream teaching and curriculum coverage. •Support teachers to adopt grouping strategies that provide opportunities for pupils with high-level SEND to interact, work with and learn from their peers. •Train and deploy TAs to support pupils to engage in learning and to develop the skills to manage their own learning independently.

My favourite quote is when he attacks Hattie's apparent belief that more teacher training is the answer rather than fundamental structural change:

"The influential Australian academic John Hattie (2002) writes that educational structures and the composition of the classroom appear ‘less consequential than … the nature and quality of instruction in the class’. He frames this position in terms of ‘attending to classroom organisation practices versus improving what happens once the classroom door is closed’ [emphasis added]. This, however, is something of a false dichotomy. One of the main motivations for the research behind this book is that what happens in the classroom is informed to an under-appreciated degree by its composition. Indeed, too little attention has been paid to the fundamental, but often taken-for-granted, ways in which schools and classrooms are organised, and specifically, how this informs, influences and inhibits an inclusive education. (p30)

The summarized notes are as follows:


Mainstream schools frequently depend heavily on Teaching Assistants (TAs) to support the inclusion of children with special needs. This reliance, however, might limit the experiences these children can gain. (p16)

The term 'inclusion' implies that students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in mainstream schools are integrated. The concept of inclusion, however, is debated among experts (Farrell, 2010; Norwich, 2013; Thomas and Vaughan, 2004). For clarity, we define it here broadly as a system wherein students with SEND are primarily educated alongside their peers in their local mainstream school. The goal of inclusion, in this context, is to ensure that students with SEND have experiences comparable to their non-SEND peers in mainstream education. (p20)

However, for those students with more profound SEND, simply being in a mainstream school doesn't ensure a mainstream educational experience. Despite sharing the same school environment with their peers, their daily experiences can be strikingly different. (p21)

This publication posits that schools' structure and classroom organization perpetuate a kind of 'structural exclusion'. This model reserves mainstream education for average students while offering a watered-down educational experience for those with significant SEND. Yet, the primary blame for this predicament, as proposed in this book, falls on policymakers rather than the schools themselves.

Evolution of SEND and Associated Challenges in England:

The 1978 Warnock Report served as a turning point for inclusive education in England. Before this landmark report by Mary Warnock, children with SEND might have attended special 'handicapped' schools or missed out on formal education altogether. Those with the most severe disabilities might have been confined to infirmaries or specialized care facilities. (p25)

The recommendations of the Warnock Report were institutionalized in the 1981 Education Act. This led to a formalized system of SEND assessment and potential statements outlining students' needs and required resources. Such provisions were understood as supplemental or distinctive from what a mainstream school typically offers.

Subsequent acts, such as the Education Act (1996), the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (2001), and the Disability Discrimination Act (2005), bolstered children's rights to inclusive education. The Labour government (1997-2010) laid the groundwork for broader, progressive policies, though their ambitious 10-year Children's Plan (DCSF, 2007) never saw full implementation.

Over the years, the assessment system became entangled in bureaucracy. For parents, securing a statement for their child became a taxing, legal, and sometimes costly standoff with Local Authorities (LAs). These confrontations often prioritized available resources over the child's actual needs and rights (Hartas, 2008; Jones and Swain, 2001; Lamb, 2009; Penfold et al., 2009). Ironically, Baroness Warnock, one of the architects of this system, criticized its unintended outcomes and branded it as a detrimental resource scramble (Webster, 2019a).

In many mainstream schools, support mainly translated into a set number of hours with a Teaching Assistant (TA). Over time, these TA hours became the main measure of support, overshadowing potentially more critical educational factors. This focus on TA support was noted by educational oversight bodies like Ofsted but was not sufficiently addressed.

In a subsequent shift, the 2010 Conservative government heralded the most significant change in SEND since the 1981 Education Act (Ward and Vaughan, 2011). Based on Brian Lamb's inquiry into parent confidence in the SEND system (Lamb, 2009), 2014 reforms replaced the previous statements with EHCPs (Education, Health, and Care Plans). However, these changes were largely superficial and did not rectify the underlying systemic issues lamented by figures like Baroness Warnock.

In the fall of 2019, two prominent evaluations highlighted the shortcomings, inefficiencies, and widespread displeasure with the SEND system in England. The House of Commons Education Committee's study of the system's 'application and personal experiences' deduced that there exists a significant gap between the real-life experiences of young individuals, the challenges faced by their families, and the understanding at the ministerial level (HoC, 2019). Another assessment by the National Audit Office noted the Department for Education’s lack of assurance regarding the quality of SEND support in mainstream schools and its limited understanding of the system's impact (NAO, 2019). (p27)

Individuals with SEND are:

  • Seven times less likely to secure paid jobs.

  • Twice as probable to experience poverty.

  • Four times more susceptible to mental health issues.

  • Thrice as likely to be incarcerated.

  • Expected to have a lifespan shorter by at least 15 years than those without SEND.

Furthermore, students with SEND are nine times more likely to face permanent or temporary exclusion from school compared to their peers (O’Brien, 2016).

Considering schools as a reflection of the broader society (Dewey, 1900) prompts the question: Is this still accurate today?

Diving into educational dynamics, renowned Australian scholar John Hattie (2002) emphasized that the essence and caliber of in-class instruction hold more significance than the classroom’s structural layout. He suggests focusing on refining classroom experiences rather than simply the organization. However, this viewpoint somewhat overlooks the intricate relationship between classroom composition and the ensuing experiences. The foundation for this book's research argues that classroom experiences are significantly shaped by their organization. The book asserts that the fundamental structures and organization of schools and classrooms, which are often overlooked, play a crucial role in shaping inclusive education. (p30)

Expanding our understanding of exclusion, beyond merely physical removal, can shed light on subtle forms of sidelining and the subsequent implications for learning and social engagement. A more intricate analysis, resonating with Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory model, looks at education as unfolding in hierarchically structured settings. The argument of this book extends this model, suggesting that within a school's 'microsystem', smaller entities like classrooms have their unique dynamics. These dynamics differ between students with and without SEND. The lived experiences of students with high-level SEND within these micro-environments diverge significantly from their mainstream peers, so much so that their 'inclusion' often mirrors exclusionary practices. This book's underlying study discovered that mainstream classroom settings, when accommodating students with high-level SEND, inadvertently endorse separation and isolation patterns. Even though unintended, schools systematically alienate students with high-level SEND. They often segregate these students from their non-SEND peers, inadvertently constructing barriers to comprehensive engagement. With all good intentions at heart, the outcome is the unintentional creation of two distinct learning realms. One for mainstream students, offering a typical mainstream experience, and another for those with high-level SEND, which is considerably distinct. Although it occurs within mainstream settings, it doesn't qualify as a mainstream experience. P33

A deeper understanding of exclusion not only covers the physical displacement of an individual from a learning environment but also highlights subtle forms of sidelining and the impact of these on learning and interpersonal interactions. This detailed perspective on exclusions emphasizes envisioning educational operations within structured hierarchies, paralleling Bronfenbrenner’s 1979 ecological systems theory. The book's primary argument expands on this concept, emphasizing the distinct smaller units within a school's 'microsystem', like individual classrooms and sub-groups. These units have unique characteristics and dynamics. For students with and without SEND, these dynamics vary considerably. Those with high-level SEND often find their experiences more aligned with exclusion than genuine inclusion. This research shows that accommodating high-level SEND pupils in mainstream settings inadvertently leads to their separation. This unintentional segregation means that they are often isolated from their non-SEND peers, creating barriers to their full involvement. Though implemented with good intentions, the result is the creation of two distinctly different educational experiences: one for regular students and another for those with high-level SEND, which although set in a mainstream context, differs significantly from it.

Factors Leading to ‘Internal-Exclusion’ for SEND Students:

  1. Large Class Sizes: Bigger classrooms disproportionately affect SEND students, leading to reduced one-on-one attention. Their frequent medical visits further decrease their interaction with teachers.

  2. Setting: Stobart (2014) demonstrated that 88% of four-year-olds grouped in low-achieving categories remained there till the end of their education. Francis and others (2017) concur, noting that even progress doesn't seem to change a student’s grouping, which is surprising given that it's the very basis for such grouping strategies.

  3. Number of TAs in the Classroom: While TAs offer additional support, they often take over the primary educator role for students in dire need. This role reversal means pupils with significant needs interact mostly with TAs, not trained teachers (Blatchford et al., 2012).

  4. Interaction Analysis: Studies showed that TAs focus more on completing tasks than fostering learning. Their interactions are more restrictive compared to the more open interactions offered by teachers (Rubie-Davies et al., 2010; Radford et al., 2011).

Summary of Chapters:

Chapter 2: Methodology: Data reveals that pupils with a Statement miss more than a day of classroom activities per school week.

Chapter 3: The Findings – Quantitative: SEND students miss an average day per week from the classroom. They are often placed in low-ability groups and have reduced interactions with teachers. The purported inclusivity for high-level SEND students in mainstream schools seems more like marginalization. This brings forth the question of the impact of these structural decisions on these high-need pupils.

Chapter 4: The Findings – Qualitative: The dual nature of Learning Support offers safety yet might limit students from broader experiences. Despite the perceived benefits of working outside the classroom in smaller groups, the makeup of these groups sometimes counteracts learning objectives. There's a concerning practice in schools: they pull out students for behavioral and social interaction classes, but these students only interact with others with similar issues. Another observation was 'stereo-teaching', where TAs would repeat what teachers said in real-time, leading to overlapping communications and diluting the teaching process.

Chapter 5: Teacher-TA Communication Gaps Many schools consistently identified a recurring issue: the insufficient time for teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) to communicate prior to lessons. This lack of coordination might elucidate why certain tasks felt inadequately challenging.

Chapter 6: Clarifying Pedagogical Roles

Who truly takes charge of instructing pupils with advanced SEND requirements? The implication is a binary choice between the teacher or the TA. Yet, our research indicates a collaborative effort, though the boundaries of their roles often seem indistinct and vary. A recurring theme is the frequent ambiguity and operational confusion it results in. This confusion could shed light on the subpar instructional experience pupils with a Statement face (as referenced in Chapter 5). While teachers often assume TAs will fill instructional voids, they might unintentionally neglect pupils with a Statement. This inconsistent reliance leads to a significant amount of pedagogical decision-making and execution being handled by TAs. Their approach often veered towards spontaneous adaptation rather than informed individualization. It’s vital to note that we didn't gather qualitative data on the teaching strategies typically developing pupils received. Yet, the observation data demonstrated that TAs barely interacted with these students, implying they received more robust, teacher-led instruction. This disparity further intensifies the instructional divide. The term "pedagogical diet" represents the murkiness around roles, responsibilities, and strategies for pupils with a Statement. All these factors culminate in an educational experience for pupils with high-level SEND that's dissimilar to their typically developing counterparts – an experience that’s arguably not fully mainstreamed. – p118


  1. Empowering SEND Excellence: Integrate SEND accomplishments into career progression evaluations. For career advancement, educators and school leaders must showcase their effective SEND strategies, potentially motivating schools to elevate SEND training standards. P 142

  2. Encouraging Mixed-Ability Interaction: Secondary institutions should consider implementing mixed-attainment teaching for some subjects. At the very least, adopt group strategies that decrease the negative aspects of strict attainment grouping. Ensure that pupils with SEND have diverse interaction opportunities and aren't always grouped with similar peers. P145

  3. Repositioning TAs: Transition TAs into roles of learning facilitators, assisting pupils in becoming independent learners, moving away from merely ensuring task completion.

  4. Inverting Classroom Dynamics: Instead of TAs staying stationary assisting specific students, let them roam the classroom, identifying pupils who need focused attention from the teacher. Meanwhile, teachers can dedicate extended time to struggling pupils, reinforcing or re-teaching concepts as necessary.

  5. Improving SEND Training: The government must intensify efforts to enhance the SEND component in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and ongoing in-service training. P152

  6. Further Proposals:

    • Establish a central EHCP student database.

    • Introduce a "between school" inclusion metric to supplement the "within school" measure.

    • Prioritize pedagogical quality over support quantity in EHCPs.

    • Ensure SEND competence is foundational in all ITE forms and remains a recurrent theme in continuous training.

  1. Action Points for Improvement:

    • Elevate the role of evidence in teacher and school leader career progression regarding SEND improvement.

    • Wisely utilize withdrawal interventions and small classes for pupils with high-level SEND to compensate for mainstream teaching time.

    • Support grouping strategies that promote diverse interactions for pupils with high-level SEND.

    • Equip TAs with skills to nurture pupils towards independent learning.


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