Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten

March 11, 2019

When I trained as a teacher (I did a PGCE from 2001 to 2002 and my NQT year from 2002 to 2003) the government had a policy of “inclusion”. As was universally understood at the time, this meant reducing the number of children in special schools and forcing students with special needs into mainstream schools. Other elements of this policy included a marked reluctance to exclude out of control children, and a large increase in the number of teaching assistants. I recall this time as very difficult for teachers, and the policy of inclusion as being unpopular within the profession. By the 2005 general election, this policy had become massively controversial, and afterwards the government backtracked and the policy of inclusion gradually ended. As ever, politicians were not terrible forthcoming about the change of policy, although it seemed obvious to teachers, and at times ministers seemed to be declaring they had no knowledge of the policy ever existing. By 2010, and with a change of government, there was an explicit commitment to end inclusion.

In recent years, progressives have used SEN as a trojan horse for dumbed down education and tolerance of poor behaviour in schools. The argument is that academic and behaviour standards should be low, in case students with SEN are discriminated against by the demands of having to learn and behave. Often it is simply assumed that there is a vast reserve of children who are unable to cope with an academic curriculum and explicit instruction, or unable to control themselves, and these students must be in mainstream schools. Sometimes it comes down to numbers. It can be amazingly difficult to get progressives to answer questions such as “what percentage of students do you think cannot access an academic curriculum?” or “what percentage of students do you think cannot cope in a school where rules are enforced?” But sometimes progressives will admit that the population of students they are appealing to is tiny in number, but still insist that all mainstream schools be able to cope with students with the most severe SEN even if that means lowering expectations for all children so as to remove obstacles for this small minority.

It is in this context that I have encountered what I can only call inclusion denialism. This is the claim that the policy of inclusion, of forcing as many students with SEN as possible into mainstream schools, which was tried from around 1997 to around 2006 and was abandoned, either never ended or, in some accounts, never existed. It is simply assumed that everyone still believes wholeheartedly in the policy of inclusion; that it was never controversial and it was never reversed. On Twitter, simply for mentioning the fact that there was a policy of inclusion that was unpopular and abandoned, I have been blocked; accused of hating the disabled, and some edutwitter trolls have even demanded that I be reported to my headteacher and governors for my appalling views. This is particularly baffling to me, as not only did I teach during this era and pay close attention to the public debate, but I did my masters dissertation on SEN policy, and the policy of inclusion was a major part of what I studied.

So here, for the sake of teachers who are to new to the profession to remember the policy of inclusion, and for the sake of rebuttal to any inclusion denialists, are a small sample of links and documents to confirm that this policy existed and was then abandoned.

To begin with it’s important to be aware of what the data shows. It’s worth looking at the graphs on pages 10-12 of this document from 2018 where it is explained that there is:

A general trend of the proportion of pupils in special schools falling until 2007, with evidence of some plateauing in the early 2000s. Since 2007 the proportion of pupils in special schools appears to be rising slightly.

I have put the other resurces in roughly chronological order.

  • October 1997: Excellence for all children. Government green paper declaring the intention to increase and promote inclusion.
  • December 1999: From exclusion to inclusion: final report of the Disability Rights Task Force Report from government task force arguing that schools must follow the principle of inclusion.
  • May 2001: Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 Legislation requiring mainstream schooling for children without a statement and requiring LEAs and governing bodies to “prevent the incompatibility” where students with SEN could not be educated in mainstream schools.
  • November 2001: Special Educational Needs Code of Practice and Inclusive Schooling: Children with Special Educational Needs  Guidance for schools and LEAs. The former declares as a fundamental principle that “the special educational needs of children will normally be met in mainstream schools or settings”. The latter document “provides statutory guidance on the practical operation of the new statutory framework for inclusion” and warns that OFSTED will be monitoring schools and LEAs who use exceptions to the rules and the Secretary of State will intervene if they are found to be acting “unreasonably”.
  • December 2001: Disabled pupils ‘inspire teachers’ BBC news story about the policy of inclusion.
  • July 2002: Special schools ‘must stay open’ BBC news story about Conservative opposition to the policy.
  • October 2002: Special needs school pressure BBC news story about the policy and the effect on behaviour.
  • January 2004: Removing Barriers to Achievement The Government’s Strategy for SEN Government document most notable for confirming that LEAs should take account of the consideration that “the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time as mainstream schools grow in their skills and capacity to meet a wider range of needs”.
  • April 2004: Special education policy ‘a disaster’ BBC news story about teacher’s union NASUWT opposing the inclusion policy.
  • August 2004: Tories to review special schools BBC report about Tories calling for special school closures to be reviewed.
  • February 2005: Special schools or inclusion? BBC news story discussing controversy over the policy.
  • June 2005: Turning point for special needs? BBC report about the political controversy and disillusionment around inclusion. Call for special schools review BBC report that David Cameron as a hopeful for the Tory leadership calling for a review of the policy and education minister Lord Adonis claiming the changes had only been minor.
  • November 2005: The Thick Of It Episode 3 of season 2 of this comedy series shows the policy of inclusion was well enough known to be used as the basis for satire.
  • March 2006: Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence Education minister Lord Adonis tells a select committee: “We do not have a view about a set proportion of pupils who should be in special schools, but we note that in fact the proportion has remained roughly static in recent years. If that is the view that local authorities take in fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, we are absolutely content with that. We have no policy whatever, I should stress, of encouraging local authorities to close special schools or withdraw resource provision where they do not believe that is in the best interests of their localities” in contrast to January 2004 above.
  • May 2006: School inclusion ‘can be abuse’ BBC news story about an NUT report criticising the policy of inclusion.
  • June 2006: Education and Skills Committee Special Educational Needs The select committee report observes that “statutory and non-statutory guidance, and… the Government’s original 1997 position” was a policy of inclusion that the government no longer supports and argues “The Government should be up-front about its change of direction on SEN policy and the inclusion agenda”.
  • July 2006: Special needs education ‘not fit’ BBC news report about the select committee report on inclusion calling for the government to clarify its position on the policy.
  • December 2009: Lamb Inquiry After almost 2 years, a government inquiry reviewing special needs provision reports back, making no mention of the policy of inclusion.
  • September 2010: Minister seeks more parental choice on special needs BBC news story reporting on the coalition government’s explicit commitment to ending “the bias towards inclusion” which dates the policy to 1997-2005.
  • May 2012: Q&A: Special Educational Needs BBC report on government reforms of SEN education and the background to them.

I hope this makes the point. There may be a couple of complications. There were moves towards moving more students from special schools to mainstream before 1997 and, as I argued in my masters dissertation, there is a tendency for policy literature to suggest that policies had been in place longer than was actually the case. Additionally, even at the height of the policy of inclusion, there were those who would defend the policy by talking as if “inclusion” was only a desirable virtue, not a highly contentious policy. However, hopefully these sources should make clear the reality and history of the policy of inclusion and provide some warning about what to expect if policy makers try to turn the clock back.


  1. As a post 16 SEN teacher I would be interested in reading your dissertation.

  2. Read today’s Guardian editorial about inclusion, Tuesday 19/03/2019 it will make you weep.

  3. […] so it wasn’t difficult to research a post about the debates and controversies at the time. “Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten”.includes a timeline with links to both policy documents and news stories that illustrate what the […]

  4. […] Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: