Dear Scottish Parliament: Inclusive Education is a Universal Right Not a “Laudable Intention”

By Catia Malaquias

“… old man segregation is on his death bed.  But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.” (Martin Luther King, 10 April 1957)


On 30 January 2019 the Scottish Conservatives, apparently acting on the concerns “expressed by many teachers, teachers assistants, children’s charities and parent groups” introduced a motion into the Scottish Parliament seeking to “review the presumption to mainstream policy [for students with disability and additional learning needs] to ensure that there can be more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units and utilisation of specialist staff”. [emphasis added]

While recognising the “laudable intentions” of the “presumption to mainstream” policy and the strong endorsement by the OECD that “inclusion is one of the key strengths of the Scottish education system” that has resulted, contrary to the regressive situation of both Australia and England, in a proportionate reduction over the last decade of the number of students in segregated “special” education settings, the Scottish Conservatives are effectively saying the “pendulum has swung too far”.

The Scottish Conservatives said, and the remainder of the Scottish Parliament agreed albeit on the basis that the continuing commitment to the “presumption to mainstream” policy should not be reviewed or undermined, that the education of students with disability and additional learning needs in mainstream or regular settings should be “debated”.

But whether students should be moved into segregated “special” education settings” should not be a matter for “debate”.  It is not a matter of opinion.

For a child to be educated in a regular school amongst their same-age non-disabled peers with appropriate support and curriculum adaptation is not a “laudable intention”, it is a fundamental human right of the child recognised by the United Nations and international law.  In that regard, although the United Kingdom was the only country, other than Mauritius, to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on the basis that its obligation under Article 24 (Education) of the CRPD to implement an inclusive education system was subject to its interpretation that the obligation did not preclude the maintaining of separate “special” education schools and units, that does not undermine the fact that as a matter of international law (as clarified by UN General Comment No. 4 (The Right to Inclusive Education) (GC4)) separate “special” education settings are not “inclusive”, but “segregation”:

“Segregation occurs when education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities.” [GC4, para 11]

In that regard, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during its Concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland reviewing its compliance with the CRPD, and as supported by Disability Rights UK, the United Kingdom should withdraw its reservation to Article 24 and its defence of segregated “special” education settings.

So on what grounds are the Scottish Conservatives calling for a “review of the presumption to mainstream” policy?

“Inclusion” does not mean just being in a “mainstream” education setting

This is correct – being in “mainstream” education is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to receiving an inclusive education.

GC4 recognises that merely being placed into a mainstream education school or classroom without adequate support or curriculum adaptation is “mainstreaming” or “integration”, in other words mere geographic location in a mainstream setting is less than what is required to receive an inclusive education in a mainstream or regular school environment:

“Integration [or mainstreaming]is a process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardised requirements of such institutions.

Placing students with disabilities within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes to, for example, organisation, curriculum and teaching and learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion.” [GC4, para 11]

However, the Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman, Hon. Ms Liz Smith, presented a very different notion of “inclusion” to the Scottish Parliament.  She, and others, contend that “inclusion” is a matter of how the student “feels” irrespective of the nature of the education setting in which they are located.  In the pro-segregation “special” education industry, this is the “inclusion is not a place” argument:

“A young person who attends a special school, in some cases away from home, might find him or herself in a very inclusive setting, in which they are much better able to achieve their potential than they would have been in a mainstream school.

The reverse is true too.  … there are many young people in mainstream schools who do not feel particularly well included.” [Hon. Liz Smith]

Another member of the Scottish Parliament quoted a representative of Scottish Autism:

“Inclusion is about how you feel, not about who you sit next to.” [Hon. Mark McDonald]

But this argument is about rebranding segregated “special” education settings as something that they are not – they are by definition not “inclusive” as they are not representative of the broader community  and accordingly do not foster development of social connection with one’s broader community, so important to the prospects of open employment, community participation and independent living.  It is perverse to describe the segregation of students with disability en masse in discrete settings as “inclusive”.  This was also recognised by the former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, in his position paper last year “Fighting School Segregation in Europe through Inclusive Education”:

“… countries appear to be willing to settle for some form of segregation and rename segregated forms of education under a more acceptable brand (such as ‘appropriate education’ in the Netherlands) or even as inclusive education (for instance ‘inclusive education centres’ in Romania).”

While it is correct that many students with disability may not feel included in mainstream or regular school settings – that does not justify their exclusion and segregation in “special” settings.  Rather than as a justification for shipping students off to segregated “special” settings, the systemic response must be to address the structural and cultural matters in their mainstream schooling environment that are preventing them from feeling included, valued and supported.

The Hon. Mr Jeremy Balfour, a Scottish Conservative, provided the following case as justifying transfer of a student to a segregated “special” setting:

“A parent contacted me … . She has a son in primary 5 in mainstream school but has requested that he is taken out because he spends 90% of his time out of the classroom working independently with an adult.  He does not have any friends, he feels lonely and isolated and he hates going to school.  I suggest he is an example when mainstreaming has gone too far.”

I would suggest that this is actually an example of a student not being provided with an inclusive education in the first place – but micro-segregation in a mainstream setting.  It is not a failure of inclusive education, but a failure to include a student in the mainstream classroom and to provide him, and his class members, with the opportunity to develop a social connection. Pulling a student out for 90% of the day says one thing to the student and his class members – the student is not “one of them”.  Segregating the student further in a separate “special” setting is likely to be even worse in the long run.

Teachers are saying that many students with disability should not be in mainstream education settings

Liz Smith advised the Scottish Parliament that “sixty percent of teachers tell us that young people are frequently being educated in mainstream schools when alternative [segregated] provision would meet their educational needs better”.

She did so within the context that teachers say that they are not adequately prepared or trained to address the learning needs of students with disability – no one disputes that more training and support is beneficial and required. Recent teacher union surveys reinforce the long-standing positions of teacher unions calling for more staff, resources, training and ultimately more funding to alleviate the pressure and stress on teachers consequent on the greater enrolment of students with disability in mainstream schools.

But although many teachers recognise the right of students with disability to be educated in mainstream settings and to receive a genuinely inclusive education, the reality is that one of the most significant barriers to the genuine inclusion of students with disabilities is the attitude of teachers – their actual willingness to include students with disability.

But will more training and staffing change the willingness of teachers as a profession to embrace genuinely inclusive education?

The uncomfortable reality is that many teachers – like the rest of the community – are infected by ableism – implicit prejudice towards students with disability.

So long as there is “debate” as to whether students with disability are entitled to an inclusive education in mainstream classrooms in regular schools, we are feeding the maintenance of cultural and attitudinal barriers that operate to deny students nothing less than their fundamental human rights.  This is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of discrimination, as expressly recognised in GC4 (and reaffirmed in General Comment No.6 on Article 5, Equality and Non-Discrimination):

“The right to non-discrimination includes the right not to be segregated and to be provided with reasonable accommodation” [GC4, para 13]

For most parents of students with disability, the number one concern at the start of each mainstream school year is the “attitude” of their allocated classroom teacher. Because if the teacher does not have an inclusive attitude and is not willing to send the message to their child, the other students, to them and to the other parents, that the child with disability is an equal and valued member of the classroom, then the likelihood of a successful schooling year is very low.

In many ways, teacher attitude is ultimately more important than training or funding; it is the life blood necessary to sustain an inclusive education experience for the student and for the whole classroom.  An education assistant can be a very valuable resource – but an education assistant can never overcome the detriment of a teacher with a “can’t do, won’t do” exclusionary attitude.

Further, the damage that teachers with ableist or “exclusionary” attitudes do to students with disability (by failing to identify and arrest the adverse consequences of a student feeling excluded by them and their classroom) are inevitably reaped by the next teacher of that student – and usually internalised by, and blamed on, the student. That continuum (unless broken by an inclusive teacher) does not lead anywhere good – but shipping the student off to a segregated “special” setting is far from the answer – no matter how “included” the student might feel by comparison in segregation.

The teacher unions around the world have one core function, to represent the interests of their members.  That is different to representing the interests of the students of their members – and unfortunately a further step removed in relation to the interests of students with disability.

Further, students with disability are a relatively recent addition to the mainstream education “ecosystem” and the profession of teaching itself does need support and training investment to better meet the needs of today’s diverse student cohorts.  But there is a limit to which that reason can be advanced as justification or explanation of the current challenges, particularly when research and intuition demonstrates that a very large part of the implementation issues with inclusive education are attitudinal.

As an inclusive education advocate, there is no harder crowd to present to than a room full of teachers – notwithstanding that the majority of teachers are supportive of inclusion in mainstream settings.  The minority is vocal and influential. It is also apparent that teacher unions default to approaching the inclusion of students with disability with weighting as a resourcing, safety and teacher well-being issue, rather than what it primarily is –  a social justice issue.

There is unused capacity in our segregated “special” schools

Liz Smith in bemoaning (rather than celebrating) the progressive reduction in the number of special schools, special teachers and specialist psychologists and psychiatrists in Scotland notwithstanding the increase in the proportion of students identified with additional support needs, set the scene for describing an “overloaded” mainstream system – rather than recognising that it suggested the up-skilling of general education teachers.

Accordingly, whilst noting that the “ideal” solution of “another 1,000 specialist teachers” being added to the workforce was not financially practical, she fell on the convenient answer:

“We know that there are special schools and some specialist units that have available places.  For example we know that in Edinburgh … [certain special schools] … feel that their specialist resources are underused, and I have knowledge of another couple of special schools that would be able to take more young people.”

This solution is no more than segregation for segregation’s-sake – to sustain institutions that should be de-institutionalised and their very valuable resources, including high funding allocations and specialist teaching resources, transferred to ensuring that the general mainstream education system is made more inclusive.

It is a given that so long as the general mainstream education system is operated in parallel with a segregated “special” education system then, as governments cannot afford to adequately fund both, the general system will systemically leak, or rather encourage, students with disability and their families to move into segregated settings to deny incentive for, and relieve pressure on, the general system to evolve into a genuinely inclusive system.

This structural weakness of implementing inclusive education within a two-tiered education system is recognised by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in GC4:

“… State parties have a specific and continuing obligation ‘to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible’ towards the full realisation of Article 24 [of the CRPD].  This is not compatible with sustaining two systems of education: mainstream and special/segregated education systems.” [GC4, para 39]

“The Committee urges State parties to achieve a transfer of resources from segregated to inclusive environments.” [GC4, para 68]

Parents want more segregated ‘special’ education

Liz Smith, and others, raised that some of their constituents, parents of students with disability, had been refused special education places for their children.   This is the “parental choice” argument used by many governments to justify the continuation of investment in segregated “special” education – that they are just meeting parental demand and parents obviously know what is in the best interests of their child.

I have written extensively on this superficial argument advanced by the special education industry (see “Choosing Segregated Education – Parental Choice or Parental Concession?”) – which is usually intertwined with the “one size doesn’t fit all” argument.

The reality is that if the following conditions are met, very few parents, if any, would seek or accept a segregated “special” education place for their child as a properly informed and freely made choice:

  • the parents are provided with the extensive research evidence-base on the superior academic and social outcomes of inclusive education in general or mainstream education settings (i.e. they are fully informed);
  • the parents are not informally coerced into enrolling or transferring to segregated ‘special’ education settings (i.e. mainstream school administrators and teachers do not engage in unconscionable ‘gate-keeping’ practices);
  • the parents are made aware of their own susceptibility to being influenced by ableist assumptions and their own implicit prejudice towards disability; and
  • the general or mainstream school is culturally and attitudinally supportive of their child’s enrolment and will make appropriate provision for their child’s education – the former being possibly more important than the latter.

Further, the whole premise of this argument that parents have the ultimate right to decide the appropriate education setting for their child is more than questioned by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – it is refuted as a matter of human rights on the basis that parents are not right holders in relation to the education of their child – but rather trustees or custodians of their child’s right to receive an inclusive education in a general or mainstream education setting:

“Inclusive education is to be understood as … a fundamental human right of all learners.  Notably, education is the right of the individual learner, and not, in the case of children, the right of a parent or care-giver.  Parental responsibilities in this regard are subordinate to the rights of the child.” [GC4, para 10]


The Scottish Parliament should heed the words of the former European Commissioner who candidly identified the structural resistance of an incumbent and intransigent education system and associated “vested interests” in seeking to preserve segregated “special” education settings:

 “Strong vested interests in the area of education can explain a certain passivity on the part of States in tackling segregated education. Decision-makers and political leaders, school administrations, teachers and families can sometimes actively resist changes that may alter situations of relative privilege in education.  The capacity of these actors to articulate their demands and to raise their criticism of government policies is much higher than the ability of vulnerable families to fight for the right of their children to education.

The reluctance to include childen with disabilities is exacerbated by the wide margin of discretion which schools often enjoy when it comes to providing reasonable accommodations to these children so that they have access to education on an equal footing with others.  Schools often put forward economic arguments to deny these children the specific support they require to be able to access mainstream education.

Financial arrangements can also strengthen resistence against desegregation, especially as far as special education is concerned. Professional groups involved in special education, such as teachers, psychologists and testing centres frequently oppose desegregation in order to protect vested interests.” [pp 10-11]

Finally, the Scottish Parliament should be conscious of the considered recommendations in 2017 of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in relation to the United Kingdom, including Scotland:

“52. The Committee is concerned at:

(a) The persistence of a dual education system that segregates children with disabilities in special schools, including based on parental choice;

(b) The increasing number of children in disabilities in segregated education environments;

(c) The fact that the education system is not equipped to respond to the requirements for high-quality inclusive education, particularly reports of school authorities refusing to enrol a student with disabilities who is deemed to be ‘disruptive to other classmates’;

(d) The fact that education and training of teachers in inclusion competencies does not reflect the requirements of inclusive education.

53. The Committee recommends that the … [United Kingdom], in close consultation with organisations of persons with disabilities, … and in line with the Committee’s General Comment No. 4 (2016) on the right to inclusive education and targets 4.5 and 4.8 of the Sustainable Development Goals:

(a) Develop a comprehensive and coordinated legislative and policy framework for inclusive education and in a time frame to ensure that mainstream schools foster real inclusion of people with disabilities in the school environment and that teachers and all other professionals and persons in contact with children understand the concept of inclusion and are able to enhance inclusive education; 

… .”

Inclusive education is not a pendulum – it is a right the realisation of which only moves education in one direction – away from segregation.

[Cover photo © Ferran-Feixas]

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