There is a new American TV show I have been watching recently called "The Good Doctor." Its premise is that a brilliant young surgeon also happens to be autistic. The episodes chart his erratic progress towards being fully accepted as a medical professional in a major US hospital. As drama it is highly watchable, but how realistic is it? I have my doubts, and it has led me to consider the nature of inclusion as this week's blog post.
When I was a boy, such a concept was unthinkable. Children who were in any way disadvantaged were sent to what were euphemistically known as "Special Schools." Pupils who attended such places might be physically handicapped through blindness, or mentally challenged because of brain damage. Later, when I started teaching in the 1970s, these schools had become specialised, as had their teachers. You could, for example, be trained to become a teacher of the deaf. More recently, the concept of "inclusion" has become virtually the industry standard. In simple terms, it means that all children can and should be included in mainstream education, with provision made for them to attend specialist classes with suitably qualified teachers on a case by case basis. The idea is noble in intent, but how practical is it in reality?
Some years ago, when I was Principal of an international school in Europe, I was approached by the parents of a girl who had Asperger's syndrome. They had recently arrived from the UK and were keen to find a place for her in an English medium school. I was initially very reluctant to take her. This was simply because we lacked any kind of specialist help. I told them I would take her on a trial basis, but had to ask them to withdraw her after only a few weeks. The other kids in her class were terrified of her: she would routinely self-harm or threaten to hurt her peers and she was a big, and potentially threatening girl.
Conversely, a few years later, when running a teacher training programme in Qatar, I visited a mainstream secondary school, where we hoped to place some of our trainees, and saw a special needs unit in action. Here, children with a wide variety of problems were well integrated into many of the lessons, while requiring to be withdrawn for others. There were great educational advantages for everyone here: the kids with special needs were made to feel "normal" and welcome, while the mainstream pupils learned valuable lessons in tolerance, acceptance, and what a meaningless word "normality" often is.
It would seem, therefore, that having a specialist unit in your school, staffed appropriately, is the right way forward. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I spoke to a special needs teacher at a conference recently, who was vehemently opposed to inclusion and a strong supporter of special schools. I respect her professional knowledge, but reject her overall philosophy.
We have come a long way from the days when special needs children were hidden away as an embarrassment to the rest of the family. Last night, Helen and I watched an uplifting and inspiring TV interview with the actor Warwick Davies who is not much more than a metre in height. He has achieved fame, fortune and acceptance. Of course, the fact that he is both highly talented and charismatic has been of considerable help. Nonetheless, to appreciate that he routinely appears on TV shows as a "normal" guest, is proof of the way society has changed, and, I sincerely hope, for the better.
We are not equipped to cope with special needs students at KYUEM, but year on year I am heartened to witness community service and education projects that many of our young people undertake to work with such kids. Becoming aware of differences but being free of prejudice against them is a huge step forward for tomorrow's citizens and makes me optimistic about the future of this country.