Scotland’s journey to inclusive education – now only paved with “laudable intentions”

IMG_6945And so it began.

Scotland’s Parliament sat again in 1999. The third meeting of the Equal Opportunities Committee (EOC) of the new Scottish Parliament took place on 21st September 1999.  This committee was looking for a way to make its mark and promote equal opportunities at the dawn of the legislature. One of the first major bills for the new Parliament was to be the Education Improvement bill.

The EOC had looked at the Equal Opportunities Commission submission on the bill.  Kate McLean MSP, the convenor of the Parliament’s EOC, noticed the Commission’s submission was incomplete. She thought they missed a few issues and continued “particularly the inclusion of kids with special needs. We may want to look at the way in which we segregate such children in Scotland.”

On 2 November 1999, at the sixth meeting of the Parliament’s EOC, they invited a newly-formed group of parents, the Equity group, to speak about their concerns regarding the education of children with special educational needs.  Equity spoke about their children being placed in special school without their agreement. They stated that they wanted “all children at least to have the entitlement to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers”.

Yes, inclusion of children with special needs in local schools in Scottish education was driven by a group of parents of children with special educational needs – who’d have thought it!

The EOC were interested in this approach for two main reasons from their perspective – it aligned with their desire to place equality at the centre of legislation-making in the new Parliament with a major bill on education in process. Secondly, for the members of the EOC, the inclusion of disabled children in their local school would be an example of mainstreaming which was a feature of equality claims at that time.

Next up on 1 March 2000, the EOC met with the Education Committee about the new education bill and the policy advice.  The EOC had concerns that the policy advice for the bill lacked a human rights perspective. One of the members of the Education Committee, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, agreed.  Shona Robison asked the Scottish Executive to include in the bill

“the right of every child to be educated in a local mainstream school and receive individual support when and where necessary”

Shona Robison reported that the conclusion of the EOC was that, “to maximise the benefit to parents, there should be a right rather than a presumption.  A presumption seemed to have qualifications attached.”

And so it continued.

After the advice from the EOC the discussions and debates now lay with the Education Committee.

May 9th2000, the Education Committee considered amendment 113.  Peter Peacock MSP, the Education Minister, opened the debate with the statement

“Our commitment to developing an inclusive society includes the wish to have all children educated alongside each other. Already, the majority of children with special educational needs are educated in mainstream primary or secondary schools. The amendment will strengthen their right to be educated alongside their peers. It will require local authorities to provide education in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs unless there are good reasons for not doing so.“

All on the Education Committee agreed to amendment 113 which stated that as education authorities were to discharge their duty to provide education in a school, it was to “provide it in a school other than a special school”.  In the end mainstreaming was to proceed in regard to education authorities’ duties rather than the rights of the child.

While the Education Committee all agreed to the amendment in committee, in June 2000 when the bill was being finalised debate about the mainstreaming amendment was re-opened.

On June 7ththe final stages of the bill took place and two amendments were tabled amendment 3 and amendment 26.  Amendment 3 was agreed to and amendment 26 went to a vote. Nicola Sturgeon spoke for the amendment which was to challenge a too narrow view of mainstreaming that could be seen to let educational authorities off the hook.

Amendment 26 was defeated. It was supported by the Tories and SNP with Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney voting against the presumption of mainstreaming as not being broad enough and not fully in the child’s interest.

And so it happened.

Scotland had decided not to implement inclusive education, not to give children and young people the right to a high quality inclusive education but had established the duty on education authorities to provide education but NOT in a special school.  And that duty not to provide education in a special school could have three exceptions – unreasonable cost, the education of others and the views of parents.  Our presumption of mainstreaming was always a limited right, even further limited by the exceptions.

The next debate was in 2017 but now on the back of a growing dissatisfaction from some regarding variable practice regarding education in their local schools.

This time there was a longer motion agreed to, with a couple of amendments from the Tories and Labour to a SNP motion – with the Parliament recognising that “mainstreaming has featured at the heart of its commitment to inclusive education since 2000, welcomes that successive administrations have created and strengthened this commitment”. John Swinney and Nicola sturgeon voted for their motion which had the presumption of mainstreaming at the heart of the commitment to inclusive education. This motion was further amended by the Tories and Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens. This time the SNP Government was defeated as amendments were added about cuts in funding and resources which meant the motion ended with “if mainstreaming in education is to be fully effective, the Scottish government must ensure that schools have the funding and the staff to deliver it.”  While Labour Lib Dems, Greens and tories supported this amended motion, the SNP abstained.

Fourteen months then passed, now a new debate took place on 30th January 2019.  This time in a Tory debate a motion amended by the SNP was agreed to . This “back to the future”  coalition of SNP and Tories who opposed mainstreaming as too narrow in 2000 now considered it too broad in 2019. They also defeated  an amendment mentioning cuts in resources that had the support of Labour and Liberal Democrats.

The motion is 2017 had mainstreaming at the heart of Parliament’s commitment to inclusive education since 2000. Now in 2019 it was “the presumption to mainstream has laudable intentions”, the motion returned to talking about “special educational needs” and that the government will work “to review the presumption to mainstream policy to ensure there can be more uptake of the provision of places in special schools.”

And here we are.

A commitment to not be educated in a special school pushed through on the back of representation by parents to the Equal Opportunities Committee was now to be reviewed. Children’s rights are to be limited further.

In reading over the debates it is clear that Scotland’s MSPs are unaware of global moves to inclusive education. No notice is taken of article 24 from UNCRPD established in 2006 and not one MSP references this important development in regard to rights of disabled children.

Scotland’s claim to be educationally inclusive of disabled children in legislation terms always hung  on the “shoogly peg’ of a duty not to have your education in a special school.  Nothing is mentioned about quality of inclusive education, nothing about systemic change. No recourse to taking note of UNCRPD General Comment no. 4 which provides the legislative and policy framework to deliver on inclusive education.

Finally the new policy of reviewing Section 15 of the 2000 Act in order to increase the numbers of children in special schools will mean Scottish education will now match the four concerns of the UN when concluding their observations on the UK’s austerity policies and their impact on disabled people.  Previously all four concerns only applied to English education.

In 2020 the Global Education Monitoring Report will have its major theme on inclusion in education. While Scotland reviews the laudable intentions of mainstreaming, UNESCO will consider developments across six major areas of inclusive practice in education.

The 2020 GEM Report will examine the role of the different elements of education systems that can support inclusion, including

  • Laws and policies,
  • Governance and finance,
  • Schools,
  • Curricula and learning materials,
  • Teachers, school leaders and education support personnel
  • Communities, parents and students

The Report will consider how these elements contribute to system-level and local inclusion of learners who are vulnerable to exclusion.

In my view it’s not a good look, as we head backwards in time, away from recognising and realising the rights of disabled children; the rest of the world moves ahead. Our MSPS now seem to be content to step back from inclusive society, only paving the journey with laudable intentions.  No matter the good intentions there is no inclusive society without well-funded high quality inclusive education for all.