I am sitting with a group of pre-school children in a primary school in the outskirts of a European city.
It’s a disadvantaged area and we had driven through a run-down local housing estate to get there that morning. The school is bright, modern, popular with parents and is celebrated nationally as an example of inclusive practice. The children are five year-olds and as in many of the European countries they will not start school till a year later than they would in the UK.
I have the enormous privilege of being able to observe the interactions around a table where the children are playing with modelling dough. I’ve got half an hour and I am particularly focused on the interactions between the three children and the adult around the table. The adult is allocated to a disabled child who is one of the three. The child, I’ll call her Paula, uses a wheelchair but is supported in an especially constructed chair at the table, so that she is at the right height. In addition to her physical impairment, Paula has epilepsy and has to be monitored carefully and continuously as it is proving difficult to balance her medication.
Two of the children are interacting quite a bit, leaning in to each other, pointing, talking about their models, constructively, and by invitation, adjusting each other’s models.
They talk to the adult and the adult talks to them. Paula addresses the adult and the adult addresses her but, during this half an hour, not once do the two children interact with Paula; not once does Paula address one of them.
In the afternoon we have the further privilege of meeting Paula’s mother. She is thrilled that Paula is included in the class; her daughter is happy, has friends, loves going to the pre-school. As she talks in a bit more detail, tears well up in her eyes as she rehearses all the benefits arising from the way the school has included her. She is overwhelmed by the things that are happening for Paula that she never dreamt would happen.
This gives me food for thought. Now, of course Paula needs to be carefully monitored by an adult, but does this mean the adult has to sit beside her all the time? Could the adult move away from the table and still monitor her? Has anyone noticed the dynamics around the table? Has anyone reflected on the impact of having an adult sitting beside a child all the time? How will this play out as she moves into school proper? And as she grows up? If she was aware of the dynamics, could the adult actively promote interaction between the children?
Just recently I stumbled across the paper from the Education Endowment Foundation – it builds on the work at the Institute of Education on the deployment and impact of support staff in schools and makes seven key recommendations about the effective use of teaching assistants. There are recommendations based on the over-use of teaching assistants to teach low-attaining children including those with SEN. There are also recommendations based on the general finding that the use of teaching assistants can encourage dependency. In the early years we take the first steps in preparing for adulthood.
We need to support the development of independence in the detail of classroom interactions and from the earliest stage. This will make for more inclusive practices in our schools and better preparation for our children and young people as they become adults.
The challenges identified here are not unique to any one country in Europe and I hope that, whatever the outcome of all the European negotiations, we continue to have the opportunity to address these and similar challenges to inclusive education across Europe. The UK currently does this through membership of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education.
Back in the classroom, towards the end of the morning, it’s impossible to sit in a classroom of young children and not get drawn into conversation. My language skills are limited and there are only a couple of words I can use to ‘read’ the book that one little girl presents me with. It’s Red Riding Hood. I know the word for wolf. We go through and we spot the wolf on each page and do ‘frightened’ actions together.