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No longer the ‘elephant in the room’

December 7, 2017 Campaigning Alison Evison, President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA)

As I addressed the ENABLE Scotland National Conference in Glasgow last month – and as a former teacher – I considered what had been achieved by their headline campaign #IncludED in the Main?! and the voices of more than 800 people who supported it.

Today, we are one year on from the launch of #IncludED in the Main?! – 22 Steps on the Journey to Inclusion and, with a parliamentary motion tabled by Graeme Dey MSP, it is clear that the impact of the campaign remains visible at all levels of government.

The foremost report recommendation is already underway, with a consultation now open on the presumption to mainstreaming. New inclusion resources are being created by Education Scotland to support teachers, and research into the experiences of children, families and those who work with them is being carried out. Inclusion in our schools is no longer the ‘elephant in the room’.

I spent 25 years in teaching, before moving into local government, and the challenges of mainstream education for children who have additional support needs are painfully familiar. One of my children has verbal dyspraxia and we spent many years working with teachers and health professionals to ensure we had the correct support in place. I understand the challenge, but I also understand the aspiration for all children to be educated in the same environment and feel included.

Listening and working together

For all of us, feeling included and having a sense of belonging is fundamental to feeling good about ourselves – a precursor to living life to our full potential. The #IncludED in the Main?! Campaign reported that 60% of pupils who have learning disabilities feel lonely at school, with 62% saying people do not understand them.

This is a clear failing and something that schools, families and Councils can, and must, work together with children to overcome.

As we work towards that goal, we must ensure that those 800 voices are not lost as the new guidance and these resources come into use. We must continue listening to and gathering the views of parents, children and teachers. They are the experts, the people who will guide us on how to address the challenges ahead.

Councils need to work with parents to introduce inclusive support services. Schools need to encourage parents of children who have a learning disability to engage more with school staff and teachers, sitting on parent councils, contributing to consultations and participating in family learning events. Local authorities – and COSLA – need to overcome barriers that stand in the way of families informing policy decisions. All of these things must happen in order for things to change in classrooms across Scotland, and for our children to feel genuinely included in all aspects of school life.

Looking ahead

Crucially, young people need to have a voice in all the decisions that affect them. They need to be granted opportunities to influence their education and how educational services are delivered. This is the case for all young people and as such they have a vital role in helping local authorities and schools to get their services right.

As we approach the Year of the Young Person in 2018, now is the time to think about how we engage more and listen to the voices of young people who have a learning disability. We should celebrate their achievements – which are as diverse and varied as all our young people. We should recognise that an inclusive school education gives our children much more than a formal record of attainment or qualifications. It should support every child’s potential to thrive during, and beyond, their school years.

For children who have a learning disability to thrive we need schools to develop their understanding of supporting and educating children who have learning disabilities.

We also need to invest in our school teachers and teaching support staff so that they are trained and feel sufficiently confident to support our children and young people. Alongside the guidance on mainstreaming, Education Scotland will host and develop an inclusive online resource for headteachers to support them to carry out their role.

Providing resources to support teachers is a significant step forward on a journey to inclusion, but they alone cannot improve inclusion and achievement. Pupil support workers have a vital role in creating inclusive education environments and, more widely, everyone working in education and children’s services must work with pupils and families, with each child’s interests at the centre of all that they do.

For councils to be able to get all these things right for all our young people, there is also of course the need for the Scottish Government to not only recognise the importance of this work, but also to reflect that in the budget they provide. Without this, councils will continue to face difficult and challenging choices.

The direction of travel set out by the #IncludED in the Main?! report a year ago was clear – one of partnership working, shared learning and collaboration, with young people who have a learning disability and their families at the centre of the conversation. So much has been achieved this year and the momentum is building with each step we take on this Journey to Inclusion.

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