A leading disabled activist is to travel to two of the countries with the best track records in the world on inclusive education in search of evidence to convince UK politicians and civil servants to “rebuild aspiration” for inclusion in mainstream schools.
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, is hoping to collect evidence from Canada and Finland that shows how a truly inclusive system can be achieved.
Flood has secured funding from Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to visit and learn from the school systems in the Canadian city of Toronto and the province of New Brunswick, and in Finland.
The trust funds UK citizens to travel overseas to investigate “new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK”.
She and other disabled campaigners have struggled for years against successive governments that have moved away from the idea of an inclusive education system.
Flood (pictured) told the panel who interviewed her for one of the trust’s fellowships that the UK had “lost its ambition for disabled children and young people with special educational needs (SEN)”.
She told Disability News Service: “What I mean by that is the sense of being part of society, the sense of having sufficient value to ensure that whatever their access requirements, the system will meet them.”
This loss of ambition is illustrated most clearly by a Tory government that won power as part of the coalition in 2010 with a pledge to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.
Although much of the blame lies with the coalition years of 2010-15, and the subsequent Tory governments, which have “ramped up” the assault on inclusion, she said the last years of the previous New Labour government caused damage of their own.
It was a Labour government that insisted on imposing conditions relating to inclusive education when it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009 – although it did pledge to build the capacity of mainstream schools to be more inclusive – and caused further damage by beginning the move towards the “academisation” of schools.
In this context of more than a decade of attacks on inclusive education, Flood decided that she “had to seek inspiration elsewhere” and began to look at some of the “really good practice” on inclusive education in other countries.
Both Toronto and New Brunswick claim to have no special schools at all, she says, with New Brunswick introducing a policy as far back as 1986 to require that all disabled students should be included in mainstream classrooms.
Finland has a “very small number” of special schools and appears very high up in international comparisons on child happiness and attainment, she says.
During her travels, she will meet disabled children and young people as well as government officials, organisations led by disabled people and parents, and teachers and educationalists.
Flood is hoping to learn why they shifted away from segregation, how their policies work in practice, and how they affect the post-education outcomes of disabled young people.
She also hopes to hear from disabled children and young people themselves on “what it feels like to be part of a really inclusive system”.
And she is hoping to bring back what she learns and use it show politicians and organisations in the UK that “this is what is possible”.
She said: “I have to be hopeful that Department for Education SEND [special educational needs and disability] leads will at least listen to what I have to say based on the evidence.
“It’s an attempt to re-build aspiration and with aspiration it is possible to think about what the government could do proactively to implement its commitment [under the UN convention] to ‘building the capacity of mainstream schools to be more inclusive’.
“We are so battered down in this country that it is really difficult to look up and think about what our vision really looks like because we are constantly firefighting.
“Personally, I am also going to recharge my campaigning batteries, to remind myself that what ALLFIE has been campaigning for for the last 27 years is actually possible.
“We need to remind ourselves that what we believe in, what we talk about all the time, is possible and is actually happening [in other countries].
“I am going to find the evidence and present it to this government.
“I also intend meeting with lead organisations in the parent-led and disabled children’s services sector to do some evangelising!”
Flood hopes to spend two weeks in both Canada and Finland, which will come towards the end of a four-month sabbatical from her work at ALLFIE – where she has been director for 12 years – which begins at the end of next week.
She will be replaced during her time away by Michelle Daley, another leading campaigner on inclusive education, co-founder of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, and a former member of the government’s Equality 2025 advisory network.
Flood says she will be leaving ALLFIE in “incredibly capable hands” but has already told Daley that she does not just want her to keep her seat warm while she is away, but to “look at what we do and how we do it with a fresh pair of eyes”.
ALLFIE has recently received another three years’ funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, part of which will allow ALLFIE to examine its future financial sustainability.
“It is really timely to have a new, fresh pair of eyes to overlook that particular piece of work,” says Flood.
Daley said: “ALLFIE is a well-established organisation with great values on inclusive education. I couldn’t have asked for a better organisation to lead.
“I’m excited about my appointment but know there will be many challenges ahead in continuing to communicate the developments and positive understanding of inclusive education.”
When Flood returns to ALLFIE, in September, she hopes to be equipped with all the material she needs to convince the government to implement last autumn’s recommendations by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.
The committee, which had been examining the UK’s implementation of the UN convention, called on the government to set out “a coherent and adequately financed strategy, with concrete timelines and measurable goals, on increasing and improving inclusive education”.
Flood says she hopes her research in Canada and Finland will provide the evidence to show the UK government “what is possible” in implementing the UN’s recommendations.