Parental Views on Inclusive Education for Children with Special Educational Needs

Speaker: Una O'Connor, UNESCO Centre, University of Ulster


In 1998 the Department of Education (DE) in Northern Ireland introduced the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs (SEN). The Code set down provision similar to that already operated in England and Wales. It offered practical guidance on how to identify, assess and monitor all pupils with SEN. The Code standardised provision for children with SEN and was developed with the view that the learning needs of most children could be identified and addressed in a mainstream setting alongside their peers.

The research was commissioned by the Department of Education and formed part of larger project into parental attitudes to the statutory assessment and statementing procedures (O'Connor et al, 2003). Its aim was to investigate the experiences of parents of statemented children and their views on an inclusive educational policy in Northern Ireland. This was the first time that parents in Northern Ireland had been consulted on special needs provision.

Partnerships with parents have been promoted as essential to the education of all children, yet surprisingly little research has been conducted into parental views on their child's attendance at mainstream, unit or special school. Although the study focused on one geographic area, it was anticipated that the information gained would have more general applicability nationally and internationally regarding parental expectations and aspirations.

It is acknowledged that parents have a central role to play in their child's education. In England and Wales, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) through Local Education Authorities (LEAs), has made active efforts to engage parents in the special educational provision of their child through Parent Partnership Schemes (PPS). The aim of PPS is to ensure that parents of children with additional needs have access to information, advice and guidance in relation to the SEN of their child so they can fully participate in decision-making and make appropriate informed decisions. One of the recommendations of the Dyson Report (1998) was that DE should strive to ensure the early involvement of parental support and lobby groups. At present, there is no equivalent body representing parents within the Northern Ireland education system.

Recent surveys have suggested support among the general public for a more inclusive system of schooling. A total of 1,292 persons aged 16 years and over throughout Northern Ireland were individually interviewed as part of an Omnibus Survey (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, 2004). In all, 59% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that children with disabilities should attend the same schools as other children; a further 18% were unsure and 23% disagreed.

This paper will outline a qualitative study on the attitudes of parents towards the inclusion of children with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream classrooms. The implications of the findings are considered within the context of an improved working partnership with parents and in the development of more inclusive options for children with statements of special educational needs. It is consistently argued that future decisions about the form and content of statutory procedures for children with special educational needs must be done in full consultation with parents and as part of an evolving values base that underpin society's responses to diversity and our understanding of what it means to have a disability. The viewpoint of the child also needs to be considered further than existing arrangements and the dearth of research in this area is noted.


In the United Kingdom current policy has evolved from the Warnock Report (Department of Education and Science, 1978). The report was revolutionary in transforming thought on children with SEN and formed the basis of subsequent policy and legislation. Importantly, it acknowledged the need for parents to have legal redress to ensure their children's needs were identified and plans made for meeting them. The key stakeholders in education are children, families and schools. The idea of a mutually supportive relationship between school and home was identified in the Warnock Report which viewed the relationship between parent and professional as a partnership, and ideally, an equal one (Department of Education and Science, 1978). This has been codified within subsequent domestic policy and legislation - most notably in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order (1995) and the Education (Northern Ireland) Order (1996) which parallels similar legislation in Great Britain.

The Salamanca Statement, drawn up at the UNESCO World Conference (1994) continues to reflect the ethos of Warnock, calling on governments to adopt as a matter of law or policy, the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise.

The shift towards inclusive schooling is becoming more apparent with nearly all statemented children in some Local Education Authorities in Great Britain attending mainstream schools (Norwich, 2003; Scottish Executive, 2003). This also appears to be in accord with parent and public wishes (McConkey, O'Connor and Hartop, 2004).

The inclusive education debate is increasingly presented within equal opportunities legislation, most recently in the Special Educational Needs Discrimination Act (2002). Although this places responsibilities on schools and colleges to ensure they do not discriminate unfairly against students on the basis of their disability, it does not imply that all schools can equally or adequately meet the needs of all pupils. However, although legislation and policy can challenge prevailing trends regarding the integration of disability and SEN, MacKay (2002) argues that it is equally important to avoid the inappropriate mainstreaming of children in a way which neither meets their educational needs nor those of their classmates. Despite the amount of resources devoted to the legal processes of inclusion, there has been remarkably little formal evaluation of its efficacy. In recent years however concerns have been expressed that it is overly costly and bureaucratic; it diverts professional resources from meeting children's needs; it is stressful to parents and offers little extra reassurance to them, and it fails to support inclusive practices within schools (Audit Commission, 2002).

Historically the role of the parent has been that of client. It is a role that has a perceived status of dependency and passivity that reduces individual capacity to engage in an equal relationship with other stakeholders. However, if a more integrated approach to SEN provision is to be developed, the individual role of all stakeholders will have to be re-defined (Frederickson & Cline, 2002). Wolfendale (1983) has stated that if parents are seen as active partners in their child's education, they are recognised as having a knowledge and expertise to actively contribute to the decision-making process. It follows then that a mutual power-sharing relationship between parents and educators has greater potential to encourage empowerment and equality in decision-making, leading to agreed parameters of mutual accountability and responsibility (Pugh, 1989).

The emergence of increased co-operative practice between parents and professionals is of particular significance as inclusion becomes more visible in governmental, educational and social policy. A recent critique by Riddel et al (2001) has identified:

changes in procedural justice that are reflective of the shifting balance in power in parent/professional relationships, amongst them special needs legislation, the increasing use of voice by parents' groups and organisations and the growth of public sector accountability.

The promotion of parents as consumers in a market-oriented education system has highlighted the opportunity for greater educational choice and means of redress if the expectation is not fulfilled (Frederickson and Cline, 2002). Evans and Vincent (1997) however, point out that parents of children with special educational needs can sometimes be perceived not to conform to this category and so there is the risk then that they may be automatically positioned as less effective, less powerful consumers (Goacher et al, 1988).

The partnership model represents an attempt to redress the perceived imbalance in provision. The partnership model has defined a teacher-parent relationship where teachers are viewed as being experts on education and parents are viewed as being experts on their children. This relationship has the potential to become a partnership when expertise and control are shared in order to provide the optimum education for children with special educational needs (Hornby et al, 1997). Yet to date, the literature on inclusive education has tended to be dominated by the concerns of teachers and of education professionals (Feiler and Gibson, 1999) with little consideration given to exploring the attitudes of parents.

The Research Study

The aim of the initial research study was to engage as large a sample of parents as possible in the study. The most efficient means of doing this within available resources was through a self-completed, postal questionnaire.

From an initial sample of 2,346 parents who indicated a willingness to participate in the survey, a total of 1,032 (44%) completed the questionnaire. This data was supplemented with telephone interviews with a randomly selected subgroup of parents. A sample of 122 families were chosen at random from 623 respondents who had indicated a willingness in the questionnaire to be contacted by the University. Of these 96 were contactable in the time available. Following Wolfendale's (1999) guidance on optimizing representativeness, the parents were selected equally from two groupings; those who expressed overall dissatisfaction with the assessment and statementing process (N=149) and those who were satisfied (N=432). This would ensure that the views of a minority of parents would be better captured in the qualitative phase of the study.

The interviews served two main purposes: to validate the replies given to a selection of key questions in the self-completion questionnaire, but more importantly, to enable parents to elaborate on the improvements they felt were needed to the assessment and statementing processes. Further information was also sought on their views for the education of children with special needs in mainstream schools.

The parents were telephoned at home by a researcher using a semi-structured interview schedule based around several key themes:

  • What are the benefits/drawbacks of your child's present school placement?
  • Would you support the inclusions of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools? What are your reasons for your choice?
  • What do you think would be the benefits and/or drawbacks of inclusion?

The interview data was analysed by thematic content analysis.

Although the findings may not be wholly representative of Northern Irish parents, they do lend support to four main conclusions. First, parents in Northern Ireland were largely satisfied with the school in which their child is placed and only a very small percentage in this survey went as far as initiating Tribunal proceedings. Second, parents of children with SEN are broadly supportive of inclusive education. Third, their main rationale for inclusion centred around opportunities for their child to socialize with their peers and to challenge negative stereotypes of children with disabilities. Fourth parents were alert to the difficulties of achieving inclusion in general and for their own child in particular if they had more complex needs.

The over-riding question then is one of how might educational systems develop closer partnerships with parents in evolving policies and practices for special education needs provision. It is important that the impetus for the establishment of such groups is not the sole responsibility of parents. As previously stated, in England and Wales active efforts to engage parents through Parent Partnership Schemes have been implemented. It is still early days to assess the success of these initiatives, although research undertaken by the National Children's Bureau (1998) found that the scheme has had a positive impact but would require ongoing attention to maintain good practice.

Another promising strategy for greater partnership with parents is the introduction of Named Person Schemes (Ainscow et al, 1999). This initiative provides a personal contact for each family and facilitates the contribution of parents at each stage of the assessment and statementing process. Additionally, the Scottish Parliamentary Enquiry has praised those schools that had made use of parents as a source of information and advice to teachers and recommended more widespread use of this resource (Allan, 2002).

It is likely that the move towards greater inclusion will continue given the increased emphasis on anti-discriminatory legislation (Thomas, 1997). With specific regard to education however, the increased promotion of an inclusion agenda as a feature of other educational and governmental initiatives (such as the School Improvement Programme and Targeting Social Need) should be considered.

A central issue then becomes the future role of special schooling. This data suggests that parents may be more relaxed than educationalists about a reduction in special school provision, provided that some of the benefits it offers can be maintained in mainstream schooling. The main consideration is the preparation and competence of teachers both at initial and inservice level, and the provision and possible training of non-teaching support. Greater linkages between mainstream and special schools with pupils going back and forth or special school staff acting as outreach support teachers in mainstream settings and vice versa is a further possibility.


Arguably the major obstacle to inclusive education is the limited capacity of the current system to meet the diversity of children's learning needs (Weddell, 2000). Parents in this study were well aware of the challenges and limitations experienced by educators. However just as they as a family have had to adapt and accommodate to the special needs of their child with little pre-warning or preparation, so too the educational system is most likely to change when the children are physically present within the system.


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