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This report considers recent research evidence related to inclusive education, and equality of opportunity, in relation to social class and how it affects children aged 7 years and below within the English educational system. A definition of inclusive education relevant to early educational practice will be offered. A literature review will be undertaken, that will principally examine the size of the social class differences amongst young children, and will go on to consider a case study of inclusive practice that was implemented at one English primary school. Recommendations for future research are made.
Since the publication of the Plowden Report in 1967, it has been apparent that social class has a profound effect on the educational achievement of primary school children. In the past two decades, there have been a number of specific legislative changes that have altered the shape of primary school education. With the Education Reform Act(1988), schools have been required to undertake standardised testing of7 year old children in English, Mathematics and Science subjects.
Furthermore, schools have been required to publish controversial ‘league tables’ of performance, alongside national averages, in their school prospectus publications. There have been several policies introduced to reduce the effects of deprivation on young children including Sure Start, and a planned widening of availability of nursery education all in the name of ‘inclusive education’ (Barnes, Belsky,Broomfield, Dave et al, 2004, p 46-9). Indeed, Geertz (2001) has argued that New Labour policy makers strive to “make all families like middle-class families, or at least the ideal-typical middle class family of much educational research” (p 7).
However, there is surprisingly little empirical research evidence available on inclusive education, or equality of opportunity in early educational settings, with most studies focussing on secondary school children. This is also regrettable since Sammons and Sees (1998) have clearly shown that at the age of seven, prior attainment accounts for 26-43% of variance in national assessment results (p 389 – 407).
Therefore, early teaching support of children with special educational needs, or affected by poverty or difficult personal circumstances would appear to be of immense importance to prevent children who start school behind their peers from falling further behind as their school careers progress. This report will critically assess available empirical studies related to the education of children aged 7 years and below within the United Kingdom. Furthermore, it will examine theoretical and philosophical perspectives on early inclusive education, and make recommendations for further research.
The search strategy employed for the literature review involved searching electronic bibliographical databases for relevant research and policy papers related to the topic of inclusive education, and equality of opportunity, and social class issues with English school pupils aged 7 and under. No date restrictions were imposed on the searches, although most papers that were located and subsequently considered in this literature review were published in the 1990’s and2000’s. The electronic bibliographical databases that were searched were ERIC, the British Education Index and Psych Lit.
Abstracts for each paper were inspected on an individual basis to assess their relevance to the literature review. Research papers within the terms of the literature review were then obtained from various library sources. However, it was felt that much of the research on early inclusive education would be found in the grey literature. Therefore, the Education Line database of conference proceedings, provided by Leeds University, was also searched for relevant papers. Finally, a search of the websites of highly regarded academic educational research centres, and government official statistics, was undertaken and further relevant research reports were obtained this way.
Although ‘inclusive education’ has been the buzz word of the education sector for many years, there is a lack of clarity in its definition. It broadly includes reference to a schools receptivity to accommodate the needs of all its pupils, and be “more responsive to pupil diversity”(Fiorina, Rouse, Black-Hawkins and Jull (2004), p 118). Furthermore, Fiorina et al (2004) have argued that inclusion and achieving high standards are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals, with some schools achieving both (p 115).
Stephen and Cope (2003) have further elaborated on the interpretation of inclusive education, drawing distinction between the individual model where the deprived pupil is seen as ‘the problem’ (p 274) to be moulded into the school system, towards a social model of inclusive education. The social model acknowledges that there may be individual characteristics of the child that need to be considered, but also consider the possible institutional and operational barriers that hinder children’s entry and integration into infant schools. In their study, children from middleclass homes were supported by parents when they started infant schoolboy practising numeracy and literacy at home, and through more proactive involvement in school activities (p 273).
Gallannaugh and Dyson (2003) have conducted a study of 25 practitioners working in three English LEA’s to assess what ‘inclusive education ‘development was possible in schools, and make sense of school responses to the inclusion agenda. Some teachers reported confusion over what ‘inclusive education’ was, since many official sources of information focussed on inclusion of children with special educational needs only(p 1).
However, most teachers saw ‘inclusive education’ as provision for all children who were at risk of underachieving within the educational system, a version of inclusive education that is compatible with New Labour’s ‘social inclusion’ agenda ensuring that all members of society participate in the opportunities and activities of mainstream society (Blanket, 1999). A definition of inclusive education that attracted consensus amongst the teachers was “a set of broad values which we understood to be inclusive, and which we articulated as a commitment to equality, and increasing participation of all children (rather than one or other marginalised groups) in common education” (p 2).
In synthesising research papers on social class related to early education, it is apparent that the term ‘social class’ has been interpreted in different ways by different authors. Sammons (1995) has highlighted that some researchers have attempted to “identify and separate the effects of different combinations of disadvantaging factors, noting that whilst not additive there is evidence of cumulative disadvantage (i.e. experiencing one factor such as low social class or low income on its own is less closely associated with low attainment than experiencing both these factors)” (p 467). Furthermore, Sparks (1999) has classified the different interpretations as including children from low income households, parental unemployment, paternal/ maternal occupation and inappropriate housing environment (p 10).
She has examined research studies that look at each of these aspects, but only a few studies specifically examine the age range of 0 to 7 years. Pupils coming from a low income household, as indicated by eligibility for free school meals, appears to have marked effect on educational achievement at the age of 7 years and above (p 14). Furthermore, West, Pennell, West and Travers (1999) have shown that receipt of income support benefit by the household accounted for 66% of variance in educational achievement at a local authority level (p 10).
Sparks (1999) has stated that “non-school factors are a more important source of variation in educational achievement than differences in the quality of education that students receive” (p 9).However, there is a broad consensus that schools can counteract some of the effects of social deprivation through inclusive educational practice. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that schools have an independent effect of between 8% and 15%, and school effects are greater within the primary school sector (Reynolds, Sammons, Stoll, Barber et al, 1996 (p 140)). In the UK, research evidence on the effects of pre-school education are mixed (Sparks, 1999, p 12).
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