Working Toward Inclusive Education: Social Contexts. Peter Mittler. London: Fulton, 2000.
In this book Peter Mittler tells the story of including students with disabilities in British schools, a story whose ending (like our own) is incomplete. As an American also invested in inclusion, I felt somewhat familiar with the basic theme of each chapter. Britain's experiences read much like our own: Inclusion in schools is truly complex, sociopolitical change takes place over decades and seems always to have room for improvement. As Mittler says, “Inclusion is not about placing children in mainstream schools. It is about changing schools to make them more responsive to the needs of all children” (p. vii).
The book is packed with recent inclusion history and analyses of societal issues influential to initiating inclusion in public school systems. Mittler's writing carries the readers first through a brief history of British educational changes relevant to inclusion and then to a quick view of inclusive practices in other parts of the world. His later chapter topics proceed as follows: inclusion's impact on young children, the effects of social exclusion, the ways schools prevent learning difficulties, progress toward inclusive policies, impact of inclusion on curriculum and assessment, elements of inclusive practices, preparation of professionals for inclusion, parental involvement, and the future agenda for inclusive schools.
In this review I first set forth some of the reasons I found this book to be a valuable resource on inclusive schools. Then I follow with several comments on the challenges the book may pose for readers who are not British.
The first valuable aspect of this volume is its definition of inclusive education, which is both comprehensive and highly compatible with U.S. views. “Inclusion implies radical reform … [of] curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and grouping of pupils” (p. 10). It is based on a value system that celebrates diversity arising from gender, nationality, social origin, educational achievement, or disability and requires both school reform and supportive national legislation. Inclusion is complex, a never-ending process. It involves all children attending their neighborhood school and receiving their education in general education classes with the presence of individualized supports that enable active social and academic participation, but that do not segregate. All teachers are responsible for the education of all children.
Second, Mittler addresses solid ideas for tackling policy change across agencies that impact schools—ideas that supercede its British context. For example, he takes the position that inclusion must sweep beyond those who are classified as having a disability to include children in poverty who often are at risk for social exclusion and failing in school. He provides facts and figures on families experiencing the stress of breakdown, homelessness, separation of its members, and abuse and then relates some of Britain's recent political actions aimed at prevention. He asks why teachers are not more knowledgeable about these socially isolated families whose children they teach. He questions why agencies and schools fail to share information so their efforts can be cooperative. In two later chapters, Mittler lays out a bold agenda for teacher education that includes issues of national teacher standards, professional development mandates, and specialization in categories of special education versus generic cross-teacher requirements in special education. Mittler sets forth plans for improving teachers' understanding of the diverse families they serve and changing the patterns of parent–professional relationships.
After tracing the layers of sociopolitical action that have impacted education generally and inclusive practices specifically, Mittler critiques the success of these actions. His honest criticism enables readers to draw parallels with our own history. As is true in the U.S., laws passed in good faith may act as barriers to inclusion for many reasons. For example, in 1988, with intense political momentum, Britain implemented a National Curriculum with standards set for achievement and tests erected as gate-keepers for advancement. These steps were taken without anticipating the obstacles they created for many children unable to meet such standards. (Currently, Britain has just revised their National Curriculum in ways that are more favorable to students with special needs, a topic not addressed in this book copyrighted 2000, but one professionals in the United States should watch closely.) Mittler also describes the type of legal barrier that results from a failure to revise old special education requirements (e.g., use of IEPs like our own) that may create segregation in the mainstream as inclusion advances. Finally, Mittler observes the incompatibility of inclusive schools with “the long-term maintenance of a separate system of special schools” (p. 12)—a belief that clashes with national British policy allowing a continuum on which special schools are viewed as an option. How similar this is to our own dilemma!
Mittler does not limit the focus to educational inclusion, but widens the readers' view to take in other social issues that impact inclusion and the respective political policies that govern related educational, social, and health services. By taking such a comprehensive viewpoint, he tutors readers on the principles of changing complex interrelated social systems. Furthermore, Mittler provides realistic encouragement to those who are seeking inclusive schools, explains the basic rationales, gives an eye-opening worldview of inclusion with updates of progress in other countries, and then describes international parallels in the success and failure of system change.
Along with these assets come some challenges, particularly for non-British readers. As one would expect, Mittler's terminology is specific to Britain's political structure and its legislative history. This characteristic coupled with his frequent use of acronyms can make the content difficult to understand at times. However, a 2-page summary of abbreviations at the end of the book helps tremendously.
Non-British readers may find the specifics of Mittler's history of inclusive education less relevant to them and may even become bewildered by the numerous foreign details. At the same time, it is these details that, once grasped, allow readers to make cross-cultural comparisons about complex societal reform.
It is probably true that fewer specifics are provided on the methods of achieving inclusion in schools and classrooms than many readers desire. Instead, Mittler traces in great detail the sociopolitical ups and downs of inclusion as it has emerged in British schools while addressing the jumble of interrelated factors: the social exclusion effects of poverty on families, early childhood education, the prevention of learning failure, the meaningful inclusion of children with high support needs, the presence of separate schools, the creation of support for ongoing teacher collaboration, preservice teacher education that addresses skills needed in inclusive schools, and valued parent–professional relationships.
Mittler's book is well worth reading, particularly for those who are policymakers and those in higher education whose focus is on the politics and history of schools. A U.S. version of Mittler's book could be of great value to American readers if it was written with the same historical detail and sociopolitical analysis that Mittler has included in Working Towards Inclusive Education.