A theological reflection on the inclusion of pupils with special education needs into mainstream education

Church of Scotland Committee on Education

While little in scripture or in subsequent theological writing speaks directly to the challenge of including students with special needs into mainstream education, nevertheless the parables of Jesus (such as the story of the Great Feast in Luke 14), together with the example of his ministry, point up a gospel imperative to make space for the needy and those on society’s margins.

Still more fundamental is the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the worth of each individual made in the image of God and the demand that we enter into full and mutual relationship with our neighbour. As in Genesis 2, the early biblical writers offer models of interdependence rather than domination.

In translating these well-aired “messages” into the present context, there is a constant danger that we overstate the Christian desire to offer charity and forget that those with special needs are already full participants in the burgeoning potential of God’s kingdom, offering their experience as well as receiving support.

Perhaps for this reason, the theologian Miroslav Volf proposes as the opposite of “exclusion” not the word “inclusion” but rather the idea of “embrace” – which suggests an enterprise more to do with sharing than with merely absorbing others into an already-existing club.

The profound Jewish ethic of “making room for all” 1 and the familiar Pauline metaphor in which all the parts of the body receive equal value (e.g. Romans 12:4-5) further reinforces the notion that to embrace those with special needs is to welcome difference and diversity. Relationships that enhance spiritual growth are marked by mutuality even when (as in the teacher/student arrangement) “the situation does not allow the full emergence of a relationship based on mutual recognition.” 2

Subscribing to the government’s policy of inclusion may necessitate making uneconomic adaptations to school property, though such investments may stand as concrete “parables of the kingdom”. It may be a matter of discussing how classroom settings can be transformed so that the learning experience is inclusive, thus reflecting the biblical guidance suggested above.

However, there is an additional demand arising from those instances in which Jesus picked out individuals within the crowd for particular attention (the woman with haemorrhages, see Luke 8; Zacchaeus, Luke 19) and responded both positively and humbly to challenges made by an individual with particular needs (e.g. a Canaanite woman, Matthew 15).

These suggest that teachers and school managers will need to be open to challenge from students who “want us to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalised bits of knowledge”. 3

Special needs schools may be perceived as institutions on the margins of society – the very places to which those eager to establish God’s kingdom run with offers of inclusion. However, in such places, students can find that their particular experience is recognised as central and significant. Care-less inclusion undermines such God-given sense of self worth.

The parallel experience of black American educator bell hooks [sic] is pertinent here. She recalls the effect of desegregation on black children, finding that they were forced to attend schools where they found themselves regarded not as fully human individuals but as objects of curiosity. 4

Education in all its manifestations offers an opportunity to respond fully (and receptively) to the needs of the Other (or “neighbour”) 5; a context in which a vision of God’s kingdom can be worked out, stretching hitherto accepted norms.

Perhaps, as bell hooks suggests, that learning process comes easiest to those teachers who also believe that there is an aspect of their vocation that is sacred 6; for whom inclusion presents an opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth, not only to the “included” but to the receivers – students and teachers alike.

  1. Marmur, Dow: “Ethical Reflections on Social Inclusion”, Perspectives on Social Inclusion Working Paper Series (2002, The Laidlaw Foundation,www.laidlawfdn.org/programmes/children/marmur.pdf) p.6
  2. hooks, bell [sic]: Teaching to Transgress: education as practice of freedom (1994, Routledge, New York & London) p.13
  3. ibid p.15
  4. ibid p.37
  5. Marmur 2002, p.9 ff.
  6. hooks 1994, p.13