Inclusive education: a gateway to a more equal society

by Liz Sayce

Published: 31 Jul 2020

Liz Sayce is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and a member of the EHRC’s Disability Advisory Committee.

Schools and nurseries play an important part in shaping children’s attitudes. Truly inclusive schools instil understanding and respect for difference.

A large body of evidence on ‘contact theory’ backs this up. Ongoing, repeated contact, on at least equal terms, between people across differences that ‘matter’ - like religion, race or disability - improves attitudes.

Right now attention is on unequal impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19). Across the world, UNESCO found social and digital divides have put the most disadvantaged pupils at risk of learning losses and dropping out.

In the UK, the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) has raised concerns that some disabled pupils may be moved to special schools - without a clear path back; and some parents of disabled children are trying to support home learning without the necessary equipment and learning support.

As students return, the moment is right to plan longer term for ‘true inclusion’, to help overcome some longstanding - and newer - schisms in our society. 

One of the biggest obstacles to inclusive education - where all children belong and can flourish - is the lack of belief that it is possible. 

The moment is right to plan longer term for ‘true inclusion’.

Just before lockdown, over 800 people from around the world convened in Vienna for the Zero Project conference - and showed that in relation to disabled people’s inclusion at least, this pessimism is misguided.

Headteacher Marleen Clissen from Belgium described her primary school in a deprived area: with a vision of ‘every child is welcome’ (and none turned away), they sought out each pupil’s talent and supported them through an individual learning path. They involved the parents, flexed the curriculum and completely changed the teaching methods – to include mixed age, flexible groups, with at least three teachers for each group of 40 - and created a culture where everyone belonged.

The Zero Project identified further innovative, inclusive policies and practices. Some were highly technical - like a Brazilian app enabling children unable to communicate verbally to do so via a tablet touch screen, by blinking if needed; or an American Virtual Library, offering 775 books in five different accessible formats, like electronic braille.

Some were impairment specific - like a pre-school that is inclusive of autistic children in Canada, or a Spanish school implementing a noise free environment, with all teachers trained in sign language - and where it is said that hearing as well as deaf students were better able to learn.

Other examples were systemic. Training thousands of teachers in inclusive practice was a core strategy in countries ranging from India to Senegal, Mozambique to Zanzibar.

Bookshelf in a library

A curriculum that includes everyone’s identities and experience is important to belonging. In Pensylvania, Disability Equality in Education offers inclusive lesson plans that bring a disability dimension into subjects from history to maths.

To re-set culture, schools have introduced workshops to build parents’ confidence in inclusion, training for head teachers, inclusion champions within schools and more.

A number of countries have national strategies or cross-government commitments to inclusive education - including Jordan, the Philippines and Samoa. In Italy, every school has a working group for inclusion and support staff to implement it have increased significantly. In Bulgaria, the ‘one school for all’ programme supports schools with changes to culture, policies and practices.

And if, in the time of COVID-19, schools use a mix of physical and remote learning and seek to overcome digital divides, they might like to look at Cameroon’s remote approach, originally devised for people displaced by armed conflict, now proving popular with disabled students. It is not reliant on internet access.      

Of course, progress has been patchy; and while many of these programmes show impressive results, not all have been fully evaluated. But there is momentum driven by the Sustainable Development Goals and UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Some countries have moved from barely educating disabled children at all to an inclusive approach; others have deconstructed special schools (often imported from the West).

The Zero Project lists eight countries with the largest number of identified positive policies and practices. The list does not, despite some notable examples, include the UK. But perhaps there are opportunities to pick up momentum.

Debate is growing here on what education is for: not academic attainment alone, but also experience, quality, inclusion and citizenship. The Black Lives Matter movement has re-stimulated interest in a radical overhaul of our curriculum, to create fuller understandings of our history, foster equality - and develop citizens who respect each other.

There is a wonderful moment in a film of the Eastlea school in London where a disabled boy explains that his small group always makes sure they all understand the latest learning - because their science teacher had told them that ‘you’re not just here to help yourselves, but to help each other’. Education is, perhaps, about enabling everyone to grow and develop through inter-dependence and mutual respect.

Inclusive education must be inclusive of everyone – disabled and non-disabled children, children of different heritages, nationalities, sexual orientations and more.   

And it is achievable, as the Zero Project shows us, with clear vision, changes in what gets measured, improved teacher training and practical learning.