The Knowledge

Research: What does inclusion mean to those who experience it?

Decision makers at all levels should be mindful that there are two competing and complimentary definitions of inclusion, writes Anthomy Maher

Decision makers at all levels should be mindful that there are two competing and complimentary definitions of inclusion, writes Anthomy Maher

4 Apr 2022, 5:00

Since seeping into education vernacular, ‘inclusion’ has become a global buzzword, even a form of ‘eduspeak’, that guides school policy and practice. However, the meaning of the term inclusion is contentious; it can change over time and space, is tied to the context and circumstances it is used in, and therefore can mean different things to each mouth that speaks it.

The waters are further muddied because inclusion, as a concept, is not exclusive to the educational experiences of pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). Indeed, concepts of inclusion have been developed and drawn upon to discuss identity markers relating to race, sexuality, social class, gender and nationality.

Therefore, there is a general need for some conceptual clarity when it comes to inclusion for pupils with SEND if policy makers and school practitioners are to make more informed decisions about how to facilitate inclusion and judge the ways and extent to which they are being inclusive.

Historically, and even today, the inclusion of pupils with SEND can be considered in relation to two overlapping and interfacing phases. Phase one is about inclusion as equal access to and opportunities in mainstream schools. This view of inclusion is often tied to an expectation that pupils with SEND ‘fit into’ existing school structures and practices that were not developed with the needs and capabilities of pupils with SEND in mind.

The second phase of inclusion relates more to equitable practices in school. Here, there is a focus on tailoring education provision to the needs and capabilities of pupils with SEND. Intervention, which is a major focus of the government’s SEND and alternative provision green paper (where many instances of the word are preceded by the qualifier, ‘early’) is tied to second-phase ways of thinking about and doing ‘inclusion’.

While there is much merit to considering inclusion as being akin to equal access, opportunities and equitable practices in schools, it is problematic that these inclusive practices have been developed and are enacted by adult stakeholders – policy makers, school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants – without input from pupils who experience inclusion.

Much of my research attempts to centre the experiences and amplify the voices of pupils with SEND. One such project involved working with Dr Justin Haegele, a researcher from the US, to explore feelings of inclusion among autistic pupils in mainstream schools. For us, autistic pupils have expert knowledge of inclusion because they have lived and embodied school and teacher attempts to include them.

Our participants acknowledged that curriculum decisions, pedagogical actions and assessment arrangements shaped the ways and extent to which they felt that they belonged, were accepted and valued in school, but these were secondary rather than primary influences. 

For the autistic young people in our research, inclusion was more about how they felt when in different spaces throughout the school day, rather than what teachers or teaching assistants did. For them, inclusion was about feeling that they belonged, were valued and accepted in school. In this respect, having positive social interactions and relationships with peers and school staff was central to feelings of belonging.

The SEND green paper includes one mention of student voice in a case study. Elsewhere, it carries one mention of a survey of pupils with SEND in respect of their experiences of bullying. And perhaps that’s the right balance for this policy document. But we should nevertheless critically reflect on the beliefs about inclusion that are embedded by it, because how we conceptualise inclusion shapes – to varying degrees – how we develop policy, designate resources, make decisions about professional development, construct curriculum and teach.

Ideally, pupils with SEND should be encouraged and supported to be actively involved in the consultation that follows. When it comes to implementation in schools, there is no doubt that pupils with SEND can and should become part of the development of the policies and practices that affect them.

It’s not radical. It’s just a different conception of inclusion, and an important and valid one at that. In fact, without due consideration of the voices and experiences of pupils with SEND, an ‘inclusive’ education will always remain out of reach for them.

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