How can education be inclusive when we’re not sure what inclusion is? by @drhelenross

‘Inclusion’ is an emotive term. We all want to feel ‘included’ in our social sphere. It seems to be a human ‘thing’. Writing on the concepts of stigmatisation and social exclusion, Goffman ( noted that individuals go to great lengths to conceal potentially undesirable aspects of themselves. This continues today, with young people seeking to blend with their peers and ‘pass’ as non-impaired.

Thus, the concept of ‘inclusion’ is an important one. It helps people forge a feeling of belonging, affects individuals’ sense of identity and influences the behaviours of both professionals and learners within education.

Inclusion in Theory

In 2010, Ofsted reported (uked. chat/ofstedsend) that no model for inclusion outperformed any other. That is, they found that ‘inclusion’ could assume many forms, be that full inclusion in mainstream settings, provision made in special schools or in units run alongside mainstream schools. This chimed with the thenconcurrent governmental discourse. The removal of an apparent ‘bias’ towards inclusion was sought, with parents given a “real choice of school” ( and type of schooling for their children. Nonetheless, within governmental discourse leading into the current special educational needs (SEN) policy framework, there was no concrete conceptualisation of ‘inclusion’.

This article was published in Issue 55 of the UKEdMagazine. Click here to freely view the UKEdMagazine online.

No policy or governmental standpoint exists in isolation. While ‘inclusion’ was legislated for, there was tension within education policy. The ‘standards agenda’ coexisted with and continues to sit uncomfortably next to the SEN ‘inclusion’ agenda.

The ‘standards agenda’, where young people’s progress and absolute results are the benchmarks by which school achievement is measured often conflict. Schools’ results and learners’ progress must achieve benchmarks (at present Progress 8 and Attainment 8), which are predicted using normalised data. This benchmarking assumes that all learners can (and will) make prescribed progress. While some learners do make expected progress, those with SEN are far more likely to make slower progress and have a lower starting point than those without. A dichotomy emerges: schools are judged on results (although this may shift slightly within inspection frameworks from September 2019) and those with SEN make less progress and often have lower results but must be ‘included’ in their setting. Poor results negatively impact the school in terms of league tables and ratings, so what happens on the ground?

Inclusion in Practice

While ‘inclusion’ is enshrined in statute via the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice (, its nature is unclear. Numerous laws protect the ‘inclusion’ of learners, and the right to ‘reasonable adjustments’ to prevent discrimination resulting from needs or disability. However, reports from the ‘ground’ suggest that the reality experienced by learners with SEN and their families is very different (uked. chat/supportdyslexia). Teachers cannot reconcile the need for good provision for learners with SEN with the results-driven standards agenda ( & uked. hat/exploredyslexia). Some schools avoid admitting learners with SEN, other schools appear to ‘off-roll’ learners whose results may negatively impact on school data and other schools barely tread water, trying to keep a handle on the all-important ‘data’ and ‘results’, which can lead to poor inspection gradings.

Some schools have units next to them, where young people very successfully manoeuvre between mainstream and some more specialised provision. Other schools do not have separate provision and learners are in the mainstream classroom at all times (with or without a teaching assistant). Other schools offer specialised provision for learners whose needs are specific and/or complex needs such that a mainstream setting may not support them or meet their needs appropriately. I believe that inclusion can look like all of this, or none of this.

Some settings have been in the press lately due to the ‘BantheBooths’ campaign, where vulnerable young people (often with SEN) are isolated in seemingly disproportionate responses to misdemeanours. Research consistently links learners with SEN to higher levels of fixed and permanent exclusion. These factors are all associated with poor achievement in public examinations, which then link to schools’ all-important data and results, negatively impacting on school inspection findings and league table positions. New Ofsted guidelines from September 2019 may lighten the burden linked to results-driven data, but that still does not clarify how to do inclusion within a system that exalts exam results.

So what is ‘inclusion’ and what do we do about it?

While I have discussed the difficulties linked to ‘inclusion’ and its tension with the ‘standards agenda,’ I have still not answered the fundamental question of ‘what is inclusion’. We seem to know it’s a good thing. Its importance goes relatively unchallenged but even Ofsted ( has no one-size-fits-all understanding of inclusion. I see this vagueness as positive and something for educators to draw on.

Inclusion does not have to be a one-size-fits-all model. It needs flexibility. Glazzard’s ( sencoordinator) view of inclusion sets out an ethos, not a method for inclusion:

“Inclusion represents a proactive stance. It challenges educational settings to make adaptations and adjustments to cater for the needs of diverse learners. The purpose of inclusion is to provide all learners with equality of educational opportunity”.

I believe that we can take this ethos and use it as professionals. Within a changing climate, where Ofsted “hopes to reverse the incentive for schools to put overall results ahead of individual children’s needs” (uked. chat/inspectionvision), schools must strengthen their resolve to support learners with SEN through provision of a broad (and where necessary personalised), curriculum so that the needs of all learners are met. The setting does not matter: specialist, mainstream or small unit, the framework is now there for inclusion to mean what it needs to for individual learners.

Dr Helen Ross @drhelenross is a writer, researcher and part-time classroom teacher. She is an experienced Special Needs Teacher and SENCo. Since completing her PhD in 2017, she has advised schools and colleagues on best-practice to support learners with special educational needs, whilst maintaining a class-teaching role.

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