“Every learner matters and matters equally”. But in England’s education system, do they really?

with Mel Ainscow, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Manchester


Gill’s introduction:

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education and the resulting Salamanca Statement on Inclusion in Education.

As parents of a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome, we’re facing the prospect of choosing a secondary school. Except it doesn’t feel like a choice; it feels like an overwhelming responsibility, like being stranded in the Goldilocks story where the “just right” option doesn’t seem to exist. It’s a position many parents and carers of disabled children and young people find themselves in.

The SEND and Alternative Provision improvement plan (which has an uncertain future) and some manifestos talk of improving mainstream provision but there’s a conspicuous lack of detail about how to do it. It’s a glaring omission given that reducing the number of children attending special schools is a condition of most of the murky safety valve financial agreements between the Department for Education and some local authorities. There are worrying indications funding is being cut as a result of these agreements, undermining inclusion and the rights of disabled children and young people. Three legal challenges to these agreements have already been initiated.

In the context of a crisis in local authority finances, mainstream schools are often seen as the “cheap” option. This is a big part of the problem. Lack of access to appropriate support leads to escalating needs. Solutions relying on “ordinarily available provision” in mainstream schools are pointless when that provision simply isn’t available at all. Inclusion doesn’t just happen through wishful thinking; it requires commitment, investment, accountability and policy changes to have any chance of success. 

We asked Mel Ainscow CBE, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Manchester and internationally renowned expert on inclusion, to reflect on developments in the English education system over the last three decades and consider the policy changes needed to improve inclusion. We’re delighted he’s written this thoughtful article that we hope you will share…

“The struggle for inclusive schools must continue…” by Mel Ainscow CBE

Recent years have seen major international efforts to encourage inclusive educational developments. In relation to this global trend, June 2024 is particularly significant in that it marks the 30th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education, which was co-organised by UNESCO and the Ministry of Education and Science of Spain, held in the city of Salamanca.

The conference led to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, which endorsed the idea of inclusive education. This was to become a major global influence.

Why inclusion?

In a much-quoted extract, the Salamanca Statement concludes:

Regular schools with [an] inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.

As this key passage indicates, the move towards inclusive schools can be justified on a number of grounds. There is:

  • an educational justification: the requirement for schools to educate all children together means that they have to develop ways of teaching that respond to individual differences and that therefore benefit all children;
  • a social justification: inclusive schools are able to change attitudes to difference by educating all children together, and form the basis for a just and non-discriminatory society; and
  • an economic justification: it is likely to be less costly to establish and maintain schools that educate all children together than to set up a complex system of different types of school, specialising in particular groups of children.

In support of these global developments, in 2017 I led the development of the UNESCO Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education. This document introduced a principle that has subsequently been influential in many parts of the world: Every learner matters and matters equally.

So, how well is England doing in relation to this international reform agenda?

Mel Ainscow CBE

Worrying developments

While policy changes over the last three decades have undoubtedly had a positive impact on the English education system, they have also led to worrying side effects. In particular, the emphasis on using market forces as an improvement strategy has created winners and losers, as reflected in the growing numbers of children and young people who are excluded from schools or placed in separate provision.

Within this policy emphasis, another worrying development in England is the expansion of labels that situate problems of educational progress within children, not least through the adoption of the term ‘special educational needs and disability’. This has led to the widespread use of the shorthand label ‘SEND’, which is explained on the Government’s website as follows:

Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can affect a child or young person’s ability to learn. They can affect their: behaviour or ability to socialise, for example they struggle to make friends; reading and writing, for example because they have dyslexia; ability to understand things; concentration levels, for example because they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and physical ability.’

Department for Education

Alongside the pressures on schools created by market forces, this unquestioned emphasis on child “deficits” has led to a massive expansion in the number of learners being labelled to attract additional resources to support their education. This, in turn, is placing additional pressures on local authority budgets that are already stretched. And, of course, it is creating further barriers to the promotion of inclusive schools.

Promising developments

The situation across the world in relation to this challenging policy agenda is complex, with some countries making great strides, while others continue to have segregated provision of various forms for some groups of learners. There are, however, countries where there has been significant progress. For example:

  • The Italian government passed a law in 1977 that closed all special schools, units and other non-inclusive forms of provision. This legislation is still in force and more recent amendments have further strengthened the inclusive nature of the education system.
  • For more than 30 years, in Canada, the province of New Brunswick has pioneered the concept of inclusive education through legislation, local authority policies and professional guidelines. More recently, New Brunswick adopted a policy that supports all students within common learning environments and provides support for teachers.
  • Having enacted legislation making disability discrimination within education unlawful, Portugal has gone much further in enacting an explicit legal framework for the inclusion of students with and without disabilities in education. Recent legislation requires that the provision of support for all students be determined, managed and provided at the regular school level.

In drawing attention to these examples, it must be stressed that they should not be seen as being perfect. Rather, they are countries where there are interesting developments from which to learn. They are also varied with respect to the approach being taken and what they have achieved.

The struggle goes on

Like all major policy changes, progress with inclusion requires an effective strategy for implementation. This requires new thinking that focuses attention on the barriers experienced by some children that lead them to become marginalised as a result of contextual factors, such as inappropriate curricula and forms of assessment, and inadequate teacher preparation and support.

The implication is that addressing such barriers is the most important means of developing forms of education that are effective for all children. In this way, the focus on inclusion becomes a way of achieving the overall improvement of education systems.

So, with this General Election, the struggle to achieve inclusion in schools across the English education system must continue. I argue this should be guided by the principle, ‘Every learner matters and matters equally’.

Mel Ainscow CBE is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Manchester. His new book, ‘Developing Inclusive Schools: Pathways to Success’, is published by Routledge

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