Who benefits from inclusive education – and how?

with Prof Brahm Norwich & Dr Peter Gray, SEN Policy Research Forum

who benefits from inclusive education and how

Who benefits from inclusive education? It is an enduring question that applies as much to children and young people with special educational needs/disabilities (SEND) as to those without. Debates about it can be polarising and emotive.

On the one hand, there are people who argue that inclusion for those with SEND is a human right and that the very existence of special schools symbolises resistance to full inclusion. Advocates point to the positive impact that the presence of children with SEND can have on their peers, in terms of empathy and valuing individual diversity and difference. 

On the other hand, those sceptical of full those sceptical of inclusion in the form of "everyone in one setting” inclusion highlight the lack of specialist skills, training and experience within the mainstream school workforce; less appropriate, less flexible curricula; and the risk of social rejection.. Others (presumably without their own children with SEND) might have concerns about the detrimental impact on other children if some need a large amount of teacher time and attention.

Interest in the ‘who benefits’ question prompted our recent review of the national and international evidence on inclusion. We undertook a strategic search of databases and then reviewed the relevant articles and reports we found to see what the evidence could tell us about the impact of inclusion for children who do and do not have SEND. 

While we would be the first to agree that things are more nuanced than we are about to make out, our review was broadly interested in two questions:

  1. Do children with SEND do better or worse if they are included in mainstream schools?
  2. Do children without SEND in mainstream classes where those with SEND are included do better or worse as a result?

We identified ten studies and reports on inclusion for our review, one of which was a large systematic review involving 280 individual studies from 25 countries (Hehir et al., 2016). Here is a summary of what we found.

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Do children with SEND do better or worse if they are included in mainstream schools?

We identified a range of studies that consider both the academic and personal/social outcomes for children with SEND. In terms of learning, we found that, on balance, research findings indicate greater academic gains for children with a range of SEND (typically characterised as mild to moderate) who are educated in mainstream settings, rather than in separate specialist settings. Gains are reported in terms of both literacy and maths (more so with literacy), with positive effects seemingly more pronounced in primary schools than secondary schools.

The large-scale review by Hehir and colleagues found positive personal/social outcomes for children with SEND, in terms of: social engagement; greater peer acceptance; fewer behaviour issues; more participation in school and community groups; and greater independence and social skills. Two other reviews covering this area, however, found a more mixed picture.

Do children without SEND in mainstream classes where those with SEND are included, do better or worse as a result?

We found that, on balance, most studies show neutral or positive effects. There is some evidence (though not in all studies) of a less clear effect on learning associated with the inclusion of children with emotional/behavioural difficulties or more severe/complex SEND. A review conducted by Kalambouka et al. (2007) found that, of 26 studies conducted across four countries, 23% showed positive gains, and 58% showed no impact on academic outcomes. Fewer than a fifth of studies (19%) reported negative effects. 

We found comparatively less research on the personal/social effects of inclusion on children without SEND. However, the Hehir review provided strong evidence of a positive impact on the social and emotional development (a reduction in discriminating attitudes and higher responsiveness to the needs of others), particularly in relation to children with Down’s syndrome, and (in primary settings) peers with broader intellectual disabilities.

What about longer-term outcomes?

Our review of the evidence prompted an additional question: do the positive impacts of mainstreaming on peer attitudes carried over into later life? It is often assumed that exposure to diversity and difference at school helps improve societal attitudes to disability over the longer term.

There is also a view that participation in inclusive education in mainstream leads to greater resilience and independence in adulthood for those with SEND. Currently, there is limited evidence to ascertain whether either of these expectations are valid. There are, of course, a much wider range of institutional and attitudinal barriers that impact outcomes and opportunities for people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties beyond formal education. 

What did we conclude?

Research into the relative value and impact of mainstream schooling for children with SEND is beset by methodological issues (such as definitions of ‘mainstream’) and limitations. A particular limitation we noticed in completing our review is that studies on inclusive education tend not to differentiate between outcomes for groups of children with different types of SEND. 

What we conclude from our review is, therefore, somewhat at a general level, but it is relatively clear – and encouraging. The evidence seems to suggest that mainstream inclusion has no overall negative effect for either children with SEND or those who do not. If anything, the impact of including children with SEND in mainstream settings is moderately positive or neutral. 

As we noted earlier, it is both naïve and reductive to think that the debate about inclusion can be boiled down to a straightforward verdict of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We know that patterns of inclusion in mainstream schools vary. Children with an EHCP, for example, can be segregated and marginalised within schools that claim to be ‘inclusive’. 

Does any of this mean that our system is hardwired to resist inclusive education? Our review suggests not. We found that, in general, effects are stronger where teachers hold positive attitudes, where staff are well-trained, use strategies geared to diverse needs, and work collaboratively within a problem-solving school culture. These factors moderate impact, and so they are amenable to change. That said, inclusion is no overnight journey.

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Looking to the future for inclusive education

Looking ahead, specialist settings will remain part of the structural response to the education of children with SEND. The evidence we reviewed is consistent with maintaining a continuum of provision. However, when looking at the balance of provision across this continuum, a greater focus on a stronger, more consistent, mainstream offer would help achieve more positive outcomes for both children with SEND and their peers, as well as offering better value for money. We believe that some substantial changes in national policy and expectations will be needed for this to be achieved.

‘Review of Research about the Effects of Inclusive Education: A Summary’ by Peter Gray, Brahm Norwich & Rob Webster is available to download from the SEN Policy Research Forum website at https://senpolicyresearchforum.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Review-of-inclusion-effects-research-final-Feb-21-.pdf

The SEN Policy Research Forum is an independent group of academics, researchers, policy consultants, local authority and voluntary organisation officers. The Forum publish policy papers arising from regular seminars on SEN topics. The next seminar, ‘How are schools coping with the impact of Covid-19: lessons for the re-opening of schools’, takes place via Zoom, on 30 April. For details of this and past seminars, and for more about the Forum, visit www.senpolicyresearchforum.co.uk

Prof Brahm Norwich is Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs at the Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter. He has worked as a teacher, a professional educational psychologist, a lecturer and researcher, having published widely in these fields. In addition to many academic research papers, he has written about:Special needs a new look. with Mary Warnock (Continuum Books, 2010); Addressing tensions and dilemmas in inclusive education (Routledge 2014) and Experiencing special educational needs; lessons for practice (Open University Press 2017).

Dr Peter Gray worked as an LEA officer for 16 years, latterly as Principal Educational Psychologist for Nottinghamshire County Council and, on an acting basis, Senior Assistant Director (Pupil & Community Services). Since 1997, he has worked as a freelance consultant to LEAs and national government on a range of issues relating to policy and provision for children with special educational needs.

See Dr Rob Webster's bio below

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