What does inclusion look like in practice today?

New research shows remarkably little consensus about what inclusion means – leaving the schools who do it best exposed.

What does “inclusion” mean to pupils, teachers and leaders today? How do relatively more inclusive secondary schools approach and practise inclusion?  These were the questions that drove a new research study – called Belonging Schools – by the University of Nottingham on behalf of education charity Teach First. 

This research is needed for 4 reasons: 

  • First, the inclusion landscape is changing rapidly; one indicator of this is the rise in number of children and young people with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). 
  • Second, there has been a limited amount of research into inclusion in mainstream schools since the pandemic. 
  • Third, there is a strong argument that how inclusion is conceived impacts on how it is practised. 
  • Fourth, there is no consensus on what inclusion means or ‘should’ look like in contemporary mainstream schools.

What is clear is that we are seeing the beginnings of a shift in how inclusion is conceptualised. Rather than seeing special education as thedominant issue, many now see it as one issue within a broader ‘inclusion for all’ agenda. This stance clearly recognises that some children face systemic disadvantage, but argues that everyone has needs and that supporting these is everyone’s business.

Interestingly, our new research – which included a national survey and focus groups with school and trust leaders as well as case studies of six schools in challenging contexts that are achieving relatively good outcomes for both inclusion and attainment – highlights that schools themselves have different conceptualisations of inclusion. 

The six case study schools all adopted an ‘inclusion for all’ approach, but the focus groups and survey revealed a range of perspectives among schools more widely. One common orientation was on remedial work with children displaying particular needs and characteristics.

At the level of practice, the six case study schools were working in different ways to achieve inclusion for all.  Some of these differences were surprising, even contentious. For example, one school had stopped permanently excluding students and had closed its isolation room, while the others all used both approaches when necessary.  All six schools used either internally-run or external AP, albeit sparingly.  This is one of the reasons why we conclude that there is no ‘one best way’ to achieve inclusion. 

But this is not to say that we did not identify clear commonalities among the schools; we did.  Of these, what stood out most was the centrality of human relationships underpinned by shared values in all the case study schools.  These relationships and values created a sense of belonging – of students being seen, known, cared for, understood and supported in ways that best met their needs – from which inclusion was an outcome.

In conducting the research, we were struck by two issues which, we believe, justify the case for a national indicator of inclusion that could be applied to all schools.

First, we found it surprisingly hard to identify any objective measures that we could use to identify ‘inclusive’ case study schools. In practice we did this by drawing on the prototype School Quality Index, developed by FFT Datalab, which could potentially offer a basis for an official measure.

Second, we saw that the case study schools faced unsustainable pressures, largely because they had become the victims of their own success. They had become magnets for children with additional needs, precisely because they were known locally as ‘the inclusive school’.  While the schools’ leaders were proud of their reputation, they argued that other local schools should play their part in an inclusive system. 

Defining a national inclusion measure that could be applied to all schools would not be straightforward, although we see potential in Labour’s proposal for school report cards. Care would be needed to avoid unintended consequences, including accentuating the magnet school phenomenon by making such schools even more identifiable.

Nevertheless, it’s clear we need a national approach: not to have one risks continuing the status quo and letting less inclusive schools off the hook. 

Belonging Schools and this article were both co-authored with Eleanor Bernardes (University of Nottingham) and Jenny Graham (The Difference)