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date: 23 June 2017

Shaping Sustainable Inclusion Policy Through Practice

Summary and Keywords

The challenge of providing education that is inclusive and seen as equitable for all children is one that has exercised policy makers and education professionals in most countries throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. International agreements such as UNESCO’s 1990 Jomtien Declaration and 1994 Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education were instrumental in promoting debate about the rights of children who were denied access to an appropriate schooling and who, in some instances, had no opportunity to obtain any formal education. The Education for All Goals, which were used to prioritize the development of universal primary education, and more recently the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Education Goals, which reiterated a commitment to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (Goal 4), have increased the focus upon developing inclusive education. This has encouraged governments around the world to re-examine the ways in which they provide schooling for their children and young people. With such a plethora of initiatives, agreements, and advice, it is only to be expected that most national administrations have felt it necessary to respond and to demonstrate that they are taking action towards improving educational opportunities for all. However, the relationship between policy and practice is complex; and in some instances, the development of legislation has failed to provide increased equity in the manner that was intended. This article considers two distinctly different routes towards achieving inclusive education and discusses those factors that have either supported or inhibited success. In drawing upon examples from current developments in India, it additionally proposes that researchers who conduct investigations in international contexts should invest time in understanding underlying policy and cultural and historical factors that may impact upon the ways in which we interpret meaning from data.

Keywords: Inclusion, Sustainable Development Goals, exclusion, training, policy, India


In recent years, many educational researchers from western countries have turned their attention to conducting studies in less socio-economically advantaged parts of the world (Srivastava, deBoer, & Pijl, 2015; Vitello & Mithaug, 2009). In the best practice seen, this involves the development of research partnerships that include and respect the knowledge and experiences of local researchers and other professionals. In particular, recognition of differing methodological research traditions and the need to manage field work that is culturally sensitive have received some consideration in both ethical and pragmatic terms (Aveling, 2013; Boyden & James, 2014). Less attention has been devoted to national policy contexts in relation to international demands and current issues. In the contested area of inclusive education, it is easy to assume that international agreements such as the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1994) is being interpreted in the same manner across countries. In situations where national governments have been signatories to such initiatives, it might be expected that there is some form of accord and understanding about how terms such as inclusion, disability, and equity are being used. This somewhat naïve view can, in some instances, lead researchers into difficulties when conducting investigations in an unfamiliar environment on the basis of an epistemological stance acquired through a greatly differing culture. As Sharma, Forlin, Deppeler, and Guang-xue (2013) have rightly argued, local culture and context may be seen as a major factor in determining attitudes and expectations towards children with special educational needs and disabilities. Religious beliefs, cultural interpretations of the causes of disability and attitudes towards treatment and care, along with historical precedents have often shaped the ways in which disability is interpreted (Ravindran & Myers, 2012). Such factors have inevitably influenced teacher expectations of students who may be perceived as “different” or difficult to teach. Those researchers and policy makers who fail to educate themselves about historical and cultural contexts are, invariably, in danger of advocating policies or pedagogical approaches that may be rejected by educators who work within long established education systems. Devoting time to the development of an understanding of cultural and environmental factors that might impact upon all aspects of research, from the design of methodology, through interpretation, analysis, and reporting is, I would suggest, a critical but often ignored factor in conducting studies that are respectful and honest. For this reason, in this article I explore the historical and socio-political development of inclusive education from the perspectives of contrasting national contexts. A discussion of current developments in India allows for a greater understanding of how countries that are working towards similar goals may need to follow different routes in order to reach their destination. Within this approach is a suggestion that a review of the policy and historical initiatives that have led countries to a particular juncture is a critical first step in conducting meaningful research into inclusive education internationally.

International Perspectives—Reasoned Response or Peremptory Reaction?

Debates related to the creation of more equitable education provision have been a feature of policy making in many nations over the last fifty years. Discrimination against minorities or others on the grounds of race, gender, or disability has been a feature of the educational history of many countries and at all levels (Baynton, 2013; Penn, 2005; Weinberg, 1995). While significant progress has been made towards securing educational opportunities for children who have previously found themselves marginalized, the evidence suggesting that much remains to be done before universal schooling is achieved is overwhelming (Maclean, 2012; Meda, Sookraj, & Maharaj, 2012).

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2015) provided a number of positive indicators of the progress that has been made with respect to achieving universal primary education in many of the world’s most disadvantaged nations. Not least among the reassuring messages given in this report was the statement that, between 2000 and 2015, the number of children out of school had fallen by around 50%, and that, although gender disparity and disability continues to present a challenge in almost a third of the countries where data is available, in many parts of the world significant progress has been made in enabling other marginalized groups, especially girls to attend school (UNESCO, 2015, p. 157). The picture is less certain when considering the status of children and young people with disabilities. This situation is not assisted by the many differing interpretations of disability that are to be found in official documentation across the globe. It is estimated that there may be as many as 150 million children who live with disabilities (World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank, 2011), though even the most respected of international organizations have difficulty in making estimates with any certainty. One must have sympathy for those who are charged with the collation of statistical data in a world of shifting uncertainties and poorly defined parameters.

Annual reports such as those provided by UNESCO are helpful as an indicator of progress and the remaining challenges, but situations in countries change dramatically as a consequence of natural disaster, conflict, and socio-political upheaval. A Report from Save The Children (Martinez, 2013) indicated that around 50 million children, aged between six years and 15 years, were out of school as a result of war and violence. Many of these children come from communities that were already disadvantaged by poverty and poor infrastructure, and not surprisingly, girls and those with disabilities in these situations receive a lower priority in respect to efforts to provide them with adequate education opportunities. Furthermore, population displacement as a result of conflict creates major difficulties in accurately recording the numbers of children who are deprived of schooling, or even in some instances knowing their whereabouts (Ibáñez & Vélez, 2008). More than half of the children who are denied access to school are reported to live in just 12 countries, eight of which are in sub-Saharan Africa; (these countries were listed as Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Kenya, Yemen, Mali, and South Africa). However, poor access to schooling should not be seen exclusively as an issue only for these nations, with most countries continuing to confront the challenges faced by a small percentage of children whose needs are not met.

These situations are well known, recorded, and regularly reported. However, there are some populations of children who are easily overlooked and are not necessarily acknowledged in official statistical data. As one example of a largely invisible group of children, the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group (2014, p. 1) highlighted the plight of “Indigenous learners [who] tend to have less access to education, have to contend with poorer quality education, and do not enjoy the same benefits from education as non-indigenous learners.” Furthermore, the lives and cultural influences of some of these groups are little understood, and there is insufficient data to indicate how those children within these groups who may have disabilities are perceived or provided for (Ames, 2012).

Gaining an international perspective of some of the challenges faced in achieving universal primary education is important if we are to understand the current situation in terms of what we have come to refer to as inclusive education. In recent years, the imperative upon national governments to demonstrate that they are responding to international agreements such as the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1994) and the regular reporting of progress against the Education for All Goals (UNESCO, 2000), has led to new legislation and initiatives in many countries. However, I would suggest that, at times, the focus upon education as a means of creating a more inclusive and equitable society, while well intentioned has been poorly conceived. This article argues that the commitment to inclusive education is one of the most important initiatives of the late 20th and early 21st century, but that a more holistic approach to social change must be embraced if the overall goal of achieving a just society is to be realized. Furthermore, I suggest that current notions of inclusive education, which are based upon models adopted in countries of socio-economic advantage and relative political stability, have emerged from a historical human rights agenda that has not necessarily received as much attention in some of the more disadvantaged countries of the global south. While there has been significant progress in making education more accessible and inclusive for many children previously marginalized in my own country, and from others of similar advantage, this has been achieved only as a result of sustained activism by a range of civil rights movements, parent groups, and campaigns led by those who have personally experienced social and educational exclusion. Such a history has been important in laying the foundations for inclusive education and has supported progress over an extended period of time. Yet even today, the right to an education that is inclusive and appropriate is not guaranteed, and many individuals continue to confront obstacles that inhibit their ability to gain access. The transferability of approaches for the fostering of inclusive education from one national situation to another may be appropriate in terms of the lessons that have been hard learned and may provide guidelines for those developing new educational systems. However, it should not be assumed that this can be achieved easily or that it is necessarily desirable to work towards a uniform adoption of a single model of inclusive practice.

In countries that, through the second half of the 20th century had a history of relative social and economic stability, it possible to discern that the development of “special education,” which aimed to provide for children and young people with a range of disabilities, was at times prioritized (Osgood, 2008; Rotatori, Obiakor, & Bakken, 2011). Many countries in western societies were able to build upon a long tradition of providing for children with disabilities, often based upon benevolence and charitable works (Atkinson, Jackson, & Walmsley, 1997; Tomlinson, 2012). However, in the latter part of the 20th century, legislation in many countries ensured that national governments assumed full responsibility for the education of all children, including those with disabilities (Mittler, 2000).

In countries where inclusive schooling is now relatively well established, this has generally been through a reasoned response to an increased understanding of the needs of children and families and to the evidence provided that indicates how schools may be effectively changed to address populations of greater diversity (Ainscow, Dyson, & Weiner, 2013). This appreciation of situation has been achieved over a number of years and has resulted in considerable debate about how to assess the efficacy of inclusive practice, which still dominates much of the education discourse today. In countries where there remains a struggle to achieve universal primary education, it is possible to observe that a more peremptory approach to inclusion is emerging—one in which demands are being made to address targets and take immediate action to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, which it is perceived was previously absent. The review of these two contrasting approaches presented below suggests that a reactive situation that has led to this peremptory action is fraught with potential difficulties and may be less than appropriate in many national contexts.

From Special Education to Inclusion—A Western Historical Approach

In examining the pathway from special education provision towards an increased commitment to providing inclusive schooling, it is possible to identify common factors in the history of many western countries. The establishment of a right to education for children who had previously been denied such opportunities led to the provision of specialist facilities within a consistent national framework in several parts of the western world. In the United Kingdom, the provision of special schools followed legislation in the form of the 1970 Education Act (Handicapped Children) (HMSO, 1970), and at that time, responsibility for those children who had been labeled as having “mental handicaps” were brought into the education system for the first time. In the United States, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA Public Law (PL) 94-142) (United States Congress, 1975) was similarly influential in drawing attention to the needs of children who had previously been marginalized within the education system. Both of these significant pieces of legislation would not have been proposed had it not been for the persistence of parents who acted as advocates for their children and campaigned vigorously for their right to receive an education (Armstrong, 2007; Yell, Rogers, & Lodge Rogers, 1998). Similar patterns of change can be recorded during a corresponding time period in many other parts of Europe (Winzer, 1993) and Australia (Slee, 2001).

Having a national framework for the education of children with disabilities was important not only in ensuring access to schools, but also in acting as a catalyst for investment in developing skills and understanding among teachers and other professionals charged with a responsibility for educating children who were entering the education system for the first time (Bowman, 1986). As children who had previously been denied an opportunity to a formal education entered schools, it became increasingly apparent that there was a need to provide additional professional development for teachers. The resulting expansion of in-service training and the instigation of new initial teacher training courses was significant in encouraging the development of a new workforce of professionals who were committed to providing education to children and young people with a range of needs and disabilities, and who had skills, knowledge, and understanding beyond that usually seen in other teachers (Campbell, Gilmore, & Cuskelly, 2003; Carroll, Forlin, & Jobling, 2003). Many of these teachers became leaders in the field of special education and were creative in designing specific programs of intervention and teaching approaches that were often seen as essential in enabling children to progress in learning. For a significant number of children entering education for the first time, the only placement option provided was in special schools. There is a certain irony in reflecting on the fact that several of the teachers who were specifically trained to work with children with a range of special educational needs in these segregated schools have since become passionate advocates and leaders in the promotion of inclusive education. However, I would suggest that having a critical mass of teachers who were committed to the provision of an education for children who had for so many years been rejected by the mainstream education system, even if these children remained segregated in special schools, was an important stage on the way to promoting a more inclusive approach to schooling.

It has become easy to demonize the role of special schools in recent years as institutions that have perpetuated the isolation of children with disabilities and special educational needs from their peers. It is indeed an indictment of society that progress towards inclusive schooling continues to be a distant aspiration rather than normal practice, and that in many societies efforts to transition children from segregated to inclusive provision remains a challenge (Male & Rayner, 2009; Norwich, 2008). However, I would argue that much of the practice developed over a 40-year period in special schools has, to some extent, informed our understanding of the ways in which children who are perceived as difficult to teach can be supported and encouraged to become more effective learners. Indeed it is possible today to see approaches such as the use of visual timetables, structured teaching, and augmentative communication, which were common only in special schools 20 years ago, in regular use in mainstream classrooms. The development of the skills, knowledge, and understanding of teachers working in special schools provided both opportunities and disadvantages. On the one hand, special schoolteachers demonstrated a commitment to children who mainstream schools preferred not to accept, and through their experiences of working in this situation developed teaching approaches and resources that enabled children with special educational needs to make progress. By contrast, a negative impact was the restriction of access to this commitment and expertise to a limited population of children attending special schools. This despite recognition that significant numbers of children in mainstream schools exhibited a range of special educational needs that might well have benefited from the expertise invested in a small number of teachers in specialist provision (Warnock, 1978).

The period after the implementation of legislation that guaranteed an education, albeit in segregated schooling, for pupils with disabilities and special educational needs, and the commitment made by national governments to move towards a more inclusive model following initiatives such as the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994) was significant. It was during this time that an investment in the development of skills in a national corpus of teachers and other professionals provided a significant workforce with both a commitment to and an understanding of approaches that enabled effective teaching and learning for those labeled as having special educational needs. During this same period, an increase in research focused upon understanding the efficacy of teaching approaches, and classroom management deployed by teachers of children who were often perceived as difficult to teach was important in enabling a greater understanding of effective classroom practices (Odom & Strain, 2002; Swanson, 2000).

While many disability activists, quite rightly expressed concerns that special schools were artificial environments that denied children opportunities to learn and socialize with their peers (Campbell & Oliver, 2013), there were many teachers in special schools who were demonstrating what could be achieved through the application of well differentiated and structured teaching approaches when working with this previously neglected population of learners. While they may be portrayed as strange bedfellows, both the campaigning approach of the disability activists and the professionalism of those teachers who were investigating the means of ensuring effective teaching in special schools made a major commitment to progress along the route towards inclusive schooling. In educational terms, many of those who were identified as “special educators” became leaders in the movement that advocated the need for closer liaison between special and mainstream schools (Fletcher-Campbell & Kington, 2004; Frederickson, Dunsmuir, Lang, & Monsen, 2004).

The tensions between “special” and “inclusive” education have been well articulated by Florian (2007, 2008) who suggested that the position of special educators could be seen as both a problem and a solution to the injustices that had characterized education for many years. Florian indicates that making appropriate provision for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools is not simply a matter of good teaching, but in some instances may require different approaches to teaching that can afford improved access and understanding. This has indeed become one of the dilemmas surrounding the commitment to inclusive education, one that at times has polarized opinions and led to a narrow interpretation of how children may best be supported. Florian’s presentation of this challenge is important in recognizing that, for inclusion to succeed, it is necessary to acknowledge that not all children will respond positively or immediately to the teaching approaches that have been commonly deployed in schools, and that there is a need for a sharing of expertise between the generalist and the specialist if inclusive schooling is to be achieved and is to benefit all learners.

This historical context is important in understanding the foundations for policy development that advocated inclusive education. Leadership in the field of special education and the provision of a committed workforce were and continue to be essential components in enabling an informed debate about the inequities that existed, and still exist, within western education systems (Bays & Crockett, 2007; Smith, Robb, West, & Tyler, 2010). Successful policy in western countries has been built upon a foundation of experience and understanding that has been critical in providing teachers with the confidence that they can succeed in inclusive classrooms, and parents and children with a belief that schools may be well equipped to deliver effective learning for all.

The model in Figure 1 expresses the pathway of development that has typified the movement from special education to inclusion in many western countries. It follows the pattern described above, which suggests a gradual building of knowledge, skills, and understanding from a period when a small but significant number of children were excluded from formal schooling, to one in which increased efforts have been made to accommodate their needs in mainstream schools.

Shaping Sustainable Inclusion Policy Through PracticeClick to view larger

Figure 1. From special education to inclusion—a western historical approach.

Western Models in Other International Contexts: Learning From Experience or Destined for Failure?

Having described some of the key factors that have influenced the move from special to inclusive education in many socially and economically advantaged western countries, it is important to discuss this in a wider international context. To do this, this article focuses upon India as an example of what I perceive to be many of the challenges faced in implementing an undoubted commitment to inclusion and discusses this in relation to the pathway discussed above.

In the Education for All Global Monitoring Report published by UNESCO (2015), many positive developments were reported from India with respect to measures taken in efforts to achieve universal education. Initiatives related to early education programs, greater educational opportunities for girls, and the impact of a mid-day meals program were all cited as indicators of initiatives that were enabling greater numbers of children to attend school. Successes such as these need to be applauded; however, a separate report (UNICEF, 2014) indicated that, despite concerted efforts, India still has 11.9 million children of primary and lower secondary school age out of school. In a country as diverse and populous as India, there are many challenges and demands made upon the country’s socio-political agenda, and it is clear that change will not happen quickly.

India was a signitory to the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994) and has made a commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2015), and there is evidence of an intention to take action to improve educational opportunities for all children, including the most vulnerable in society. In 2009, the Indian Government passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2009). This significant legislation recognizes that many children, particularly those from areas of socio-economic deprivation, and others who are registered from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes, have been discriminated against in respect to educational opportunity. It further endorses the belief that those with disabilities have also had limited possibilities to receive a formal education. The RTE is probably the most significant piece of educational reform legislation to have been passed in India since independence in 1947, and it has been largely welcomed by rights groups and activists in the country (Xavier, 2015). However, researchers who have been monitoring and evaluating its progress have identified significant difficulties, and there are suggestions that it is having less impact than was originally intended (Hammer, 2013; Jha, Ghatak, Mahendiran, & Bakshi, 2013).

Debates around the implementation of the Right to Education Act and its potential to have impact, center on a number of issues. Foremost among these has been a suggestion that teachers and other professionals, who are now responsible for providing a much more diverse population with learning opportunities, have not received the training that is necessary to address the needs of this group. Some years before the passing of the RTE, Myreddi and Narayan (2000) had identified serious shortcomings in the preparation of teachers to address the needs of children with disabilities, a research finding that was further endorsed in the study by Sharma and Deppeler (2005). This situation has not improved greatly as is indicated by the findings of Das, Kuyini, and Desai (2013) who, in a survey of 349 primary school teachers and 318 secondary teachers in Delhi, found that training in special education accessed by these teachers was low. Among primary school teachers, 67.59% indicated that they had received no special education training, with a similar figure of 67.72% recorded for those working in secondary schools. In countries where efforts to make education more equitable have been a feature of policy for many years, a lack of appropriate training and professional development continues to be cited as a major obstacle to progress (Forlin, 2010).

A lack of professional development in relation to disability and special educational needs means that leadership in schools in this area has been limited. Furthermore, as Singal (2006) has indicated, while the term inclusion has been generally adopted in recent education policy, this has lacked exemplification leading to a number of interpretations or misinterpretations of both its meaning and intent. In particular, as Singal emphasizes (2006, p. 360), terms such as “mainstreaming,” “integration,” “inclusion,” and “full inclusion” appear to be used almost randomly and in some cases interchangeably within official documentation, adding to an already confused situation. In a further study conducted by Singal and Rouse (2003), it was evident that the feasibility of inclusion was often determined according to the complexity of the individual need of a child, and in some instances, those presenting with obvious disabilities were rejected before being given an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. A range of government initiatives such as the Integrated Education of Disabled Children (IEDC) (Ministry of Welfare, 1974) and the Project for Integrated Education for the Disabled (PIED) (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 1987) have been implemented in the past, but have left only a limited legacy in terms of capacity building and competence development. There have also been pockets of school-based development that have enabled individual schools, or in some cases groups of schools under a single management, to implement teaching strategies that have benefited children with disabilities or special educational needs. However these positive initiatives have often come from individual schools, and dissemination of successful practice has seldom been shared at more than a parochial level (Tiwari, Das, & Sharma, 2015).

This progression towards a greater understanding of why children are marginalized and what can be done to promote greater educational equity differs greatly from that experienced in more advantaged countries. When compared to the pathway taken by countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, or Australia, it is easy to discern that the slow building of commitment, professional development, and attitude change that was witnessed in these situations has not had an opportunity to fully emerge in India. In part, this results from a lack of national policy leadership, but one cannot discard the many complexities associated with a country of so many languages and cultures, wide ranging poverty and prejudice, and socio-economic challenges.

In common with most of the world’s nations, the Government of India wishes to be seen responding to international imperatives and has quite rightly considered how best to elicit a response to those expectations identified in documents such as the Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2015) and the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994). This commitment has led to current legislation in the form of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2009). However, the resulting consequence of this peremptory action has been a situation that may be seen as a direct reversal of that adopted in more advantaged countries and presented in Figure 1, with a progression that looks far more like that presented in Figure 2.

Shaping Sustainable Inclusion Policy Through PracticeClick to view larger

Figure 2. From special education to inclusion—a reactive approach.

The pathway from special educational needs provision to inclusion in countries of socio-economic advantage and political stability can be described as a pro-active model—pro-active in the sense that progress was made gradually on the basis of an increased understanding and a knowledge base informed by research and a human rights agenda. By contrast, I suggest that the current pathway being adopted in many less advantaged or previously less stable countries can be described as reactive, brought about as a reaction to pressures coming from international agreements.

There is, of course, a positive aspect to this situation—one in which UNESCO and other similar organizations has succeeded in raising awareness of the exclusion of children from the education system and a need to adopt a more inclusive approach to schooling. It would be malicious therefore to condemn those countries that have reacted and put into place policies to promote inclusive practice, simply on the grounds that they have failed to provide the foundations upon which inclusion might thrive.

Looking to the Future: Possibilities and Potential Pitfalls

Discussing the challenge now faced in India, Ray and Saini (2015) emphasize that the implementation of legislation based upon a late recognition of the need for a rights-based approach to education will not automatically lead to a transformation of schools. In comparing the progress towards universal education made in two states of India—Kerala, one of the wealthiest, and Bihar, one of the most disadvantaged—they demonstrate how even within a single country there are huge discrepencies in respect to educational provision and progress, which are heavily influenced by economic, political, and social factors. These researchers argue that progress will be made in creating more equitable education systems only when those negative environmental factors that impede development are addressed. This is certainly an argument with which I concur, but would suggest that the approach taken to researching and changing these factors may be as significant as a commitment to implement change.

Environmental factors were certainly an important factor along the pathway towards inclusion where progress has been made, and as Ray and Saini (2015) have indicated, these conditions are not currently in place in India, or in many other countries where poverty, conflict, or political instability remain pervasive. Having passed legislation aimed at promoting a more inclusive education environment, several countries now find themselves in a position of attempting to put into place all of those systems and resources that were the driving force behind a move to inclusion elsewhere (Deng, 2010). Furthermore, they are attempting to do so on the basis of little research evidence that might indicate how efficacious provision might be achieved in a specific location. A reactive approach based upon political expediency has, in many instances, resulted in policies that have put teachers and other professionals in positions of disadvantage as they try to respond to new demands without adequate knowledge, skills, and understanding, and devoid of the resources that have proven essential in countries that adopted a more pro-active model.

The challenge for professionals working in countries such as India is to gain all of the components necessary to address the demands of legislation that is certainly well-meaning but fundamentally naïve, and researchers have a responsibility to acknowledge the additional difficulties that acrue from this situation. The ways in which they confront this challenge will ultimately define the pace with which they may move forward and the degree to which they succeed in meeting national and international expectations. Furthermore, while there is undoubtedly much that teachers in these countries can learn through an examination of those approaches that have been successful elsewhere in the world, I would suggest that some caution needs to be exercised before assuming that the adoption of a western model will necessarily lead to success. As Miles (1997) indicated 20 years ago, there may be aspects of western educational approaches that can be favorably adapted to the wealthier urban environment of some Asian cities, but the discrepencies between these locations and those rural areas that have poor infrastructure and support means that a broad-based adoption of western methods is likely to fail.

Teachers working in India and other countries in similar situations are already identifying their priorities as they attempt to respond to legislation that demands a more inclusive approach to schooling. Not surprisingly, training comes high on their agenda, with calls for professional development for teachers in service, and a reform of initial teacher training programs (Das, Gichuru, & Singh, 2013). Turning their attention outside the country, many are looking for opportunities to receive professional development from providers who have long worked in more inclusive teaching and learning environments. However, some have already found that much of the training on offer is far from fit for purpose, being founded on teaching approaches that may be suitable in well-resourced classrooms with relatively low pupil numbers, but far from applicable in poorly resourced classes with large numbers (Rose & Doveston, 2015). An understanding of local context is essential if professional development is to be effective, and this demands that those who are entering countries to provide training or conduct research, while they must certainly provide exemplars of good practice, must also be respectful of local educational traditions and involve experienced teachers and researchers from within the locality in the planning and delivery of courses and investigations.

Similar care must be taken with the introduction and application of resources. As teachers attempt to respond to policy demands, there is a temptation to look for ready made solutions and to introduce materials and approaches that may have worked elsewhere but are untried in a local context. A hasty introduction of inappropriate resources could have a detrimental impact, leaving teachers disillusioned that they have invested both financially and in time to implement systems that fall short of their expectations. In addition, such an approach by-passes the essential development phase that informed the production of many successful approaches and contributed to their success in the locations where they were designed and trialed.

It is possible to find exemplary models of inclusive practice even in the poorest of circumstances, though often those who are demonstrating approaches that enable learners to thrive have never even considered the term inclusion. Unfortunately, innovative approaches often take place in isolation, and opportunities to disseminate beyond a small area are limited. Inclusive practice in pro-active situations has often depended heavily upon exemplification and the opportunity to learn from others in similar contexts. It would be arrogant in the extreme to assume that any country cannot learn from an examination of its existing practices. However, many teachers who are already providing examples of effectiveness in addressing the needs of a school population of diverse needs, feel that they have little to offer compared with those approaches being imported from elsewhere. Confidence is an essential component of moving towards inclusive education. This will be best achieved by acknowledging existing good practice and sharing this much more widely, and researchers coming into countries should see this as part of their responsibility.


Teachers working in disadvantaged countries often describe themselves as playing “catch-up” and feel the pressure of trying to emulate what are perceived to be more successful education systems in other countries. This pressure is, to some extent, the result of a reactive approach that has given inadequate attention to environmental preparation. In many of the world’s most disadvantaged countries, awareness of the rights and needs of people with disabilities or from other disadvantaged groups has increased significantly. A willingness to respond to these needs is higher than in previous times, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that teachers are eager to lead the way in pursuit of a more just education provision. Such teachers are often feeling pressured at a time when they need support. While policy makers and politicians want to demonstrate that change is happening quickly, there is a need to recognize that the route to inclusion is developmental and will take time. Researchers therefore have a responsibility to investigate and report on successful practice as much as they are currently emphasizing shortcomings.

As researchers, we have a responsibility to recognize national sensitivities and adopt methods and approaches that are supportive of capacity building within the countries where we conduct our investigations. This begins with a period of familiarization and the asking of critical questions about the starting point for any study in this field. Historical background is important, as is an understanding of why policy has been implemented, and the challenges facing those who have to respond. Simply interpreting the current state of inclusive schooling in a country is not enough. This must be discussed in a much wider context and with great empathy for those who work within policy contexts that were not of their making.

Further Reading

Forlin, C., & Lian, M. J. (2008). Reform, inclusion, and teacher education: Towards a new era of special education in the Asia-Pacific region. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

McNess, E., Arthur, L., & Crossley, M. (2013). ‘Ethnographic dazzle’ and the construction of insider and outsider research for international and comparative education. Compare, 45(2), 295–316.Find this resource:

Miles, S. (2015). Creating conversations: An inclusive approach to the international networking of knowledge about education. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 15(4), 266–275.Find this resource:

Mitchell, D. (2005). Contextualizing inclusive education: Evaluating old and new international perspectives. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Nind, M. (2014). Inclusive research and inclusive education: Why connecting them makes sense for teachers’ and learners’ democratic development of education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 44(4), 525–540.Find this resource:


Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., & Weiner, S. (2013). From exclusion to inclusion: A review of international literature on ways of responding to students with special educational needs in schools. En-clave pedagógica: Revista Internacional de Investigacion e Innovacion Educativa, 13(1), 13–30.Find this resource:

Ames, P. (2012). Language, culture, and identity in the transition to primary school: Challenges to indigenous children’s rights to education in Peru. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(3), 454–462.Find this resource:

Armstrong, F. (2007). Disability, education and social change in England since 1960. History of Education, 36(4–5), 551–568.Find this resource:

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