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date: 17 December 2017

Inclusive Education and European Educational Policy

Summary and Keywords

The concept of inclusive education and the way it is considered within the educational policy frameworks of European countries have changed and are still changing. Inclusive education is increasingly being understood as a systemic approach to education for all learners of any age; the goal is to provide all learners with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities in their local community, alongside their friends and peers.

There is a need to examine the policy of inclusive education, both its recent changes and its future direction, that European countries are undertaking, highlighting implications for both practitioners and academic researchers. Such an examination should not focus on practice—that is, the actual implementation of country policy—or on academic research into policy or practice for inclusive education in countries. Rather, it should focus on recent policy developments that are shaping practice in European schools, as well as potential future developments. The key messages emerging from a consideration of the European experience are highly applicable to other global regions.

Keywords: European educational policy, policy developments, changing policy conceptions, changing terminology

A Diverse European Policy Picture

The European Union (EU) is one of the world’s most diverse formal alliances. At the time of writing, the EU has 28 member states (including the United Kingdom, until 2019) encompassing over 508 million inhabitants and over 4 million square kilometers. In addition, there are four other countries within the European Free Trade Association (EFTA)—Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland—covering half a million square kilometers and including over 13 million inhabitants. The European alliance is most diverse, with over 25 official languages and a number of unofficial ones. Each member state has its own laws, policies, and systems touching on all aspects of society—most notably education. At least six countries in Europe—Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—can be described as federal entities. They are composed of smaller regions, or even countries, which to different degrees have their own legislative and decision-making powers (again including education). Many countries are highly decentralized, with decision-making powers for implementing community services, including education, and these powers have regional or municipality levels (Jónasson, 2016; European Agency, 2017a).

At both the global and European levels, inclusive education has been a central topic of policy debate for well over 20 years. The World Conference on Special Needs Education held in Salamanca in 1994 adopted the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, clearly setting the policy agenda for inclusive education on a global basis (UNESCO, 1994). This collective statement continues to serve as a major focal point for work in Europe. It is still a keystone in the conceptual framework of the policies of many countries. One extract from the statement repeatedly used as a guiding principle in European and national policy level debates is the following:

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. (p. 8)

Since then, many international initiatives (e.g., UNESCO, 2000, 2008, 2009) have underlined the crucial role of inclusive education of all learners.

The present policy frameworks for education systems in European countries have evolved over a relatively long period of time within very specific contexts and are therefore highly individual (Meijer, 1999, 2003). These systems are embedded within national cultures, traditions, and debates relating to education generally. In many countries, the concept of inclusive education is embedded in both the special needs education frameworks of educational policy (Watkins, 2007) and the policy frameworks maintained by other social sectors—notably, health and/or social welfare—that also impact education (European Agency, 2016a).

All European countries aim to align their national education policies with the international statements and resolutions on education that provide their countries’ guiding principles regarding equal opportunities in education. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) provide a framework for a rights-based approach for all children, ensuring that the rights of children with disabilities are neither marginalized nor forgotten. These international normative instruments also clearly emphasize the concepts of efficiency, effectiveness, equity, and inclusion as a means of ensuring quality education for all.

These concepts underpin Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” as well as specific target 4.5: “By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations” (United Nations, 2015).

How the key principles within these normative instruments are translated into national policy, which then guides practice in inclusive settings in European countries, differs greatly, however. European countries can be considered to be at “different points of the journey to inclusion signposted by the Salamanca statement” (Peacey, 2006).

The European Union Policy Context for Inclusive Education

Education policy is the legislative responsibility of each EU member state. The European Union does not have direct legislative powers for education in the way it does for trade or data protection, for example. However, the wider EU policy context for education generally and inclusive education specifically does provide countries with policy documents agreed to at the ministerial (European Union Council of Education Ministers) level, which provide agreed benchmarks for national-level policies.

Increasingly, European policy documents have highlighted inclusive education as one of the most important educational imperatives for the development of quality and equity in education. At the same time, there is growing recognition that high-performing education systems are also the most equitable (OECD, 2012). Underachievement and school failure result in long-term costs for countries, on both community and individual levels.

A number of key European union policy documents provide the current guideline for individual country thinking on inclusive education within wider educational policy reform. The 2010 Council conclusions on the social dimension of education and training suggest that “systems which uphold high standards of quality for all and strengthen accountability, which foster personalised, inclusive approaches, which support early intervention and which target disadvantaged learners in particular, can be powerful drivers in fostering social inclusion” (Council of the European Union, 2010, p. 4).

The EU agenda for 2020 (European Commission, 2010) paved the way for development of the EU’s education and training framework. ET 2020 outlines a number of strategic objectives, including:

  • Strategic objective 2—Improving the quality and efficiency of education and training

  • Strategic objective 3—Promoting equity, social cohesion, and active citizenship.

(Council of the European Union, 2009).

Key priorities within these objectives include ensuring equal opportunities in education and training; improving educational outcomes, and reducing dropout from general and postcompulsory education. These targets have been reaffirmed by education ministers through the Outcome of the Council Meeting of 18 and 19 May 2015, which states that the “main priorities to be developed in the post–2015 ET 2020 should be promoting inclusive education and active citizenship, increasing youth employability, and encouraging the exchange of best practices” (Council of the European Union, 2015, p. 5).

Increasingly, inclusive education is seen as the most effective policy approach for achieving these goals, as well as other policy imperatives. The Informal Meeting of Education Ministers’ Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance, and nondiscrimination through education, of March 17, 2015, stresses the need to ensure inclusive education for all children and young people which combats racism and discrimination on any ground, promotes citizenship and teaches them to understand and to accept differences of opinion, of conviction, of belief and of lifestyle, while respecting the rule of law, diversity and gender equality” (Informal Meeting of European Union Education Ministers, 2015, p. 4).

Also in 2015, the Joint Report of the Council and the commission on implementation of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET, 2020) identified new priorities for European cooperation in education and training and suggests that “education and training systems face the challenge of ensuring equal access to high-quality education, in particular by reaching out to the most disadvantaged and integrating people with diverse backgrounds, including adequately integrating newly arrived migrants, into the learning environment, thereby fostering upwards social convergence” (European Commission, 2015a, p. 3).

This report and the accompanying Staff Working Document (European Commission, 2015b) argue that effective action for inclusive education and training for all learners, focusing on those with disadvantaged backgrounds, special needs, migrants or those with a migrant background, and Roma heritage.

The final report proposes six priorities for education:

  • Relevant and high-quality knowledge, skills, and competences developed throughout lifelong learning, focusing on learning outcomes for employability, innovation, active citizenship, and well-being.

  • Inclusive education, equality, equity, non-discrimination, and promotion of civic competences.

  • Open and innovative education and training, including by fully embracing the digital era.

  • Strong support for teachers, trainers, school leaders, and other educational staff.

  • Transparency and recognition of skills and qualifications to facilitate learning and labor mobility.

  • Sustainable investment, quality, and efficiency of education and training systems.

These priorities are considered policy imperatives for the educational policy of all European states.

The European Union is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). Article 24 states that inclusive education offers the best educational opportunities for learners with disabilities. Education directed toward “developing their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential will enable persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society (United Nations, 2006).

Across Europe, efficiency, effectiveness, equity, and inclusion as a means of ensuring high-quality education for all learners is an increasing policy priority, viewed as being concerned with all learners at all levels of lifelong learning (Watkins & Meijer, 2016). Promoting opportunities for all learners, including those from various disadvantaged groups, through a shared education for all is an important goal for countries’ educational policies.

Policy efforts aimed at improving system equity, effectiveness, and efficiency are key to enhancing the achievement of all system stakeholders—learners, their parents and families, educational professionals, community representatives, and decision makers. Current work dedicated to improving education systems in Europe (notably the Education and Training monitoring work, European Union, 2015) shows that a number of factors will help improve inclusive education and ensure universal quality education, notably:

  • Improving cooperation, including greater involvement of parents and local communities.

  • Increasing participation in good quality early childhood education and care and preschool enrollment rates.

  • Improving the quality of school staff, developing teacher competences, and reinforcing school leadership.

  • Easing the transition from education to work.

The Council Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs; European Union, 2015) also highlight the need for countries to:

  • improve student-focused measures, such as personalized learning approaches and more flexible curricula; and

  • improve the school ethos and culture so that they are geared toward adapting learning environments to individual learning needs.

The CSRs also support the introduction of policy strategies to reduce the negative effects of early tracking (the early streaming of pupils by ability into different types of provision or schools) and advocate improvement in schools with lower educational outcomes. There is also a clear recognition in Europe that all countries need to develop policy-monitoring strategies, establishing a comprehensive accountability and evaluation framework for education, as well as improve the cost effectiveness of the education system, combining efficiency, effectiveness, equity. and inclusion.

In February 2017, the Council of Education Ministers published its conclusions on inclusion in diversity to achieve high-quality education for all (Council of the European Union, 2017). These conclusions stipulate that education policy has “a prime role” to play in fostering inclusion and respect for diversity in the EU and that “inclusive education addresses and responds to different needs of all learners in formal, non-formal and informal settings with the objective of encouraging participation of all in high quality education” (p. 3). This crucial policy document focuses on the potential role of inclusive education to ensure that all learners are equipped with the “social, civic and intercultural competences to strengthen, reaffirm and foster the EU’s democratic values, fundamental rights, social inclusion and non-discrimination (p. 3).

Also in 2017, the European Commission published a communication entitled “School Development and Excellent Teaching for a Great Start in Life.” A central argument of this communication is that

high-quality education for all will help Europe achieve its economic and social objectives. Good education underpins inclusive and resilient societies. It is the starting point for a successful professional career and the best protection against unemployment and poverty. It fosters personal development and lays the basis for active citizenship. Good education fuels R&D, innovation, and competitiveness. However, for societies to reap these benefits, high-quality education needs to be a reality for all. ”

(European Commission, 2017, p. 2)

The Communication explores three areas that member countries need to emphasize:

  1. 1. Developing better and more inclusive schools

  2. 2. Supporting teachers and school leaders for excellent teaching and learning

  3. 3. Governance of school education systems, becoming more effective, equitable, and efficient

The ongoing policy work at the European level focuses on a transformative agenda for countries’ education systems, as reflected in the World Education Forum Incheon Declaration, which argues that inclusion is both a principle and process: “Inclusion and equity in and through education is the cornerstone of a transformative education agenda . . . No education target should be considered met unless met by all” (World Education Forum, 2015). This statement highlights the vision shared by EU-level policymakers that all learners should have access to a meaningful, high-quality education which will enable them to achieve outcomes relevant for their later life and participation in society.

Inclusive Education as a Shared Policy Goal

The broader interpretation of inclusive education as an educational approach for all learners that is guided by a single policy framework is increasingly becoming the focus of national policy debates in the EU. This principle is evidenced in the changes and developments being made in countries’ legislation: inclusive education is increasingly being understood as an approach for all learners, including all disadvantaged groups, as well as migrants and minorities and even the gifted and talented (European Agency, 2013, 2016a).

Inclusive education is a key policy factor within the more socially inclusive societies with which all EU countries are in alignment both ethically and politically (European Union, 2015). As such, the concept of inclusive education is increasingly understood as the effort to ensure that all learners of any age are provided with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities in their local community schools or colleges, alongside their friends and peers.

This aspiration is reflected in the Council’s concluding statement:

inclusive high quality education should be seen in a life-long perspective covering all aspects of education. It should be available and accessible to all learners of all ages, including those facing challenges, such as those with special needs or who have a disability, those originating from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, migrant backgrounds or geographically depressed areas or war-torn zones, regardless of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

(Council of the European Union, 2017, p. 3)

All European countries are committed to achieving more inclusive education systems, but they are working toward this goal in different ways, depending on their past and current policy contexts (European Agency, 2015). How the concept of inclusive education has been understood, interpreted, and then integrated within educational policy differs greatly across European countries. When policy and practice for inclusive education are being debated at the European level, national stakeholders may not always be thinking or talking about the same concepts or realities (European Agency, 2013).

Changes in Thinking about Inclusive Education

The working definitions of inclusive education which came out of the International Conference on Education (2008) and UNESCO Policy Guidelines (2009) reveal that inclusive education must be viewed as an ongoing process concerned with respecting diversity and eliminating discrimination. A move to attaining an inclusive system requires identifying and removing barriers that presently prevent all learners from moving into the mainstream and participating fully in learning that will help them to achieve success both academically and socially. Inclusive education is about ensuring quality for all learners as part of an education system that ensures access, equity, and social justice, democratic values, learner participation, and development of cohesive educational communities that celebrate and value diversity (UNESCO, 2009).

In most European countries, however, the conceptualization of inclusive education has grown out of discussions surrounding specialist segregated provision, integration, and mainstreaming (Donnelly, 2010). Opertti et al. (2014) draw on a range of international literature to illustrate the progression of the concept of inclusive education in policymaking. In many countries—including those in Europe—understanding of the concept of inclusive education has its roots within a human rights-based perspective and learners’ rights to access their country’s education system. This thinking can then be seen to shift toward a more specific focus, being understood as a response to the needs of children with identified special educational needs. In many countries, understanding of the concept has broadened, with inclusive education being seen as a policy response to meeting the educational needs of different marginalized groups.

Conceptualizations of about and resulting policies for inclusive education have shifted from being mainly associated with learners with special educational needs and/or disabilities,—in particular their educational placement—to meeting the needs of a far wider range of learners who may be vulnerable to exclusion. It has broadened to become a systemic approach geared toward raising the achievements of all learners, as well as the overall system (European Agency, 2015).

De Beco (2016) argues that inclusive education can no longer be considered as being solely about “placing” learners with different needs in mainstream schools. Rather, it concerns education systems themselves. To make schools inclusive, a profound “change of culture” is needed which requires a shift in how society views education. This thinking is echoed by Opertti et al. (2014) who argue that in many countries, inclusive education is increasingly understood as requiring transformative change within entire education systems.

For many countries, this shift in policy focus necessarily entails a move from an educational culture focusing on individual support (often based on a medical diagnosis of an individual learner’s needs) toward a system that can support schools’ efforts to increase their capability to respond to all learners’ diverse needs, without needing to categorize and label them (European Agency, 2013). Instead of providing “compensatory” support to some learners who are unable to benefit from existing educational opportunities, schools need to reform their organization, teaching, and classroom environments in order to have a flexible response for all learners and, essentially, to be more equitable (European Agency, 2013, 2015). The OECD report No More Failures (2007) identifies two dimensions of equity: fairness (personal and social circumstances not being an obstacle to achieving educational potential) and inclusion (a basic minimum standard of education that is made available for all learners, regardless of background or need).

At the European Parliament hearing organized by the Agency in 2011, the young delegates discussed their rights “to quality of education, to choice and to equality and respect” (European Agency, 2012a, p. 11).

They argued that inclusive education is not just about being together in the same place, but about having friends and good relationships with their peers. They stressed that “inclusive education is beneficial for all: it creates the opportunity to learn and share experiences … inclusive education is the first step in being full members of society” (European Agency, 2012a, p. 11). The young people’s views in all European Agency hearings clearly illustrate the importance of the values underpinning inclusive education. These values are at the core of an approach that sees inclusive education as a normative issue and a goal for all countries (Watkins & Donnelly, 2013).

Increasingly, inclusive education is being understood as an overarching concept—guided by values, beliefs, and attitudes—that impacts on different areas of countries’ policies in all education and other social sectors (European Agency, 2016a). The vision of Inclusive education systems for all learners and wider stakeholders in education gives direction to European policymakers. However, how the vision is enacted and achieved is dependent on different country contexts and situations.

Problems in Reaching Shared European-Level Understandings Around the Concept of Inclusive Education

Several factors present difficulties in identifying or reaching shared understandings of terms and core concepts relating to inclusive education in the European arena. These factors relate to existing legislative and policy contexts, the language in use, and, most importantly, the conceptions held by different groups of stakeholders in inclusive education, especially policymakers.

The Specific Legislative Contexts for Inclusive Education

National policies for inclusive education are directed by both general and separate special and/or inclusive education frameworks of legislation, policy, and provision in individual countries (European Agency, 2014). Therefore, a full understanding of inclusive education requires an examination of policy issues that impact inclusive education within both general and special education legislation and policy. Inclusive education policy in any country needs to be considered within the context of wider educational legislative reforms occurring in that particular country.

Education generally and inclusive education specifically are not static phenomena. Understandings of and practice within inclusive education across countries are constantly undergoing change (European Agency, 2015). In considering the implementation of inclusive education policy in the EU, Ebersold (2014) argues that it may be necessary to move away from a single interpretation of the concept of inclusion toward a consideration of “regimes of inclusion” within educational policy that direct the social contexts governing learners’ access to education. Ebersold identifies an educational regime of inclusion in which the concept of inclusive education is rooted in a belief in individual rights and in which diversity is seen as a source of collective enrichment and a vehicle for excellence. There is also a socioeducative regime of inclusion that relates individual rights to the economic and social costs of the integrative model and the organization of education for learners who require support with an “essentialist” concept of disability, health impairment, or health disorder. Finally, Ebersold identifies a socioeconomic regime of inclusion that is rooted in a “trade concept” where acceptance of diversity in education settings is seen as a means of promoting efficiency, guaranteeing economic viability.

The Absence of a Shared Language

Usage of many different national languages has a major impact on how inclusive education is understood at the European level. Because of the language barrier, policymakers and practitioners working at the international level may not be referring to the same thing—in either words, concepts, or procedures—when talking about inclusive education and related ideas. Certain words—including “inclusion”—do not always have a direct translation from English into European languages and vice versa. An example is the concept of “assessment.” In some languages, the terms “evaluation” and “assessment” are almost synonymous; in other languages, these terms may mean quite different things (Watkins, 2007).

In some countries, terms such as “inclusion” and “inclusive education” have shifted from being associated mainly with learners with special educational needs/disabilities—and in particular their educational placement—to meeting the needs of a far wider range of learners who may be vulnerable to exclusion, and further to an understanding of inclusive education as a systemic approach geared toward raising the achievements of all learners, as well as the overall system.

It can be seen that the EU’s terminology may not always be in alignment with national policy statements. Various debates are being conducted regarding the terms “special needs” and “inclusion” (and their respective translations into the official languages of the EU). At the European level, official policy statements have only relatively recently (i.e., within the last decade) referred to “inclusion” and “inclusive education” rather than “integration” and “special educational needs,” mainly following—not leading—some countries’ policy developments.

Policy Conceptions of Inclusive Education

What is meant by inclusive education varies greatly between countries (European Agency, 2013). These varying interpretations often reflect underlying attitudes toward or understanding disability and special educational needs, based on research, language usage, and existing legislation.

A point of clarification must be made here: there is no single interpretation of terms such as special need or disability in European countries. Countries identify learners as having special or additional needs on the basis of their individual legislation and policies. The fact that some countries “identify” more learners as having a special need or disability than other countries—the range is from less than 1% to nearly 20% (European Agency, 2012b and 2017b)

(European Agency, 2012b)—is linked to administrative, financial, and procedural regulations, rather than reflecting variations in the incidence and types of special educational needs in countries (Meijer, 2003).

The revised Policy Guidelines for Inclusion (UNESCO and UNESCO-IBE, 2017) maintain that terms such as “inclusive education” and “equity” are often misunderstood; as new thinking is merged with existing assumptions, terms such as “inclusive education” and “equity” are often misunderstood, creating confusion as to policy purpose. Fulcher (1989) suggests that policy change is difficult in the absence of a common and shared understanding of key ideas behind policy proposals.

This assertion is supported by work within European Agency member countries (2013, 2015) showing that the underlying ideology associated with the terms used for inclusive education must be widely understood. Otherwise new terms may replace old ones with little or no change in thinking behind the policy or subsequent practice.

Policy Developments Toward Inclusive Education Systems

The UNESCO Policy Guidelines (2009) state that “inclusive education is a process of strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners . . . An ‘inclusive’ education system can only be created if ordinary schools become more inclusive—in other words, if they become better at educating all children in their communities” (p. 8).

The Guidelines present the following propositions regarding inclusive education:

  • Inclusive education and quality are reciprocal.

  • Access and quality are linked and are mutually reinforcing.

  • Quality and equity are central to ensuring inclusive education.

These propositions highlight principles that policymakers in European countries are aiming to make a reality, albeit through implementing different policy approaches, depending on their past and current contexts and histories, as well as on the “starting points” on the journey toward inclusion.

Through its ongoing work with education policymakers from 29 European countries, the European Agency (2015) argues that the legislation directing inclusive education systems must be underpinned by a fundamental commitment to ensuring every learner’s right to inclusive and equitable educational opportunities. Five aspects of policy implementation are described as critical levers for implementing policy for inclusive education in practice:

  1. 1. Raise the achievements of all learners by recognizing and building upon their talents and effectively meeting their individual learning needs and interests.

Increased achievement for learners encompasses all forms of personal, social, and academic attainment that will be relevant for the individual learner in the short term, while enhancing the individual’s life chances in the long term.

  1. 2. Ensure that all stakeholders value diversity.

Actively engaging stakeholders in dialogue and providing support to enable them to make individual and collective contributions to widening access to education and improving equity enable all learners to realize their full potential.

  1. 3. Ensure the availability of flexible continua of provision and resources that support the learning of all stakeholders at both individual and organizational levels.

Effective continua of support in inclusive education systems encompass personalized approaches to learning that engage all learners and support their active participation in the learning process. This involves the development of learner-centered curricula and assessment frameworks; flexible training, and continuous professional development opportunities for all educators, school leaders, and decision makers; and coherent governance processes at all system levels.

  1. 4. Raise the achievements, outcomes, and outputs of the overall system.

System effectiveness can be enhanced when all stakeholders are able to develop their attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, understanding, skills, and behaviors in line with the goals and principles of an inclusive education system.

  1. 5. Operate inclusive education systems as learning systems.

Working toward the continuous improvement and alignment of structures and processes requires building the capacity of all stakeholders to systematically reflect on their achievements and then use these reflections to improve and develop their collective work toward their shared goals.

At the EU policy level as well as within national policies for inclusive education, education systems that can deal with learner differences and diversities in all educational settings are being seen as a quality issue (Council of the European Union, 2017). This increasing emphasis on high-quality education for all is an issue of learners’ rights and an essential goal all countries’ educational policies.

Policy governing inclusive education systems must provide a clear vision for and conceptualization of inclusive education so that all learners at all levels of inclusive lifelong learning can achieve improvements that enhance their opportunities for effective participation in society. Policy must also clearly show that effective implementation of inclusive education systems is the shared responsibility of all educators, leaders, and decision makers (European Agency, 2015).

Is the European Policy Development Trend Unique?

Figures from UNESCO (2015) suggest that 58 million children globally remain outside the formal education system. The barriers to their participation vary from country to country but often relate to social and economic circumstances, race, gender, culture, abilities, and disabilities. UNICEF suggests that “[c]hildren from the poorest households are five times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest. In nearly all countries with data, wealthier children had better learning results than poorer children (UNICEF, 2015, p. 19).

UNESCO has also highlighted the progress made in ensuring the right to education as outlined by the Education for All (EFA) initiative and within the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, “[t]raditional forms of marginalization in education such as gender and urban or rural residence continue to combine with income, language, minority status and disability to create mutually reinforcing disadvantages,” particularly in low-income or conflict-affected countries (UNESCO, 2015, p. 42).

UNESCO and the International Bureau of Education (2017) argue that “[d]isability is a major concern in most countries and gender remains a significant determining factor of marginalization in many parts of the world . . . 48% of girls are likely to never attend school, as opposed to 37% of their male peers” (p. 6). They go further, however, by arguing that access is not enough; around 100 million children fail to complete primary education (UNESCO, 2015), with almost 250 million children not having the chance to learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic necessary as life skills: “The implication of all of this is that further efforts are needed in order to change school systems in order to make them more inclusive” (p. 6).

Ongoing work from UNESCO and the International Bureau of Education shows that in an increasing number of countries, inclusive education is being seen more broadly as a reform that responds to the diversity of all learners and that policy initiatives aim to eliminate exclusionary processes from education that are negative responses to different forms of learner diversity—race, language, social class, ethnicity, religion, gender, attainment, and ability. This thinking is very much in line with current policy being pursued at the EU and European country level.

Within the work of many international organizations—such as the United Nations agencies and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).—countries’ efforts to make their education systems more inclusive are also understood to be an integral part of policy efforts to create a stronger education system generally. Raising national standards and the promoting equity are seen as reciprocal and mutually supportive in many regions of the world (e.g., see the work of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), 2013).

The Incheon Declaration embraced at the World Forum on Education in May 2015, which informs the Education 2030 Framework for Action, emphasized inclusion and equity as being the foundation for quality education. It also stressed the need to address all forms of exclusion and marginalization, disparities and inequalities in access, participation, and learning processes and outcomes. The international Education for All agenda, along with the EU policy agenda, should be considered to be about all learners.

In summary, although many European countries are only starting their journey toward inclusive education systems, all countries across the globe share the aim of an inclusive education that will provide high-quality education for all learners.

Developing Visions for Inclusive Education Policy

UNESCO and the International Bureau of Education (2017) have identified a number of “strategic features” of inclusive education:

  • Inclusion is a process.

  • Inclusion is concerned with identifying and removing barriers.

  • Inclusion is about the presence, participation, and achievement of all students.

  • Inclusion involves a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion, or underachievement.

These strategic features can also be seen as parameters for developing educational policy guided by a vision of inclusive education as an evolving concept, where issues related to diversity and democracy are increasingly important.

European policymakers agree that for inclusive education to be enacted:

  • The legislation directing inclusive education systems must be underpinned by the fundamental commitment to ensuring every learner’s right to inclusive and equitable educational opportunities.

  • The policy guiding the implementation of inclusive education must clearly show that the effective implementation of inclusive education systems is the shared responsibility of all educators, leaders, and decision makers.

  • The operational principles guiding the implementation of structures and procedures within inclusive education systems must be those of equity, effectiveness, efficiency, and raising achievements for all stakeholders—learners, their parents and families, educational professionals, community representatives and decision makers—through high-quality, accessible educational opportunities. (European Agency, 2015).

Concluding Comments: Policy Development Beyond Inclusive Education?

In examining recent policy developments at national and European levels, it can be argued that inclusive education systems must be seen as evolutionary systems in which policy developments will impact practice and in which developments in educational practice will lead to further changes in policy.

Overall, in an increasing number of countries, inclusive education is viewed as a policy approach or way of working, and not as a policy objective that must be achieved in a as a goal in itself. Within the European context, one current area of change in policy thinking that has had a direct impact on practice is recent thinking about different “types” of policy actions. Current policy analysis work with European Agency member countries (European Agency, 2016b) builds upon European-level policy work and identifies three types of policy actions being taken in countries:

Prevention—policy initiatives that aim at avoiding educational exclusion and longer term social exclusion, before these issues emerge (for example, antidiscrimination legislation promoting a rights approach, avoidance of disabling policies that lead to gaps in provision, and lack of qualifications).

Intervention—policy initiatives supporting the effective implementation of inclusive education (for example, the existence of clear policies leading to high-quality flexible support systems for mainstream education).

Compensation—policy initiatives addressing existing system omissions and difficulties that are not implemented, leading to educational exclusion of learners (for example, separate educational provision, support of failing schools, and second-chance educational programs).

The three policy purposes of prevention, intervention, or compensation are complementary and may be used in different ways to achieve given policy goals. When thinking about policy for inclusive education, it can be seen that for a high-quality inclusive educational system to be effectively and comprehensively implemented, balanced prevention, intervention, and compensation policy initiatives need to be in place.

However, it can be argued that inclusive education systems are most effectively supported by prevention and intervention policy actions, with compensation initiatives only being used in specific instances. Sustainable developments in policy for inclusive education can be identified by shifts away from compensatory policy actions toward intervention and then prevention policy actions.

European countries are increasingly focusing on formulating education policy that moves beyond the policy debates of “if” or “why” inclusive education should be an aim for education systems to debates on the policy and practice conditions needed to make inclusion a reality for all learners. The recent shifts in policy thinking has moved the educational practice focus from some “special” learners to “all” learners and from “special” approaches to inclusive education as “the” approach for all learners.

This shift in policy attention and approach may indicate a new direction for achieving inclusion—a direction where inclusive education is not seen as anything new or special or challenging, but rather as a natural way of working and accepted as the normative educational approach (Meijer, 2014).

Paradoxically, future policy debates and discussions regarding conceptions of and terminology for inclusive education may lead to a point where the term “inclusive” becomes superfluous. The next staging point on the inclusive education policy journey might actually be . . . educational policy.

References

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