Type your search

Let’s Chat about Inclusive Education – a Trans-Atlantic Commentary on Season One

by David Towell, Director of the Centre for Inclusive Futures, London, UK

When I am updating myself about current issues in inclusive education, a good starting point is always Inclusive Education Canada and its excellent website at www.inclusiveeducation.ca    

I was very happy therefore to learn about the panel discussions with Canadian leaders in this field hosted by Gordon Porter in the excellent company of Diane Richler and Jacqui Specht. The first series just finished and I was not disappointed. I also know that there are at least two more series of similar discussions to come. Well done IEC!

I know Canada a little: I was privileged to spend some months of a sabbatical working as a volunteer with (what is now) Inclusion Canada in 1991 and I have kept in touch with some of the great people I met then, not least those involved in the leadership of Inclusion International. Looking across the Atlantic from London, what did I like about this first series and what are some of the issues that I hope will be developed further in the next series?

Let me start with three compliments.

First, I liked the style of the panel discussions. Of course, that derives from the quality of the panellists and their many invitees. There is a great deal of wisdom and experience reflected in these discussions. But I also liked the format. Like most people during the pandemic, I have joined my share of webinars. Most of these, certainly the international ones, have been essentially wall-to-wall presentations. Let’s Chat has been different: a chance to explore with key participants both what they are doing and what is driving their commitment to this field. This has been rewarding and I feel that now I know quite a lot about the first set of contributors as people as well as family members, teachers and researchers, etc.

Second, the ten discussions have been very rich in insights and examples. In my experience, if we are not moving forward with inclusion, we are probably drifting backwards. Inclusion is a process not an end point: we have to keep working at it. This series and the further ones to come do a lot to keep the inclusion flame burning bright in Canada and probably in other countries too.

Here are some of the key messages about strengthening inclusive education that I drew from these discussions:

  • Parent and civil society advocacy are critical in gaining and sustaining societal -wide commitment to educating all students together. Bluesette Campbell and Anna McQuarrie exemplify effective family leadership, not with-standing the difficulties, and Jody Carr, a former Minister of Education, was encouraging on how civil society pressure impacts on elected politicians.
  • Gillian Parekh, among others, argued the fundamental importance of ‘mind set’: believing all children belong, right from their start in life, and working to establish disability as a positive identity in communities that welcome diversity.
  • In this context, Marie-Élaine Desmarais was persuasive in her examples of how Universal Design for Learning can be an effective orientation for teachers as well as a codified set of technical skills.
  • Similarly, Sheila Bennett offered some great examples of the ways in which teachers can encourage peer support in their classrooms and promote social capital formation for all their students.
  • All this means that a key priority is developing the capacity of teachers not least through ensuring ongoing support within the schools, space for reflection and opportunities for ‘teachers helping teachers’. Lesley Trudell and Amy Kipfer and Missy Pfaff offered excellent examples of how this is being organised in practice in different jurisdictions.
  • As Jess Whitley reminded us, all these challenges have been magnified during the two years of Covid-19 restrictions in which we have all had to learn new tricks.
  • And finally, but perhaps most impressively, we learnt from the personal stories in these discussions that the long journey to inclusion requires both commitment and persistence. Witness Liz Baile’s 34 years (so far) in Yellowknife in Canada’s north?

Third therefore, Series One and doubtless the series to come are demonstrating the strength-in-depth of informed leadership on inclusive education in Canada and the networks that link good people in different roles and places: networking that Inclusive Education Canada exists to promote. These resources are I think critical to future progress. During one of the lock-downs here I took the opportunity to review the more than twenty year journey towards community inclusion in the U.K. What struck me from this history is that we achieved most through what Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze call ‘scaling across’:  creating communities of practice within which people exercising leadership offer each other support and share their experiences ‘laterally’ as part of a social movement, aspiring to value-based transformation.

All this raises important issues for our future efforts. Here are three that I am thinking about in the light of the ten sessions in Series One.

Probably the two most important international commitments to advancing inclusive education are found in the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (notably Article 24) and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (notably Goal 4). The former calls for an ‘inclusive system of education at all levels’ as a human right and is focused on disabled people; the latter goal seeks to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education …. for all’. The convergence on inclusive education is very helpful to our national efforts but the differences here are also instructive.

First, SDG4 directs our attention to three axes defining progress: quality, equity and inclusion. I wonder if our discussions of inclusive education sometimes leave the other two axes too implicit. ‘Quality’ directs our attention to what education is for and what it means in the life of all students. The late British educationalist, Ken Robinson, offers this useful definition: education aims ‘to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens’. I think this definition can help us a lot in discussions of national curriculum, testing and other policies directed at standardisation.

Second, SDG4 widens our focus from disability to ensuring access for all (and the targets specifically mention eliminating gender disparities and ensuring equal access e.g. for indigenous people and children in vulnerable situations). Interestingly the latest book by another well-known British educationalist, Mel Ainscow (because of his work on the Index of Inclusion) is entitled Educational Equity. He focuses on initiatives in Scotland, and seeks to review efforts to overcome the multiple kinds of disadvantage associated with poverty. ‘Intersectionality’ is a clumsy word dreamed up by academics, but it does draw our attention to the ways in which different threads of disadvantage are intertwined in the lives of children, something that of course teachers both experience and need to engage with, in the school and classroom.

Finally, Jacqui Specht wisely noted in the very first of these Chats that substantial research shows us that inclusive education works: the challenge seems to be in ensuring system-wide implementation, despite the forty of years of Canadian experience starting in New Brunswick. Clearly this message hasn’t arrived everywhere yet.

Series One has demonstrated the strength and depth of knowledge and leadership about inclusive education in Canada. My final question then concerns what we are learning about how best to use both of these to achieve and sustain system-wide transformation across your great country. There were some important pointers here in the first series as I have noted above. I am hoping for a lot more in Series Two!