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Let’s Chat About Inclusive Education – A Trans-Atlantic Commentary on Series II

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

Inclusive Education Canada (IEC) previously posted my commentary on the first series of Let’s Chat About Inclusive Education. Gordon Porter thought this brief overview was a useful complement to the depth of ideas and discussion available in the first ten broadcasts and encouraged me to do the same for Series Two.  I think the second series builds intelligently on many of the themes in the first, offering new perspectives and examples, so my two commentaries are probably best read together. Mostly I have tried not to repeat myself, but I think it worth saying again that together I think these broadcasts provide a very rich collection of insights on the journey to inclusive education, expressed in engaging and accessible ways. I know that IEC is repackaging them with guides for each session as a collection of resource materials. I hope that these will be widely used in Canada and elsewhere.

To repeat another point, the second series continues to demonstrate the strength-in-depth of informed leadership on inclusive education in Canada. I think that Gordon Porter and Diane Richler will forgive me if I describe them as ‘first generation’ leaders in this social movement, albeit still very active ones. What impressed me now with all twenty broadcasts is the wealth of ‘second generation’ leadership (including Jacqui Specht) and indeed the evidence of an emerging ‘third generation’ to take this work forward in the coming decade and beyond.

We need to remember that all these discussions were conducted in the shadow of the pandemic. Students, families and teachers (and those who teach teachers) all had to deal with the challenges of Covid 19 and learn how best to adapt to widespread school closure. On the one hand, home schooling certainly strengthened attention to the importance of families as partners and there was rapid growth in both internet access and the availability of useful assistive and instructional technologies for all students, well-described by Gabrielle Young and Tiffany Gallagher. On the other, both the pandemic and school closure damaged physical and emotional health, disrupted learning and undermined efforts to advance inclusion. Judging from these discussions, the jury is still out on whether we will learn from all this in order to build back better.

I ended my first commentary with a question – what are we learning about how best to use this in-depth knowledge and leadership to achieve system-wide transformation across your great country? I use this question as a focus for my overview of Series Two. Here are seven key messages:

  • Visionary leadership is key to creating and sustaining value-driven change. The first discussion in this new Series – with Steve Sider – makes the point that while schools (and other important structures like school boards) require good management, they also need inspirational leadership, capable of building widespread commitment to the belief that every child belongs in their local school and providing the support required by teachers and others to develop the attitudes and skills required for everyone to succeed in diverse classrooms.
  • Steve also argues convincingly, as does Kimberley Maich, that leadership in this sense is not something that can mostly be learnt on a course: rather leadership development requires that people like school principals have the opportunities and support in learning communities to reflect on their own experiences and learn from peers, some of whom will be more established champions for inclusion.
  • The ten discussions provide many detailed examples of this kind of visionary leader at work. Julie Stone and Tanya Whitney are two of the most experienced. New Brunswick is a global pioneer in inclusive education and Julie Stone was a pioneer in achieving this. She demonstrates the importance of one-to-one mentoring of classroom teachers (including through an illuminating story about ‘Sarah’) as a core means of helping them design pedagogical strategies addressed to individual students experiencing barriers to learning. Tanya Whitney has also had a long-term leadership role in New Brunswick, notably as a school principal. She emphasises that inclusion has to be a foundational aspect of educational improvement (not just another ‘project’) in which we continually invest in learning how to do better. At the school level, her experience suggests that this means building strong commitment to inclusive values, investing in skilled support to practitioners, working collaboratively so that everyone learns from each other and genuinely valuing parent engagement in problem-solving.
  • Informed leadership is just as important among families and the wider community. (Of course, people offering system leadership are also family members.) Building inclusive education and indeed social inclusion more generally can only be achieved when public agencies and civil society work together. Genia Stephen is a parent and a sibling who is working hard, not least through the popular Good Things in Life podcasts, to strengthen disability awareness especially among new parents and help families engage positively with the struggles that seem to be an inevitable part of getting the best for their children. She argues powerfully that children with disabilities should be at the heart of their communities right from the start and families need to share high expectations for the quality of their lives. In turn, we need to ensure that education is inclusive throughout the life-cycle: pre-school, primary, secondary and post secondary.
  • Much of these discussions rightly focuses on the experience of students and families and the local delivery of education. But of course it is the law and policies established provincially and nationally and the resources invested in their implementation that provide important conditions for local success. This point is most clearly reflected in the discussion with Roberto Lattanzio, Director of the Arch Disability Law Centre. Canada has long had an impressive Charter of Rights and Freedoms and government has been strong in ratifying global human rights conventions, including the Convention on The Rights of Persons With Disabilities. However Roberto argues – and many families will agree – that these principled commitments are only given limited recognition in the archaic frameworks and procedures that characterise much legal practice. Cornelia Schneider offers one illustration (in relation to the recent Accessibility Act in Nova Scotia) of the importance of inclusive education advocates  to actively seek to shape these frameworks and their implementation.
  • In the two series to date, more than half of the discussions have been with people with important roles in Universities. Together they are undertaking a lot of great work. Even so, there was recognition – notably in the discussion with Tim Loreman – that there is often a significant gap between Universities and the field, between research and practice. Tim is the President of Concordia University (in Edmonton) and so well placed to argue that one part of closing this gap is to ensure that Universities are themselves model inclusive institutions, not just in their welcome to student and staff diversity and inclusive pedagogy but also in establishing an organisational culture of mutual respect (‘be kind to each other’).
  • Beyond this, Universities remain privileged institutions in our countries with the status, independence and expertise to be a resource to their communities through scholarly engagement with societal challenges (going well beyond traditional conceptions of teaching and research) and certainly the potential to offer a trusted base for supporting and sharing learning about achieving visionary social change.

In Canada, there has already been a 40-year journey towards achieving quality and inclusive education for all. Elsewhere on the IEC website, Gordon Porter tells the story of this always evolving journey in New Brunswick. This case study makes clear that real transformation requires a partnership between the education system and civil society to deliver changes in thinking and practice at all levels from the classroom to the Ministry.

In the Let’s Chat conversations, we see many of the contributing elements in this whole system reform. Returning to my starting question, it seems that these efforts still need to be linked together better to achieve our goals. We have promises to keep.