What does inclusion mean to you?

Academic Clare Woolhouse tells Christina Quaine how ‘inclusion’ in schools depends on listening to children and ensuring policies are flexible and responsive
22nd February 2019, 12:04am


What does inclusion mean to you?


How inclusive is your school? It is a difficult question to answer, as interpretations of what “inclusion” means in education tend to be highly individual. While you may consider your school’s approach to be inclusive, the likelihood is that others will think it falls too short or goes too far. This makes building a school environment that is perceived by teachers, parents and students to be inclusive very difficult.

“There are various international and UK policies that talk about inclusion and what it should look like in schools, or what teachers should do to make sure that all children are included in the classroom,” explains Dr Clare Woolhouse, a reader in education at Edge Hill University, who researches the concept. “The problem for us, as researchers, is that there is no clear definition of what they actually mean by ‘inclusion’.”

This lack of clarity can have damaging consequences: confusion, mismatched provision across schools and inconsistencies for the young people within them.

Getting around the problem, Woolhouse says, requires going back to basics. Her research suggests that the best place to start is by asking young people for their views, and that’s exactly what she did.

Along with her Edge Hill colleagues, she set up a research project (Dunne, Hallett, Kay, and Woolhouse 2018) that tasked children - from primary, secondary, special schools and schools with specialist provision - with taking photographs of their everyday activities that they felt represented “inclusion” and “exclusion”. Woolhouse explains: “We wanted to broaden our understanding by listening to children and young people about what they think inclusion is and what they need from the adults who work with them to help them feel that they belong.”


Ways and meanings

A total of 63 pictures were produced and the young photographers provided explanations about what their images meant to them. The photos were anonymised using computer software, and Woolhouse and her colleagues set up workshops with adults in education - including PGCE students, teaching assistants and qualified teachers - as well as other children, in which participants were asked for their views of the pictures and whether they represented inclusion or exclusion.

In one picture, taken by a nine-year-old boy with moderate learning difficulties, two adults help two boys to prepare cakes for baking. The photographer felt that his image represented inclusion, with grown-ups helping “if you can’t do it yourself”.

But the picture attracted contradictory reactions, with terms such as “disempowered”, “smothered” and “swamped” being used. It wasn’t only adults who had varied views - the children did, too.

“We had another nine-year-old boy with moderate learning difficulties from a mainstream primary school look at that photo, and he said it was exclusion,” Woolhouse says. “This shows that inclusion is very much about personal experience. People interpret things based on what they know, what they experience.

“Teachers tend to, understandably, talk about inclusion in terms of educational achievement and attainment, while for parents and children, it’s about how children feel; whether they’re happy. What inclusion means is very different to different people.”

In another example, a child captured an image of a peer using a mobility walker in a snowy playground. “The photographer felt it was inclusion because the child with the walker was playing outside in the snow with the rest of their classmates,” says Woolhouse. “As part of the project, we also exhibited the photos at Tate Liverpool, so that we could get the general public and people from other countries talking about how inclusion works for them.

“A woman in a wheelchair saw that picture and said it reminded her of being excluded as a child, and how lonely she felt. Although she shared the same playground, she didn’t feel included in the other children’s games.”


To each according to their need

In this and other research on inclusion, the same message comes out: the meaning of the term is highly personal, so any related policy must take that into consideration. “It’s about having time to get to know the child and their parents, to really understand what the child needs,” says Woolhouse.

She says it is also about time and support for teachers: “Teachers are under huge time pressures, have large classes and there are many more children in mainstream education - more children are being diagnosed with particular needs or disabilities, so teachers have many more pupils to support.

“It’s about knowing where to find specific information, but there is a lot out there. For instance, the Alliance for Inclusive Education [allfie.org.uk] has a huge amount of resources for education professionals.”

Woolhouse also feels strongly that every child in school needs a proper space to learn and thrive, and that this “spatial justice” is crucial for fostering inclusion.

“I’ve been doing some work with teaching assistants who are delivering a maths intervention for children aged 6-9 because they are falling behind their peers,” she says. “The teaching assistants take the children out of class to do an activity but, rather than having the same class space that other children get, they end up working in a corridor surrounded by noise, so it’s no wonder they’re having difficulty learning. We need appropriate space for everyone to learn.”


Opening a dialogue

Canvassing student opinion and creating opportunities for pupils to have a real influence on inclusion policy is not easy, so Woolhouse and her colleagues - Linda Dunne, Fiona Hallett, Charlotte Hastings and Virginia Klay - have recently received funding to run free inclusion workshops in schools across the UK. They are currently recruiting schools to take part, starting now and running until after Easter.

These sessions are not about general rules of inclusion. Rather - tying in with her research results - they are bespoke to the context and pupils of the schools in question.

“We’ll help teachers devise activities to get their children talking about inclusion,” Woolhouse says. “It’s not about telling teachers what to do - they often have enough of that from policymakers and researchers. We’ll help them to gear the workshops to the school’s needs. For example, a school might have religious tolerance or LGBT issues, and we could design the workshop with that in mind.”

Going forward, the plan is to apply for more funding to get children to help create a package for schools on how to talk about inclusion. “We’d like children to put forward ideas of what they’d like to tell teachers about inclusion.

“We’ll ask, ‘What do you wish your teacher knew?’ And then any school in the UK would be able to access that resource online.”

Ultimately, Woolhouse believes that what’s needed is a running dialogue in schools. She says: “There are no definitive answers to what inclusive practice is, but we need to get people to think about it, and reflect on it and what it means to them as individuals. We’re getting the conversation going.”

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

If you are interested in having your school take part in Dr Woolhouse’s workshops, contact her at Clare.Woolhouse@edgehill.ac.uk

This article originally appeared in the 22 February 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Inclusion”

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