In recent years the policy of inclusive education - the idea that all children can and should be educated together in mainstream schools - has become increasingly common worldwide as a strategy to deal with diversity and difference. But it has proved difficult to implement.
While almost all school-aged children attend mainstream schools, there are big differences in the quality of educational opportunities available. This can create confusion for parents as they try to make good decisions on which school is the best for their child. It also raises important equity issues for policy-makers working to reduce the discrepancies in educational opportunity for students.
Today, too many mainstream schools still struggle to deliver the promise of inclusive education to achieve good academic and social results for everybody. A key concern is that many classroom teachers report feeling unprepared for inclusive education. Why is this and what can be done about it?
Teacher training has an important role to play in how well prepared new teachers feel for the challenges of today's schools and classrooms.But these are very different from the places where those who prepare tomorrow's teachers taught.
New thinking about teacher training is needed to meet the challenges of today's classrooms - their increasing cultural, linguistic and developmental diversity along with the pressure to achieve high academic standards for everybody, including students with special educational needs, disabilities and other difficulties in learning.
In reality, very little is known about what constitutes the professional knowledge base needed to prepare teachers for the challenges of today's schools, and there is very little consensus how best to achieve it. Hence the current debate about the relative role of different providers of teacher training.
The central problem for those who prepare teachers is figuring out how to reconcile new approaches to teacher training that keep abreast of social change, technological innovations and shifting demographics with the challenges they present to so much existing practice in schools. Can teacher training both prepare teachers to enter the profession and change practice in schools?
An unacknowledged tension is reflected in the structure of initial teacher training, where there may be contradictions between what is taught in a course and what is experienced in school, particularly when the knowledge is contested or emergent - as in the case of "inclusive education". Is it possible to develop a way of working that respects and challenges the status quo?
A central task for teacher trainers will be to explore the ways in which practising teachers and schools have become more inclusive of children who might have found learning and participation difficult in the past. They need to develop a shared understanding of these teachers' practice that can then be built into initial teacher training. This approach avoids the problems associated with previous teacher training reform efforts, for example requiring a course in multiculturalism or a special-needs education, which tends to be an add-on rather than changing much of the existing content in initial teacher training.
Additionally, teacher trainers should accept Ofsted's finding that the knowledge contained in many special-needs courses has proved insufficient to improve inclusive practice in schools. In the short time that student teachers are in initial training it is impossible to anticipate every type of challenge or difficulty they might meet in their professional lives. New strategies for preparing teachers to enter a profession that accepts individual and collective responsibility for improving the learning and participation of all children are needed.
Among these new strategies is the need to move away from a polarising debate about the best environment for initial teacher training - university or school - and to consider new forms of partnership based on a deep respect for the complex work teachers do and acknowledgement that the challenges they face reflect the changing world.
As teachers in mainstream schools struggle to deliver on the promise of inclusive education to achieve good academic and social results for everybody, the time has come for teacher trainers to ask hard questions about their role in reproducing the status quo. Their willingness to do that will go a long way towards helping make schools more inclusive for everyone.
Lani Florian is chair of social and educational inclusion at Aberdeen University. She is speaking at the TES SEN International Conference on 14- 15 October at the Business Design Centre, London. For information, go to www.tes.co.ukevents.