A student is successfully included, in my opinion, if they can reach their full potential, become happy particle physicists, musicians or bakers depending on their desires, their career choice is appreciated by the community and they have a drive and skills for developing their skills later in life.
Education policy has defined some wonderful goals, providing quality inclusive education to everybody being one of them. We can fill whole libraries with answer to what we mean by quality, but it is not totally straightforward what we mean by inclusive. Schools call themselves inclusive if anybody with a disability can thrive there or if they are prepared to welcome newly arrived migrants. But does this same school have answers to inclusion needs of others?
I believe that real inclusion in education is close to fully individualised education, and it can only become a reality if a number of factors come together in a good constellation.
Students have always been diverse, but in the digital age diversity is wider than before. We also need to take it into consideration that the goal of education is being redefined. The world needs less and less obedient, uniform people – their jobs are the ones to be taken over by robots. We need people with diverse skills and mindsets, but this is not the only change from the original goal of mass education. In old times the goal was to provide everybody with some basic skills for the assembly line or the cashier at the bank, today we don’t even have an agreement on what basic skills are. We even less need to assimilate people to an organisation’s requirements. Inclusion efforts need to aim for preserving diversity of skills, knowledge and mindsets.
The most important argument against homeschooling and unschooling is that these children will not have the opportunity to learn living in a diverse community. Most families have a circle of friends who are not very different from them, so this is true to a certain extent. But those sending their children to school are rarely or never confronted with this goal of education. Professionals need to have families on board to understand that while academic skills can be developed later, even at home by the computer, the learning outcomes of working together with very different people are extremely valuable. And this is just one element why parents and families need to be involved and empowered to understand inclusion for success.
We can set the goal of reducing early school leaving or having a certain percentage of people in tertiary education as the EU has done, but at the end of the day we need to educate people who do not lose their appetite for and joy of learning. Thus, inclusive education must start early. Any intervention, programme or project in early childhood education or primary school that protects and further boosts the joy of learning, a phenomenon in every child before they start formal education, should be celebrated as an inclusive attempt. (This also includes parental empowerment programmes as parents have the largest impact on learning outcomes until age 11-12, regardless the education level of parents.) Strong foundations in basic skills and self-esteem in this period of life also protects children in later school life, even if higher levels are not as inclusive.
Education inflation is another phenomenon that may prevent inclusion. In many countries in Europe and beyond there is a still growing body of academic content that children need to show their knowledge of before they can focus on their personal pathways. In a really inclusive system students need to be offered a high level of flexibility also in requirements and they need to be protected from failure in areas they have little to no affiliation for. You can find examples of this among our case studies.
I think by now a number of teaches have seen me as a lunatic. How can this happen in a school with large classes?
The answer is in redefining the role of teachers and make them forget the idea of teaching anything. They need to become learning facilitators.
Being trained originally a teacher, I also had to jump my own shadow. My ‘aha’ moment and turning point was when I had to do training for a group with 5 different languages that I didn’t know (each group had one English-speaker). I really needed to change my mindset, but I realised very quickly that I see when they were stuck and needed support.
The last factor I want to mention here is the need for collaboration between formal, informal and non-formal education. An open school policy is imperative to achieve real inclusion. There will always be students whose needs cannot be catered for without opening up the school and reaching out to other educators for support be it an NGO, another school, a local business or parents/grandparents. This cannot happen without a certain level of autonomy in school leadership. In an ideal situation this is offered by school policy and leaders are supported in this role also by training, but our recent research shows that very often this can be achieved even in overcentralised, less flexible systems if you have the right professionals in place.
For some readers it may seem like a utopia. On the one hand we need to make all possible efforts to make it a reality for the goal mentioned in the first paragraph: SDG4, providing quality, inclusive education. On the other hand, the case studies we have collected and ask members of the Learning Community to share with us show that this actually becoming a reality in more and more places, so we mustn’t rule it out as a utopia. It is possible.
by Eszter Salamon
This story is part of Multinclude Inclusion Stories about how equity is implemented in different educational environments across the globe. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Author is Education Consultant of ESHA and Parent Engagement Expert