Tom Bennett, secondary school teacher of philosophy and religion, English EduTwitter doyen, director of ResearchED, writer for the Times Education Supplement and the UK government’s “Behaviour Tsar” (who will be in Melbourne for ResearchED this coming weekend), said in the TES yesterday that “exclusion shouldn’t be a dirty word“. Apparently Tom is an advocate for exclusions as part of an effective school behaviour policy and has been for some time. I can’t say all that needs to be said on this subject in just one post, so I shall have to leave exclusion for another time. For now, I’d like to concentrate on inclusion.

Inclusion At All Costs?

In his TES article, Tom criticises something he calls “Inclusion At All Costs” (IAAC). This is not something with which I am familiar, perhaps because it is not a real policy and no one has ever advocated for it. From what I can gather from his article and a similar piece in The Conversation, “inclusion at all costs” is a phrase that one of The Guardian’s Secret Teachers used to describe the cost that the inclusion of a student with disability has for others; e.g., classroom teachers and the other 29 students in their class.

I can understand where Tom is coming from and have no doubt his frustration resonates with a great many teachers. But, there are a number of problems with his article, as well as the Secret Teacher piece, that I feel duty bound to point out. These problems revolve around the uncritical use of words like “mainstream”, the way that inclusion is being conceptualised, and the conflation of equity and equality.

These are common issues in the field of inclusive education; ones that we discuss with teachers completing LCN629: Inclusive Education, Theory, Policy & Practice as part of their Masters degree here at QUT. I first wrote about this back in 2008 with Roger Slee but it seems the situation has only gotten worse since then. So, perhaps it is time to make the point again (in plainer language)… 😉

Language matters.

Critiques of inclusion are revealing. Not only do they indicate how poorly governments have enacted inclusive education but they also give us an inkling as to why – after 20+ years – we’re (still) not there yet.

Let me turn to the Secret Teacher piece to illustrate what I mean.

Inclusion in principle is the right sentiment but, at best, it can come at a high price and, at worst, it can be a complete injustice. Children are individuals so the solution needs to be individual. There are plenty of examples of children with SEN who are successfully integrated in mainstream schools to the benefit of themselves and their peers. But if we want children with SEN to have the same opportunities to succeed as others, we should not feel guilty about admitting they may need a different environment in which to do this. Furthermore, our responsibility is to all children equally, not just those with SEN.

My first issue with this paragraph is the faulty conceptualisation of inclusive education. Whilst some might dismiss the conceptual slippage in this piece as pure semantics, that would simply reinforce the error.

This is because there is a difference between integration and inclusion. Anyone with knowledge in the area knows that the inclusion movement came about because a former movement, called integration, had failed. One of the reasons that integration failed is because students with disability were being placed into an unreconstructed “mainstream” with little support and next to no training for classroom teachers (sound familiar?) Another term that was used to describe this practice is “main-dumping”. Not hard to understand why it failed.

Inclusive education — as Len Barton, Roger Slee, Mel Ainscow, Suzanne Carrington, myself and many others have argued — requires the reconceptualisation of schooling. The problem is that this reconceptualisation hasn’t happened. Along the way, governments have given lip service to the ideals of inclusive education and have recognised the potential benefits for students both with and without disability, but most haven’t genuinely embraced the philosophy.


Well, this is going to sound cynical but I suspect the cost of reconceptualisation lost out to the savings that could be achieved by adopting the language of inclusion but leaving structures in place that meant only something resembling a rebadged form of integration was possible. This is why I said yes when Jarlath O’Brien asked me the other night if I thought New South Wales deserved an ‘F’ for inclusion. Instead of “Inclusion At All Costs” we should be talking about “Inclusion At Low Cost”.

When I said that inclusion requires us to reconceptualise schooling, I didn’t just mean building schools with ramps or retrofitting existing schools (again with the ramps). And I also wasn’t referring to more Integration Funding Support (small bundles of money to support individual students).

I meant thinking about students with disability and learning difficulties from the get-go.

Keeping them in mind when writing curriculum, designing assessments, providing teachers with release from face-to-face teaching to plan their lessons, as well as providing quality professional development (not just policy compliance infomercial sessions), and honestly assessing how much resourcing schools actually need to redevelop their practice, rather than providing only what Treasury will allow them to have.

It means governments recognising the perverse incentives inherent in their own policy concoctions, changing them and making sure that these never see the light of day again. For an example of what I mean, just consider what comparing students’ NAPLAN performance on the My School website does for the marketability of students with disability and/or the academic reputation of the inclusive schools that embrace them. Consider too the effect of a crowded curriculum within a high stakes testing culture on the ability of teachers to actually be inclusive.

Truth is, there has been a reconceptualisation of schooling in the last 20+ years but it has taken a completely different form than that argued by the proponents of inclusion. The relentless intensification of teachers’ work resulting from standardised assessment accountability frameworks and the pressure to achieve ever higher standards in contexts affected by increasing social inequality has contributed to an environment that is hostile to inclusion. Why aren’t critics of inclusion critiquing that??

Shifting the deckchairs

My second issue with the above paragraph from Secret Teacher is the uncritical reference to “mainstream schools”. It raises many questions for me, like:

  • What exactly is a mainstream school?
  • What do we mean when we say that?
  • Does the use of the term “mainstream” risk reinforcing the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all?
  • Might this be why we need “somewhere” (as Tom put it) else for all the students for whom that one-size doesn’t work?
  • What would need to change for us to instead use the term “inclusive schools”?
  • Local schools would actually have to be inclusive, right?
  • Could/should they be run as your local school is now?

If mainstream means “business as usual with teacher aides for students with disability”, as I suspect it does judging from what I have seen in my last 12 years of research in this area, then criticism should be directed at the right culprit (re-badged integration and an unreconstructed mainstream) and not inclusion, which argues for something else entirely. This too is something we have discussed in LCN629.

Equality, inequality and equity

My final issue with the Secret Teacher paragraph above – and Tom’s TES piece which covers similar territory – is the appeal to equality.  Thinking in terms of equality means everyone gets the same and it is a problem because it can lead to discrimination.

In the words of Felix Frankfurter (and no, he wasn’t the lead character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.

In previous writing, I’ve drawn on political philosophy and the metaphor of cutting a cake to explain the difference between equality and equity. Rather than giving everyone the same, equity means giving each what they need. Appeals to equality for all students – disabled and nondisabled alike – is either the result of ignorance or it’s an attempt to justify giving disabled students less.

Again, this is something that we’ve covered in LCN629 and the number of students who have used the graphic below to illustrate the difference between equality and equity suggests that they totally get it.

It’s about time everyone else with something to say about inclusion did too.

equality-equity cartoon