4.2.2 Inclusion: What is inclusion?

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

-To understand and be able to explain clearly what 'inclusion' means

-To understand what 'inclusive practice' is, and how it differs from 'inclusion'

-To identify different types of learning needs and begin to understand how to accommodate them

-To critically evaluate and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different levels of inclusion

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is an educational philosophy which states that learners should not be isolated from the 'mainstream' because they have special educational needs (SEN); instead, all learners should learn alongside one another, with adjustments being made wherever necessary to accommodate the specific needs of individuals.

Inclusion can be split into two sub-categories: partial inclusion and full inclusion. Full inclusion involves removing the distinction between 'general education' and 'special education' entirely; schools are restructured and adjustments made so that all pupils learn together. This type of arrangement is quite rare, as it can be extremely challenging to structure a school so that all learners remain together regardless of their needs, particularly where there are learners with more acute needs. Partial inclusion is the more familiar version of this in mainstream education; it allows SEN learners to stay in a mainstream environment for any content or provision which is appropriate for them, but they may be removed for individual engagement with relevant professionals (e.g. speech therapists) so as not to disrupt the classroom's overall learning dynamic.

There are a range of critical opinions on the principles of inclusion: for the most part, it is viewed as positive and is promoted in current educational discourses, but it does have its critics.

What is inclusive practice?

Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching which considers and subsequently implements strategies to support the diversity of learners in any given cohort. Its aim is to minimise barriers to learning which may impact upon an individual's ability to achieve to their full potential, and many practitioners believe that it enhances the learning experience for all learners. The term is used to denote the principle that teaching practice should be responsive to the differences between, and the resultant needs of, learners to ensure the best outcomes for their progress.

The extent to which inclusive practice actually demonstrates inclusion is dependent on a number of factors, including the resources of the institution, the level of training of the teacher and the specific needs of the learner in question. Practicing inclusively requires a teacher to have appropriate and high expectations for each learner. This involves ensuring that a child's potential is not underestimated - for example, assuming that an SEN child is not capable of achieving a certain standard on a piece of writing - while also maintaining a realistic standard that is achievable for the learner. Setting too high a standard can result in feelings of failure for the learner if they do not achieve it.

Differentiation is a term which frequently appears in discussions of inclusive practice. Differentiation is the process of adjusting teaching practice - and the individual lesson plans, schemes of work and learning resources within that - to meet different levels of ability, engage with different learning styles and to maximise engagement across a diverse student population. Inclusion, as discussed, is more closely connected to ensuring that all learners have equal opportunities to learn regardless of their needs, which may necessitate reasonable adjustments. The distinction between differentiation and inclusion can be a thorny topic: all students must have equal opportunities to achieve, but supporting the learners most in need of assistance could result in failure to stretch and challenge the most able learners through lacking the time to develop their skills effectively. Realising that learners have diverse needs, and making concerted efforts to cater to them, is fundamental to good practice; the methods through which a teacher does this will necessarily vary widely depending on learners.

SEN learners: mainstream vs special schools

Special Educational Needs (SEN) can be defined as any learning difficulty or disability which results in a child finding it harder to learn and progress than other children of the same age. Learners who do have SEN are equally as entitled to a high-quality education as their non-SEN peers are, and adjustments to schools and classrooms' practice should be made to accommodate this wherever possible. SEN needs span an enormous range of conditions, which can be integrated into mainstream classrooms with various degrees of ease. Initially, for an SEN child to be admitted into mainstream schooling, various conditions had to be met regarding 'the mainstream's ability to ensure the child received the educational provision his or her learning difficulty called for while also ensuring the efficient education of others with whom she or he would be educated and the efficient use of resources' (Department for Education and Skills (DfES), 2001, p.1). However, it was acknowledged by the government that this was open to interpretation and sometimes abuse, which ultimately resulted in pupils who may have 'benefitted from inclusion [being] denied access to mainstream education' (DfES, 2001, p.1). This was gradually altered and evolved; now, SEN provision is protected under the Equality Act (2010), which prohibits discrimination based on a multitude of factors, including disability.

The term 'SEN' encompasses a huge array of different conditions and needs that a learner may experience, which may be very different in terms of the ways that education and capacity for learning is affected. In some cases, mainstream education is simply not appropriate for a pupil's learning needs. SEN learners who are prone to behaviours which risk either their own personal safety or the safety of other learners are prime examples of this. Resources for SEN learners can be limited within school settings, and certain needs can be more effectively met by specialists who are intensely educated on particular types of SEN.

It is vital to recognise that every SEN learner is different, and consequently, the solutions that we apply should be unique to that individual and their personal needs: only by doing this can we ensure that we assist each learner to reach their full potential. There are, however, common issues that arise across the spectrum of SEN, and building a kind of 'toolkit' of strategies to cope with this will assist you in practicing inclusively.

Learning needs

'Learning needs' is an umbrella term which encompasses a vast amount of possible needs. These may include more 'traditional' barriers one would think of, such as learning difficulties, learners having English as an additional language or physical disabilities which may make the learning process more difficult. However, a range of other issues could also be considered to fit under this category, such as behavioural, emotional and social problems (different from those which would be classed under the SEN category), poverty, familial issues, mental health conditions or cultural differences, insofar as any of these begin to impact on an individual's learning.

There are numerous situations a learner may experience outside the classroom which may cause them to struggle with their learning: divorce, bereavement, abuse and bullying are a handful of common examples. Learners from an English as an Additional Language (EAL) background also must be considered; while they may not have any SEN needs, and theoretically have the ability to achieve on a par with their non-SEN peers, care must be taken to ensure that a language barrier does not prevent this.

'Socio-economic needs' refers to any issues relating to the home life or background of a learner and their impact on the learner's classroom life. These can vary widely depending on factors including: the level and age range of learners; issues with or between caregivers, such as divorce; abuse (be that physical, emotional, sexual or financial); relationship or spousal (even marital, in FE or HE contexts) issues; parental responsibilities and childcare; or other caregiving responsibilities, amongst others. A lack of money can also present barriers, particularly in today's age of technology. Cultural difference is something which should be appreciated and celebrated; however, there are instances where it can be something of a barrier to learning in the classroom, and it is important to minimise this wherever possible. Issues in subject matter can also arise in this case: for instance, the teaching of sex education would need to be handled sensitively to accommodate cultural or religious beliefs of learners who do not believe in sex before marriage.

Equality and Diversity

While the term 'inclusion' is most frequently used to refer to dealing with the needs of learners which need to be catered for, as discussed above, it should not be disregarded that there are other elements of inclusivity which are universal and can be built into every session. Doing this enables inclusion to function more effectively, as everyone in the learning environment is primed to accept and celebrate difference.

Equality and Diversity are two vital elements of day-to-day inclusive practice. While these two terms are frequently seen together, they are distinct and should be treated as such: 'Equality' refers to ensuring that all learners are provided with equal opportunities to learn and are not disadvantaged by any personal factors (for example, gender, race, religion or sexuality, to name just a few). 'Diversity', however, refers to ensuring that every learner's differences are not only acknowledged, but celebrated and valued. Equality and diversity can be perceived as contradicting one another; the former seemingly implies treating all learners 'the same', regardless of their status, while the latter focuses on celebrating difference. However, practicing equality is not treating everyone in exactly the same uniform way - on the contrary, this could mean failing to make reasonable adjustments to individual needs. Equality means working to carefully remove any barriers that are in place to allow people equal opportunities to succeed in a capacity that is suitable for them.

Difficulties of inclusion

While the benefits of effective inclusion are clear, it is also important to acknowledge that inclusion can sometimes be challenging for both teachers and learners. The values of tolerance and equality are very important and should, of course, be imbued in learners, as this equips them for the 'real world' as well as making their education run more smoothly; however, the reality of a teacher planning and catering for an entire class of individuals with complex personal needs of their own is that some learners inevitably require more intensive attention than others to ensure they are progressing.

There are a variety of views on how far inclusion is viable: some argue that enforcing inclusion where it is not necessarily appropriate or in environments which are not equipped sufficiently can cause problems for both the SEN learner and the other learners in the situation. It is not productive to place a child in an environment where they fail to thrive, and therefore careful consideration of any individual's particular needs should be undertaken before making a decision about their educational provision. In some cases, despite clear guidelines emphasising the importance of inclusion on both institutional and governmental levels, circumstances can mean that it is not actually in the interest of schools to provide full or extensive inclusion. Evans and Lunt (2001) cite a tension between governmental priorities as a primary cause of this: "conflicts in government policy between the 'standards' and 'league tables' discourse and the 'inclusive schools' discourse make it difficult for schools to become more inclusive" (p.1). In an increasingly results-driven culture, which pushes schools to compete aggressively with each other for funding and even for retention of control over their institution (failure to achieve certain standards can result in forced academisation), it is easy to see why SEN provision may be somewhat neglected in pursuit of 'academic excellence'. However, sometimes the limited availability of specialist SEN provision means that parents and carers have little choice but to place their children in mainstream education. Funding for SEN provision has been cut, making places in special schools harder to come by. 


Inclusion is a central issue in current educational discourse, and throughout this chapter, we have discussed several of the most relevant subjects at the heart of it. This exploration should have made you realise exactly how wide and varied the range of needs you might encounter in your classroom really is. Ultimately, the solution should be as individual as the learner and their needs. Having said this, a commitment to the most inclusive environment possible is essential in modern educational settings.


Department for Education (2011). 'Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability'. London: The Stationery Office.

Department for Education and Skills (2001). 'Inclusive Schooling: Children with Special Educational Needs'. London: DfES Publications.

Englert, C.S., and Thomas, C.C. (1987). 'Sensitivity to text structure in reading and writing: A comparison between learning disabled and non-learning disabled students.' Learning Disability Quarterly, 10, pp. 93-105.

The Equality Act (2010). London: HMSO.

Evans, J., and Lunt, I. (2002). 'Inclusive education: are there limits?' European Journal of Special Needs Education, 17.1, pp. 1-12.

Morgado, B., Cortés‐Vega, M., López‐Gavira, R., Álvarez, E., & Moriña, A. (2016). 'Inclusive Education in Higher Education?' Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 16, pp. 639-642.

Ofsted (2015). School inspection handbook: Handbook for inspecting schools in England under section 5 of the Education Act 2005. London: Ofsted.

Rogers, J. (1993). The inclusion revolution. Phi Delta Kappan Research Bulletin 11, pp. 1-6.

Vincent, C., Evans, J., Lunt, I., & Young, P. (1996). 'Professionals Under Pressure: the administration of special education in a changing context.' British Educational Research Journal, 22.4, pp. 475-491.

Wilkinson, R., and Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level- Why Equity is Better for Everyone (2010 ed.). London: Penguin Books.

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