This paper reports a collaborative action research project involving teams from twenty-five schools in three LEAs working with researchers from three universities in an attempt to develop more inclusive practices

This paper reports a collaborative action research project involving teams from twenty-five schools in three LEAs working with researchers from three universities in an attempt to develop more inclusive practices. Unusually in this field, the schools were not selected because of any exceptional commitment to inclusion and the notion of inclusion was defined broadly as the attempt to reduce barriers to learning and participation that might impact on a wide range of students. A common process of development emerged across the schools, which started with the disturbance of existing practices and was nurtured by a range of institutional and external factors. The national ‘standards agenda’ shaped the directions taken by schools, yet also stimulated them to pay attention to hitherto marginalized groups. The paper concludes that a modest shift in this agenda might be the best hope of creating a school system that is more genuinely and sustainably inclusive.

In a recent paper, Phillips and Harper-Jones (2003) claim that ‘New’ Labour’s education policy has been characterised by four themes:

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A determination to raise educational standards;
A quest to undertake the modernisation of educational systems, structures and practices;
A commitment to promoting choice and diversity within education; and
A preoccupation with…the culture of performativity.
(Phillips ; Harper-Jones, 2003: 126, emphases in original)

These themes are, of course, in many ways a continuation of the marketising and centralising policies of previous Conservative governments and are what have led some American researchers to describe England as ‘a laboratory where the effects of market-like mechanisms are more clearly visible’ (Finkelstein and Grubb, 2000, p.602).

However, what possibly differentiates this Labour government from its predecessor is a ‘fifth theme’, which Phillips and Harper-Jones rather gloss over. That is, a broad commitment to equity in and through education, variously badged as ‘inclusion’ or ‘social inclusion’. Indeed, the 1997-2001 government was the first in this country to commit itself explicitly to the development of inclusive education and, specifically, to the principles of the UNESCO’s Salamanca statement (UNESCO, 1994) which have been so influential in other parts of the world (DfEE, 1997).

There are many possible reasons as to why this ‘fifth theme’ might be overlooked. Prominent amongst these is the evident tension between market-led and standards-based policies on the one hand, and the equity and social justice concerns of the inclusion agenda on the other. Not only has this tension been widely reported in this country (Bines, 1999, Booth et al., 1997, 1998, Rouse & Florian, 1997, Thomas & Dwyfor Davies, 1999, Thomas & Loxley, 2001, Audit Commission, 2002), but there is also evidence of its existence other countries which have moved down the road of standards-based reform (McLaughlin & Rouse, 2000). In the face of this evidence, some have assumed that the government’s commitment to inclusion is fatally compromised. Even if the commitment is genuine, the argument goes, the powerful imperatives of market-led and standards-based policies will inevitably lead schools towards less rather than more inclusive practices. However, alongside this ‘pessimistic’ analysis sits a more ‘optimistic’ view (Dyson, 2001) focusing on schools which apparently break out from the constraining effects of national policy and arguing that there are distinctive internal processes which enable them to develop inclusive practices even in the context of a non-inclusive system (see, for instance, Ainscow, 1999; Skrtic, 1991a).

Clearly, it would help our understanding if these two views could be reconciled in some way. However, the current state of knowledge does not make this easy. Evidence on exceptionally inclusive schools is precisely that – evidence about exceptions (Dyson et al., 2002). The fact that, under particular circumstances – the presence of charismatic leaders, the emergence of a distinctive staff culture, a sequence of events which provokes a radical response – a few schools can buck the trend does not tell us what is likely to happen in the majority of schools where such circumstances do not obtain. Likewise, single-point cross-sectional studies of such schools do not tell us about their longer-term trajectories. Moreover, on closer inspection, the seeming inclusiveness of such schools sometimes turns out to be much more ambiguous and problematic than it may at first appear (Dyson ; Millward, 2000). On the other hand, repeated analyses of the non-inclusive aspects of national policy and of its negative impacts on schools does little to explain how exceptions occur or – perhaps more important – how much room for manoeuvre even non-exceptional schools have in developing more inclusive practices, given what we know to be the complex, multi-dimensional and multi-level process of policy formation (Ozga, 2000). There is, then, much that we still need to understand.

In this paper, we use evidence from a recently completed programme of research in order to throw further light on these challenging policy issues. This leads us to articulate some possibilities for moving thinking and practice forward.

Inclusive Practices
‘Understanding and Developing Inclusive Practices in Schools’ was one of four national research networks funded as the first phase of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme. The Network involved small teams of researchers from three higher education institutions (Manchester and Newcastle Universities, and Canterbury Christ Church University College) in working with twenty-five schools, in three Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The overall strategy involved two interlinked cycles of action research carried out in partnership by practitioners and researchers. The first of these cycles was driven by the agendas of the partner LEAs and schools, and set out to use existing knowledge within these contexts, supplemented by further research evidence, as the means of fostering developments in the field. The second cycle attempted to scrutinise these developments in order to address the overall agenda of the Network, using existing theory and previous research, including our own work, as a basis for pursuing deeper understandings

The research process varied somewhat from site to site in response to local priorities and possibilities. In most cases, however, the school established a small project team, including the Headteacher, and identified a focus for its work. This took the form of an aspect of its current practice and provision that it wished to review and develop in order to become more inclusive. The school teams were supported by their LEAs and teams of university researchers in this development, and in evaluating their work. Evidence was gathered to varying extents by the schools and by the university researchers, with meetings between the two teams to exchange data and explore implications. These processes of exchange and exploration were extended by meetings of schools within each LEA and by four national conferences for school, LEA and university teams from across the Network.

The evidence-base from the study is substantial, drawn as it is from work across four school years (from 1999-2000 to 2002-2003) with nearly one hundred participating teachers and LEA personnel. It comprises interview data from professionals, parents and students, notes from informal discussions and meetings, school-generated evaluation data, attainment data, observation notes and videos, discussion documents prepared by school and university teams and the outputs from local and national conferences. In view of the extent of these data, it is inevitable that we can report them only a limited selection here, focusing instead on some of the theoretical resources we have used and developed in the course of our analysis. Other publications present the data in fuller form (e.g. Ainscow, 2002; Ainscow, Booth & Dyson, 2004; Ainscow et al, 2005).

Given the policy issues referred to above, some of the starting points for the Network are particularly significant. First of all, the university teams – and, with their encouragement, the schools – operated with a broad definition of inclusion. This was largely in line with the approach recommended by the Index for Inclusion (Booth et al, 2000), and, to a lesser extent, by Ofsted’s guidance document, Evaluating Educational Inclusion (Ofsted, 2000), which had recently been made available by central government to all schools as part of the inclusive thrust in national education policy. This definition moved away from seeing inclusion in terms of the placement of students with special educational needs in mainstream schools, towards a much wider focus on the reduction of barriers to learning and participation for all students.

Secondly, participating schools were not invited to join the Network because of any exceptional achievements in inclusive education. Rather, they were schools with a broad commitment to ‘doing the best’ for all of their students, and a sense on the part of themselves and their LEAs that they might have something to learn from looking more closely at how particular students or groups of students were faring within their current practices. In many ways, therefore, these were ‘typical’ schools, struggling with the practical challenges of educating diverse populations and with the imperatives of a particularly demanding external policy environment. They also included some schools that had recently faced periods of difficulty (i.e. special measures and serious weaknesses),