Ten questions on inclusive education

1. Beyond the figures, what do we know about the excluded?

Exclusion has many faces. Despite real progress since 2000 towards universal primary education, 72 million children are still not enrolled at all in school. More than half are girls. Seven out of ten live in sub-Saharan Africa or South and West Asia. Poverty and marginalization are major causes of exclusion. Households in rural or remote communities and children in urban slums have less access to education. Disabled children suffer from blatant educational exclusion – they account for one third of all out-of-school children. Working children, those belonging to indigenous groups and linguistic minorities, nomadic children and those affected by HIV/AIDS are among the vulnerable groups. Some 37 per cent of out-of-school children live in 35 states defined as fragile by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but these do not include all places facing conflict and post-conflict situations. In every case children are at enormous risk of missing out on an education.   

2. Research on out-of-school children suggests that many countries are now promoting access to school but not ensuring decent education quality. Why?

Once you identify who the excluded are and why they are not in school, strategies can be developed to get them into school and keep them there. The challenge is to implement policies and practices to overcome the sources of exclusion. It is necessary to look at what happens in and out of school – from children’s daily reality in their homes and communities to what happens when they go to school: what they are actually learning and in what conditions.  

3. How does inclusive education promote successful learning?

Efforts to expand enrolment must be accompanied by policies to enhance educational quality at all levels, in formal and in non-formal settings. We have to work on an 'access to success' continuum by promoting policies to ensure that excluded children get into school coupled with programmes and practices that ensure they succeed there. It is a process that involves addressing and responding to the diverse needs of learners. This has implications for teaching, the curriculum, ways of interacting and relations between the schools and the community.  

4. What are the principles of inclusion?

Inclusion is rooted in the right to education as enshrined in Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A number of treaties and normative instruments have since reaffirmed this right. Three deserve specific mention. UNESCO’s 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education stipulates that States have the obligation to expand educational opportunities for all who remain deprived of primary education. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reaffirms the right to education for all and highlights the principle of free compulsory education. Finally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty, spells out the right of children not to be discriminated against. It also expresses commitments about the aims of education, recognizing that the learner is at the centre of the learning experience. This affects content and pedagogy, and - more broadly - how schools are managed.

5.The notion of inclusion is still often associated with children who have special needs. Why?

Too often programmes targeting various marginalized and excluded groups have functioned outside the mainstream – special programmes, specialized institutions and specialist educators. Too often the result has been exclusion – second-rate educational opportunities that do not guarantee the possibility to continue studying. In developed countries, the move towards more inclusive approaches is often complicated by the legacy of segregated or exclusive education for groups identified as “difficult” or “different”. But there is increasing recognition that it is better for children with special needs to attend regular schools, albeit with various forms of special support. Studies in both OECD and non-OECD countries indicate that students with disabilities achieve better school results in inclusive settings.

6. How does education need to change to accommodate everyone?

The overall goal is to ensure that school is a place where all children participate and are treated equally. This involves a change in how we think about education. Inclusive education is an approach that looks into how to transform education systems in order to respond to the diversity of learners. It means enhancing the quality of education by improving the effectiveness of teachers, promoting learning-centred methodologies, developing appropriate textbooks and learning materials and ensuring that schools are safe and healthy for all children. Strengthening links with the community is also vital: relationship between teachers, students, parents and society at large are crucial for developing inclusive learning environments.  

7. How do curricula need to change to improve learning and encourage the inclusion of all pupils?

An inclusive curriculum addresses the child’s cognitive, emotional and creative development. It is based on the four pillars of education for the 21st century - learning to know, to do, to be and to live together. This starts in the classroom. The curriculum has an instrumental role to play in fostering tolerance and promoting human rights and is a powerful tool for transcending cultural, religious and other differences. An inclusive curriculum takes gender, cultural identity and language background into consideration. It involves breaking gender stereotypes not only in textbooks but in teachers’ attitudes and expectations. Multilingual approaches in education, in which language is recognized as an integral part of a student’s cultural identity, can act as a source of inclusion. Furthermore, mother tongue instruction in the initial years of school has a positive impact on learning outcomes. In Zambia, for example, mother tongues are used as a medium of instruction for the first three years of schooling with positive effect. 

8. Teachers have a foremost influence on learning. Yet their status and working conditions in many countries make it difficult to promote inclusion. What can be done to improve their lot?

The way teachers teach is of critical importance in any reform designed to improve quality. A child-centred curriculum is characterized by a move away from rote learning and towards greater emphasis on hands-on, experience-based, active and cooperative learning. Introducing inclusion as a guiding principle has implications for teachers’ practices and attitudes – be it towards girls, slow learners, children with special needs or those from different backgrounds.
Adequate pre-service and in-service teacher training is essential to improve learning. Moreover, policies must address their status, welfare and professional development. But there exists not only a severe teacher shortage, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, but a lack of adequately trained teachers. This shortage has unfortunate consequences for the quality of learning. A new curriculum cannot be introduced without familiarizing teachers with its aims and contents. Assessment can help teachers to measure student performance and to diagnose difficulties. But teachers need to understand the value of good assessment practices and learn skills to develop their own tests.  

9. Is inclusive quality education affordable?

It is inefficient to have school systems where children are not learning because of poor quality. Schools with high repetition rates often fail to work in preventive ways. The expenditure incurred by schools when students repeat a grade would be better used to provide additional support to those who encounter difficulties. Several cost-effective measures to promote inclusive quality education have been developed in countries with scarce resources. These include training-of-trainer models for professional development, linking students in pre-service teacher training with schools and converting special needs schools into resource centres that provide expertise and support to clusters of regular schools.  

10. Does inclusive quality education lead to more inclusive societies?

Exclusion starts very early in life. A holistic vision of education is imperative. Comprehensive early childhood care and education programmes improve children’s well being, prepare them for primary school and give them a better chance of succeeding once they are in school. All evidence shows that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children benefit most from such programmes. Ensuring that adults, particularly mothers, are literate has an impact on whether their children, and especially their daughters attend school. Linking inclusion to broader development goals will contribute to the reform of education systems, to poverty alleviation and to the achievement of all the Millennium Development Goals. An inclusive system benefits all learners without any discrimination towards any individual or group. It is founded on values of democracy, tolerance and respect for difference.

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