Towards inclusive education
“All means all.” This is the title of UNESCO's 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report, the annual report prepared by the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization dedicated to education and inclusion in the world.
What is inclusive education?
Ensuring education for all, and thus inclusive education, means guaranteeing that every student feels appreciated and respected, and can enjoy a true sense of belonging.
It means making every effort to eliminate all potential obstacles to inclusion: discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, wealth, disability, language, migration, religion or beliefs – but also exclusion due to a student’s lack of means, to their distance from school facilities, or the lack of technological tools (which became a crucial issue during the COVID-19 pandemic).
Inclusive education also means not stigmatizing children, not applying labels that limit their potential. Above all, it means considering diversity a value, and understanding that a diversified approach to teaching can lead to benefits for all students.
Why it matters
UNESCO states that “education makes an essential contribution to building inclusive and democratic societies, where differences of opinion can be freely expressed and where the wide range of voices can be heard.”
Inclusive education enables each student to become a full, active citizen in their community and it is a prerequisite for democracies based on equality and justice. It fosters intercultural dialogue and can help reduce dropout rates, bullying and every form of abuse of power, channeling values of social justice and the respect of human rights and diversity.
Goal 4 of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG4) specifically refers to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all. The role of education is also considered strategic for achieving the Agenda’s other objectives regarding health, gender equality, decent jobs, sustainable consumption and production, economic growth, and even combating climate change.
Education: a fundamental, universal right
Education is a fundamental right. So education for all is a moral imperative. But inclusive education isn't a reality yet. Instead, it’s a process, a journey in which every country is progressing at different stages.
According to the UNESCO report, 258 million children and young people around the world are excluded from the school system (17% in general, but 31% in Africa and 21% in Central and South Asia). In every country (except high-income nations in Europe and North America), only 18% of the poorest kids manage to complete secondary school, compared to 1oo% of their peers who were born into wealthy families. As for children with disabilities, one fourth of countries offer education in special separate schools, 10% opt for integration in standard schools, and only 17% push for full inclusion. Almost half of them adopt mixed systems.
The situation in schools
Inclusive education is certainly a lofty ideal, but there are more than just material difficulties involved in achieving it.
Creating a school system that responds to the specific needs of each student, including children and young people with severe disabilities, might paradoxically lead to negative effects. Efforts to include them might inadvertently turn into pressure to conform to a standard, weaken the sense of identity in some groups, and end up marginalizing them even more.
In the case of students with disabilities, inclusive education and the abolition of special schools is intended to guarantee respect for the dignity of these people, while fully appreciating and helping them make the most of their mental and physical abilities, their talents, and their creativity.
And yet, as the UNESCO report shows, in some situations, inserting children with disabilities into state-run schools has lowered the quality of their education.
For this reason, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities explains that “placing students with disabilities within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes to, for example, organization, curriculum, and teaching and learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion.” (General Comment No. 4).
Inclusion and special educational needs
The Italian Ministerial directive of December 27, 2012 of the Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) is the basis of the country's inclusive policy for schools.
It identifies various categories of Special Educational Needs (SEN) students: they include all those children and young people who have disabilities, even temporary, that prevent normal learning and require individualized support: for example, students with disabilities, with learning disorders, language disorders, or motor coordination deficiencies. A bereavement, parental separation, or recently moving to a different country may also be temporary causes of SEN.
In all these cases, educators must provide personalized teaching in order to meet these needs. A Personal Education Plan (PEP) is prepared for each student and might require the use of support tools, both digital and analog, extra time to complete tests, or a reduced amount of homework.
Different teaching methodologies
Hence, there is no standard to which a “different” person must conform. Instead, there is a class of real individuals, each one with their own educational needs, each one with their own learning style, and the teacher must find effective strategies for everyone.
Personalized teaching calls for preparation, imagination, patience and energy. For example, it isn't enough to write a new letter of the alphabet on the blackboard and have students copy it down in their notebooks, because this message isn't enough for some children. It is more effective to present the letter in different ways: create it with modeling clay, wood, or other materials; ask students to recognize it by touch, in order to fix it in their memory; associate it with an image to exploit their visual memory, or with a song.
Basically, education experts recommend adopting different teaching tools and methods; teachers should therefore have a very well-equipped “toolbox” and different ways of organizing the class. The principles are cooperative teaching, hands-on laboratory activities, and the use of multiple channels of perception: auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic.
Technology for teaching inclusiveness
Educators specialized in teaching young people with SEN are accustomed to using Information and Communications Technology (ICT). ICT tools can foster the autonomy of children with disabilities or difficulties, but they can also be useful for other students, as well. That is why all teachers, not only specialized support teachers, should be familiar with these devices.
For example, there are:
- programs that use vocal synthesis to facilitate reading and writing;
- text editors that combine images and words;
- “talking” calculators;
- functions to create concept maps, diagrams and summaries.
There are also Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools that simultaneously write texts and pictographs, or images. These tools facilitate the development of materials and the adaptation of texts for people who have difficulty with functional communication, but they are also useful in helping younger students learn to read and write.
Shared learning environments
Inclusive education requires dedicated learning environments. A learning environment is more than just the classroom and furnishings that accommodate the students. Instead, it is a mental, cultural, organizational and affective space. It also includes the teachers, the students, the cultural and technical tools, and the “atmosphere” in the classroom.
According to Save the Children, an inclusive classroom is:
- A respectful classroom, where no child is marginalized;
- A child-centered classroom, in which the teachers create personalized activities for their students;
- A safe classroom, in which children feel at ease and there are no architectural or mental barriers;
- A protective classroom, where every child is protected from abuse and violence, either verbal or physical, and where children are encouraged to protect each other;
- Lastly, it is a family-oriented classroom, because parents are included in the educational process.
In collaboration with the Reggio Children Foundation, one of Fare Scuola's objectives is to create new learning spaces and to improve scholastic areas in order to encourage relationships, sharing and creativity in all its forms, and to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, as indicated in SDG4 of the 2030 Agenda.
The link between inclusive education and social inclusion
In 2018, the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (an independent, autonomous organization co-financed by the Ministries of Education of the relative Member States and the European Commission) published a paper entitled Evidence of the Link Between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion. The paper addressed both short-term social inclusion (that is, the period when children with disabilities attend school) and long-term inclusion (after people with disabilities finish compulsory schooling).
The results indicate that there is a link between inclusive education and social inclusion in the areas of education, employment and living in the community.
Inclusive education increases opportunities for peer interaction and close friendships among students, both with and without disabilities. Furthermore, it increases the probability that persons with disabilities will find employment.
Relegating learning to special needs classes with adapted teaching might guarantee employment in protected spaces, but it is likely to contribute to isolation rather than social inclusion for persons with disabilities.
Instead, learning in an inclusive environment leads to scholastic and professional qualifications and competences that can increase the likelihood of choosing other forms of employment, such as sheltered employment, supported employment, and self-employment, thereby increasing the opportunities for an independent life.