Inclusion has become one of the must hotly-debated topics in education — there are almost as many different takes on it as there are schools. Brahm Norwich, Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs at the University of Exeter, helps you to unpick what inclusion means to your school and shows you how to develop strategies that will allow you to achieve this approach in practice.

Inclusive education and inclusive schooling are recent terms, developed in the 1990s to promote values and practices that take account of the individual needs of pupil who were not provided for adequately in mainstream schools. In this country, inclusive schooling continues the tradition of comprehensive schooling that respects the educational opportunities of all pupils. Inclusive schooling has become prominent through international moves to promote more inclusive schools. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO, 1994) set out several key principles.

Inclusive schooling used to mean integrating pupils identified as having special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream schools. Inclusion has now become a wider commitment to all pupils, regardless of their socioeconomic background, gender, language and ethnicity or cultural background. This represents a general commitment to human rights irrespective of ability/disability, gender, or ethnicity. It provides a focus for tackling all forms of discrimination, unfair disadvantage and exclusion. Inclusive schooling is about the pursuit of social justice and it is connected with building a more inclusive society, often called social inclusion.

What is inclusive? There are many perspectives of inclusive schooling. The Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE) uses these terms to describe it: Inclusion in education involves the processes of increasing the participation of the student in, and reducing their exclusion from, the cultures, curricula and communities of local schools.

(Booth and Ainscow, 2002, p1)

From this perspective, inclusion is about being in local schools and taking part in the social and learning aspects of school. Implicit in the notion of participation is that schools accommodate the diversity of needs and take account of individual needs. To reach a definition of inclusive schooling you need to ask a number of questions. These questions are critical to any consideration of strategies for achieving inclusive provision. We need to understand what we mean by inclusive schooling and what we consider worth pursuing before we can talk about effective strategies. Good planning depends on clear ideas about aims and objectives. You can still go ahead without confident answers to these questions, but you may need to make some assumptions, as shown in the box right. To some people, these assumptions and practices are the opposite of inclusion. For them, if inclusion means anything it is ‘full inclusion’, whereas for others, it is about ‘as much inclusion as meets the individual needs of the student’. This might mean some provision in separate settings for some pupils for some of the time. Curriculum managers will need to be aware of inclusive practices in their local education authority (LEA) and understand that practices vary between schools in the LEA and between LEAs. A pragmatic approach is to try out inclusive practices and evaluate them in the school and department context to see how they work and are received by those involved, including pupils.

Effectiveness There has been much national and international interest in the effectiveness of schools and strategies for improving schools. Within the policy climate of raising academic standards, this has meant that effective schools have been those that have high academic standards or at least add value in academic attainment terms. However, ‘effective schools’ may also be those that raise academic standards to include those with SEN or include other aspects of educational achievement. In practice, effectiveness and school improvement are usually interpreted in core national curriculum academic terms and exclude those with significant SEN. This is where the move towards more inclusive schooling has a broader vision for schools, but in so doing has raised the question of whether ‘effective’ schools can also be ‘inclusive’ schools. Some argue that inclusive schools that provide well for those with SEN/disability are also ‘good’ for students without SEN. However, there is as little research evidence for this view as there is for the compatibility of school effectiveness in academic standards and inclusive practices (Dyson et al, 2004). Researchers in the UK and the USA have attempted to identify some general features of policy and practice associated with inclusive schooling. These are shown in the box below (Campbell, 2002). There is some overlap between these general features and the key factors identified as relevant to SEN inclusion by Ofsted (2003) shown in the box above right.

Inclusive strategies Individual schools depend on their interactions with other schools, perhaps partner schools in a cluster/family and with special schools. They also depend on local education authorities, which oversee and have legal responsibilities for key aspects of the special educational policy and practice in their areas. This interdependence is a notable aspect of the developing patterns of provision for pupils with SEN. It points to an overarching principle often advocated in this field – collaboration. Collaboration is relevant to all relationships in schools:

  • between teachers and students
  • between staff (teaching assistants and teachers)
  • between senior and other staff
  • between staff and parents.

It is also relevant at an organisational level:

  • between schools in a partnership or cluster
  • between mainstream schools and special schools
  • between support services and schools.

Collaboration is important because:

  • knowledge and expertise can be scarce and need to be shared
  • mutual support can benefit less experienced staff
  • there can be isolation in tackling the challenges
  • emotional support and practical solutions can be enhanced when working with others.

Collaboration can be engendered in different ways, not all of which are beneficial. In ‘informal’ collaboration, interdependency arises from collaborators’ felt needs, but there may also be ‘required’ collaboration, where imposition by an authority may not be conducive to open sharing and problem-solving. There is also collaboration where incentives are offered for joint activity. Is inclusion an imposed system or an option that is chosen and owned?

It has long been recognised that good practice for pupils with SEN involves whole-school policies and practices. This is a key aspect of the SEN Code of Practice (DfES, 2001) which sets out a model of schools where governors and teachers have to take account of the interests of students with SEN; and where schools are expected to have one or more teachers responsible for SEN coordination. The Code of Practice sets out the framework of types and levels of special educational needs. This involves the distinction between levels of SEN:

  • general differentiated teaching/ provision
  • School Action
  • School Action Plus
  • Statement.

General differentiated teaching is a critical and easily ignored part of the scheme. The Code assumes that a pupil will only be identified at School Action level if there is inadequate learning progress despite teaching that is ‘normally differentiated’. ‘Additional needs’ are those that go beyond what a normally differentiated programme can provide. It is at this point that the further levels of identifying and planning for individual students with special educational needs come into operation, and invoke the balance of responsibilities between schools and the LEA.

At School Action and School Action Plus the identified pupil is expected to have an individual education plan (IEP) as an active learning plan that:

  • records her/his areas of difficulties and strengths
  • sets out three individual targets
  • summarises strategies to support learning towards the targets
  • identifies staff responsible for using these strategies
  • sets a date for review of progress.

The difference between School Action and School Action Plus is the involvement of outside support staff, such as specialist teachers or educational psychologists, who give advice about individual needs and strategies for students at School Action Plus. Most pupils identified as having SEN are at School Action level (about 10% nationally) and School Action Plus levels (about 4% nationally). Fewer pupils are identified at the Statement level (about 2.4%) (DfES, 2004). The Statement represents a legal contract between the LEA (not the school) and the student’s parents. It records the individual needs and the provision that student requires. For an LEA to issue a Statement for a pupil, there has to be a multidisciplinary assessment of needs. If parents are not satisfied with the process or the content of the Statement they can appeal to the SEN and Disability Tribunal, which has legally enforceable powers.

Disability discrimination Schools are also subject to the legislation on disability discrimination, which operates through another code of practice, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Part 4: Code of Practice for Schools (HMSO, 1995). Special educational needs and disability are related terms, and are often used interchangeably. Some students with disabilities do not have SEN, as their curriculum-based learning arrangements do not need adaptation. The disability discrimination duties provide protection for disabled pupils by preventing discrimination against them at school on the grounds of disability. The duties are:

  • not to treat disabled pupils less favourably than others
  • to take reasonable steps to avoid putting disabled pupils at a substantial disadvantage – this is the ‘reasonable adjustments’ duty.

This legislation focuses on access questions, such as alterations to buildings and the provision of aids, but it is also about admission and exclusions to schools and the provision of services by schools. The Code has only been in force since 2002, so it is too early to know what impact it will have on schools’ practices for pupils with disabilities or SEN. Its duties do relate to adapting the curriculum to meet individual needs, which is part of the inclusive statement that sets out the principles of the national curriculum 2000. The inclusion statement sets out the following principles:

  • setting suitable learning challenges
  • responding to students’ diverse learning needs
  • overcoming barriers to learning and assessment for individual and groups.

In their inspections Ofsted found few schools that had made substantial adaptations to the curriculum they offered, despite the inclusive statement above. Ofsted also found that schools were reluctant to ‘disapply’ elements of the curriculum for students with SEN (Ofsted, 2004). It is clear from the national curriculum inclusion statement and the Disability Discrimination Code that the term ‘inclusion’ has taken on the added meaning of ‘meeting individual needs’ and ‘avoiding disadvantage’. This makes it more complex to judge what counts as inclusive schooling.

Obstacles to inclusion Do difficulties in school learning arise from the social arrangements that disadvantage pupils with impairments (the social model) or arise from an interaction of social and child factors (the individual interactionist model)? Advocates of inclusive schooling often claim that inclusion depends on the social model, but it is clear that endorsing the individual model is compatible with support for more inclusive schooling (DfES, 2004). In the social model the barriers are identified in a range of systems and processes (Ainscow, 1999), such as:

  • policy development and implementation
  • overcoming funding levels and strategies
  • overcoming organisational processes and structures (including attitudes)
  • overcoming the management of school change
  • overcoming partnership arrangements
  • overcoming external influences.

These aspects are also relevant to those who advocate for more inclusion based on an interactionist model. The details of this debate can be pursued elsewhere (see, for example, Norwich, 2002). Overcoming obstacles depends on understanding the nature of these obstacles and using this knowledge to plan ways forward. Managing provision from an inclusive perspective depends on whole-school policies, practices and strategic planning. There are different approaches to whole-school strategic planning, but the one discussed here draws on the school improvement cycle described by Gross and White (2003).

As Gross and White explain, schools have found it difficult to answer school improvement questions, such as ‘how well are we doing?’ when applied to pupils with SEN, because there has not been evidence of relevant attainment and outcomes. Although assessment of attainment below level 1 has begun these have not been widely used and there are some queries about their validity and reliability.

There has also been more emphasis on support in the SEN field rather than on support and outcomes. Much effort is put into identifying and providing for students with SEN, and although the IEPs set targets, these are individual and difficult to compare with other pupils, with or without SEN. Gross and White set out the rationale for a strategic planning approach as follows:

  • equity – if outcomes-based planning is used for most pupils, there is a case for it being used for the minority identified as having SEN
  • wider impact – if action is taken to improve outcomes for a minority then it is likely to assist those who struggle with learning but are not identified as having SEN
  • accountability – accountability systems, such as the Ofsted inspection framework, place emphasis on both achievement and participation.

Planning in terms of outcomes does not necessarily mean that all targets or objectives are based on quantitative indicators. There is also a critical role for qualitative indicators, particularly for SEN inclusion outcomes.

Teaching strategies Problems with IEPs Individual education plans have been the core of special educational needs bureaucracy within schools since their introduction in the first SEN Code of Practice in the 1990s. There has been much criticism of the scale of the paperwork that IEPs generate, and doubts about them as effective and feasible means of meeting students’ individual additional needs. Part of the problem with IEPs is that they were meant to be limited to about three targets for planning over a one- or two-term review cycle and were supplementary to a broad and balanced programme. Many IEPs focused on literacy, numeracy, work habit or behaviour targets. It was not always clear how individual education plan targets and their associated teaching strategies connected with general classroom planning of teaching programmes.

Although there have been attempts to bridge this connection through the National Strategies at primary and Key Stage 3 levels, the situation has become more confused by the recent interest in personalised learning for all. Personalised learning has some of the elements of focusing on individual learning needs that are used with pupils with SEN, but it does not have the formality and detail procedures associated with IEPs. However, arrangements for personalising learning for all, including students with SEN, are likely to make some aspects of the current school-based SEN system redundant.

Effective planning There have been developments in ways of planning that connect the needs of pupils with general class planning. One has been to match the specific aspects of provision to different levels of need. This cross-referencing enables planning of key aspects of provision for students identified at different levels of need. You can use it at a whole-school level to set out planning within a subject area for different year groups. You can also use it – with some modification – for planning behaviour management provision.

By focusing on different aspects of provision, such as grouping or human resources, you can consider the range of variations and adaptations that you need to plan and resource in a school. Collaborative planning can produce larger-scale, more creative solutions and more sophisticated systems of provision than isolated planning by individuals. Another approach, which you can use as part of the strategic planning model, arises in setting the SEN priorities for the school.

Pupils’ needs audit: What additional provision do identified students require (for example, structured literacy programme, individual counselling, in-class support or modifications to the curriculum )? Self-evaluation: Evaluate your school’s strengths and weaknesses in the achievements and inclusion of pupils with special educational needs.

Provision map: Specify what types of provision are required at a school or subject department level. A provision map is a table of the range of support that a school can provide for pupils with SEN in each of its year groups (see the example at the top of page 7). You can use provision maps to show the type of additional provision an individual student receives as part of the overall additional provision. This type of planning is one way to meet the requirements of the SEN Code without the whole bureaucracy of IEPs (Gross and White 2003, chapter 8).

Wider issues Promoting more inclusive SEN provision calls for clarity, grounded vision and leadership to engender collaborative practices. Part of this clarity of vision is a commitment to the support and the achievements of pupils with SEN. Inclusion now means more than locating students with SEN in mainstream schools – it is also about participation in learning activities and meeting individual needs. As it takes on these wider aspects, you need to strike a balance between meeting individual needs and participating in mainstream learning groups and settings.

The challenge for curriculum managers is to find ways of combining social and learning participation in mainstream groups and settings for as many pupils as possible for as much time as possible, while meeting enough of their individual educational needs. For some students for some of the time, there may be some trade-off between participation and meeting individual needs. In these cases individual needs, however they are identified, usually take precedence. For others, little or no trade-off may be necessary. The strategies set out in this article aim to help you achieve this different approach to inclusion in classrooms across your school.

Brahm Norwich, Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of Exeter.

Key principles of inclusive schooling

  • Every student has a right to education and to be given opportunities to achieve an acceptable level of learning
  • Every student has unique characteristics, including learning needs
  • Educational systems should be designed and implemented to take account of the wide diversity of needs
  • Those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools, which should accommodate them
  • Regular schools with an inclusive orientation are the most effective way of countering discrimination, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all

Defining inclusion

  • How do you balance meeting the needs of the majority with meeting the needs of a minority with ‘exceptional’ needs in a mainstream school?
  • Is inclusion something that is required and ‘done to someone’ — or is it an active and chosen option?
  • Is inclusion a process of becoming more inclusive or less exclusive — or does it describe a specific end state?
  • Does the commitment to general inclusion detract from a commitment to specific aspects of inclusion, such as SEN or disability inclusion?
  • Do we still need special schools for pupils with significant SEN?
  • Are inclusive schools compatible with widespread ability grouping practices within a school, such as low-ability classes or special classes for students with some significant SEN?
  • Are inclusive schools compatible with withdrawing pupils who have additional needs from some subjects within the national curriculum?


  • When we talk about ‘inclusive schools’ or practices we actually mean ‘more inclusive schools’
  • Inclusive schools can coexist with a reduced number of special schools, linked to them in some ways
  • Inclusive schools can organise their responsibilities for SEN/disabilities in separate, related systems promoting other aspects of inclusive practices
  • Inclusive schools withdraw some students into separate settings for additional provision and might have pupils with significant and complex special needs, mostly in separate settings, with some inclusion in social aspects of school life

Factors needed to achieve SEN inclusion

  • A climate of acceptance of all pupils, including those with distinct needs
  • Careful preparation of placements, covering students, peers, staff and parents
  • Enough suitable teaching and personal support available
  • General awareness of the specific needs of those students with significant SEN and understanding of ways of meeting these needs
  • Appropriate materials, aids and adapted accommodation available
  • Sensitive allocation to teaching groups and careful modification of the curriculum, timetables and social arrangements
  • An active approach to personal and social development
  • Well-defined and consistently applied approaches to managing difficult behaviour
  • Assessment systems that can take account of some pupils’ small gains in learning and personal development
  • Involving parents as fully as possible, keeping them informed and giving practical support

Factors for success

  • Strong visionary leadership— leading to a shared framework
  • Collaborative teamwork
  • Parental involvement and partnership
  • Funding systems that enable
  • inance to follow the student into mainstream settings
  • Curriculum development — along inclusive and differentiated lines
  • Planning for individual learning needs – use of assessment systems and evidence-based teaching practices
  • Positive action to promote social relationships
  • Evaluation systems to monitor developments
  • Support for staff — through professional development
  • Coordination of support services