Education really matters: Diversity, equity and inclusion – A guest blog by Frank O’Hagan

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 11.52.31

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4: ‘To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’(by 2030).

United Nations: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: General comment No 4, 2016. Article 24: Right to inclusive education: ‘The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the different requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove barriers that impede that possibility.’

These are world-wide challenges. How advanced is Scotland in reaching these high standards?

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. Frank writes for Inclusive Practices in a personal capacity)

A dedication

Up to the time of her death, a beloved sister of mine was a teacher for more than 40 years, working almost exclusively with pupils from deprived backgrounds or those experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When she started her teaching career in the 1960s, there was such a shortage of teachers that her very large primary class had to be divided into two groups. On alternative weeks, one group attended a morning session and the other an afternoon session. Both groups were considerably larger than the average primary class of to-day. While bravely facing her imminent death, she still worried about the lack of learning opportunities for numerous young people and about their future opportunities. Sadly, many of her fears have morphed into a reality – continuing austerity, low levels of literacy, feelings of alienation and a lack of employment prospects. As I jot down my views on diversity, equity and inclusion, my gratitude goes to her and the many teachers, educational psychologists and inspectors of education who have contributed to improvements in this field and with whom I have had the privilege to work.

 The times are always a-changing

In recent years, although there have been changes for the better, concern about services for vulnerable pupils with diverse needs – who live across all sectors of society – continues to be a debated and disquieting issue among many parents and educationalists. What is more, in times of hardships and public cutbacks, this aspect of educational provision for our more disadvantaged children and young people can be seen as an easy target for financial constraint and staff reductions. A range of workable strategies are necessary to be employed to ensure that so many young persons do not come to perceive themselves as enduring failures.

Everyday attitudes about the characteristics of young learners alter and develop over time, as do conventional stances regarding how their educational provision should be managed. These modifications are due to many different factors such as the impact of research projects, developments in teaching methods and advances with regard to society’s views about the rights of children. Outlooks have evolved and perceptions become more nuanced in various ways. For instance, autism was once regarded as a very rare, one-dimensional and rather inexplicable disability. Nowadays, it is generally recognised as being much more prevalent and to be present across an extensive and complex spectrum disorder which includes intellectual, linguistic, social and behavioural dimensions. Other examples are improvements in assisting pupils displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger Syndrome, with potential positive cognitive features such as creativity being acknowledged in relation to the former and high concentration and interest in a specific topic with the latter.

There are many possible means of developing educational systems which are truly beneficial for allyoung people and there is an evident willingness among professionals to face the very significant obstacles which have to be overcome. Additionally, recent progress in educational neuroscience has provided a more hopeful perspective on the capacity of learners to adapt to the difficulties which they encounter through well-tailored personalised learning programmes. The message is clear that ability is not a fixed entity and that pessimistic attitudes about capabilities often need to be confronted. Nonetheless, key questions remain. Has society the will and capacity to address issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can plans be focussed on success and achievements while retaining inbuilt flexibility and personal care?  Can educational systems have well-targeted interventions in place to ensure that any apparent ‘breakdowns’ in students’ achievements can be quickly ameliorated?

Current challenges to inclusiveness

It is well nigh impossible to be unaware of the presence of diversity in modern society. It manifests itself through statistical surveys, traditions and pretexts covering age, background, gender, ethnicity, talents, disabilities, culture, religion and so forth – the human melting pot. It has both splendour and richness. It also can give rise to apprehension and unease has when individuals or groups are viewed as ‘others’ who are not fully entitled to the rights and privileges enjoyed by ‘in’ groups (a process sometimes referred to as ‘othering’).

As in everyday living, values such as acceptance, appreciation and kindness, are features to be treasured in education and training. Meeting the needs of diverse groups implies interconnectedness and cooperation in establishing universal rights and building an equitable society. This stance calls for an end to greed, unrestrained capitalism and the continued destruction of Mother Earth. It stipulates that the voices of all students concerning their feelings and self-identified needs should not only be heard but be listened to attentively. Undoubtedly, there exist across our troubled world many obstructions to this vision which require urgent reform. Among an extensive list, depending on time and place, it may be the disregard of the rights of children who are forced to work rather than be educated, the underachievement of poorer white male adolescents, or vocational opportunities being denied to students who are physically disabled.

Difficulties encountered when teaching young persons with various needs are too often viewed as arising from ‘within’ or ‘belonging’ to them. From such a perspective, identified learning problems can be treated as if they are owned by students and their private responsibility; highly significant environmental factors, such lack of adequate nutrition or impoverishment, are overlooked. Consequently, learners are not properly involved in decision-making but are subjected to pronouncements which are hoisted on them by way of a hierarchical system. Parents and guardians, due to prior experiences, also can feel excluded and may need encouragement to build their trust and become actively involved.

Skilled educationalists realise that many young people require basic but essential assistance in ‘learning how to learn’ in order to ensure future progress. When acquired, pertinent learning skills – such as listening, collaborating, planning and problem-solving – can be transferred across curricular areas. Staff dedicated to inclusive education will have an expertise in: establishing learners’ plans; setting short- and long-term targets; creating warm and stimulating climates in which students progress confidently; implementing procedures relating to advice, guidance and support; and providing motivational feedback to students, parents, guardians and other relevant parties. It is necessary that, for the prerequisites and characteristics of high quality learning and teaching to be maintained, the capability and proficiency of staff are constantly upgraded through on-going professional development.

Every learner has the right to be included

All pupils deserve to be deemed worthy of making advancements at their own levels of attainment and capacities to learn. In practice, different forms of integration have been noted, for instance in terms of locations and placements, social arrangements and communal involvement, and functional and/or instructional settings. Genuine inclusive educational environments will fuse all such approaches into a cohesive and harmonious framework from which no student is excluded. Further, they extend to cover equitable opportunities for vocational training, employment placements and lifelong learning. The overriding philosophy must leave behind a previous ‘What are your problems and weaknesses?’ way of thinking and adopt an outlook which asks ‘In what ways can we assist you to cultivate your attributes and extend your talents?’ Staff endorsing inclusive learning cultures do not see themselves as working in ‘examination factories’; if necessary, they are willing to have fewer accolades regarding their rankings in ‘fake’ national league tables.

An inclusive approach can be a strong catalyst in bringing about connectedness among students of varying abilities and aptitudes. When approaches to education are focused on the identified requirements of each learner, progress along productive and rewarding pathways to success is augmented. It does not follow that some pupils should be cut off and isolated from their peers when undertaking tasks. Learners with diverse needs can expand their knowledge and skills within hospitable pedagogic cultures. Authentic collegiate learning provides a sound basis for the cross-fertilisation of views on how students can acquire information and benefit from new strategies on route to further accomplishments.

For educationalists to play an effective role, they have to challenge the status quo and provide the means of developing competences to overcome social and economic hardship. Programmes which nurture both personal qualities (for example, confidence, self-worth and resilience) and relevant practical know-how (healthy living, money management, occupational capabilities and so forth) to enhance future opportunities are of the utmost importance. For these purposes, advances in information and communication technology are helpful in enriching learning and teaching and in addressing differing needs. However, computer-based learning, though often very advantageous, is not a panacea; further innovations, as the quality of the machine-learner interface improves, hold high prospects.

All forms of educational provision require having well-defined roles, responsibilities and protocols in place for staff who are expected to respond to vulnerable students presenting risky behaviours, such as substance abuse, self-harm or noteworthy learning difficulties. At times, they may seek the input of professional agencies which have clear remits to contribute at whole-school, group or individual levels of involvement. Short-term targets may focus on speedy improvements in attaining specific competences through time-limited, solution-based approaches to resolving pressing personal concerns. Longer-term objectives could include the acquisition of interpersonal and employability skills. Indeed, for all, it is fitting to move forward well beyond existing problems and anxieties and to encourage positive and rewarding lifestyles.

The dangers of labelling and classification

The disadvantages of labelling can include obscuring learners’ individual needs, including unwarranted assumptions about their abilities, and inadvertently depriving them of opportunities to engage in inclusive practices. Labels also may have a negative impact on the confidence of teachers who might come to the erroneous conclusion that a pupil’s requirements and capacities cannot be accommodated within their school. Improved approaches to assessment can often identify the co-existence of differing cognitive and behavioural difficulties, all of which require to be addressed within carefully-tailored programmes of intervention.

Teachers and educational psychologists wish to identify strengths and requisites when assessing learners. Unfortunately, through engaging is a classification process they can unwittingly create a rationale which results in pupils being even further removed from mainstream education. For instance, students can suffer a ‘triple whammy’ as a specific categorisation: (1) can lower expectations regarding their potential; (2) can be used to back a decision not to accept them; and (3) influence the likelihood of them being permanently excluded.

There has been a widely-held belief that categorisation and labelling are important in providing legal protection, acquiring funding and gaining access to extra assistance within services and educational establishments. Though case studies to back this view can be found, there other ways in which these benefits could be obtained within a comprehensive framework of students’ rights. Very often, trying to fit an individual’s needs within a single grouping can have deleterious consequences. In general, there has been a distinct move away from the use of strict categories. However, even looser, eclectic descriptions, such as ‘experiencing additional support needs’, carry with them the danger of being interpreted as a rigid classification. Vigilance to ensure that a learner is not restricted (or should one say ‘imprisoned’?) through the improper use of a label is paramount. (After all, in real life, we all have additional support needs, albeit diverse ones at differing levels!)

Assessment which leads to well-directed assistance and incentives

Appropriate appraisal procedures are required to address diverse needs and play a crucial role for learners who are experiencing difficulties. They not only clarify the levels of current competences and capabilities but also indicate which forms of involvement and aid are most advantageous. In former practices, a great deal of credence was given by professionals to formal intelligence tests and standardised results relating to language and numeracy. In more recent times, there have been considerable criticism and scepticism of such types of normative measures. Very often, as an alternative, the emphasis has been placed on using assessment techniques to help structure and maintain effective learning environments, successful instructional strategies and adaptive behavioural interventions.

There is much to recommend in utilising processes which combine accurate assessments of individuals’ strengths and requirements alongside the identification of those circumstances best suited to their needs. Carefully-staged observations of everyday situations are valuable in avoiding simplistic analyses when attempting to map out how best to intervene. Within therapeutic and educational surroundings, formative assessment can be highly beneficial in terms of promoting personal growth and achievement. It enables teachers to highlight what learners have mastered already and to devise future learning pathways.

Skills relating to on-going formative assessment may appear easy on paper but in practice require substantial expertise. They include: devising and setting realistic targets and goals for all students; sympathetically but rigorously monitoring their progress; providing feedback in an inspiring manner to learners, parents, guardians and other relevant stakeholders on a need-to-know basis; and collaborating with students in reviews of their targets, goals and aspirations and in the planning of their next objectives.

Conclusions

The needs of too many students are frequently missed, their perspectives misunderstood and their voices ignored among the bureaucratic and complex demands of modern education. The acceptance of diversity and commitment to ensuring equity and inclusiveness entail high levels of respect, tolerance, compassion and appreciation to permeate throughout our various forms of learning and cultural provision. Unconscious bias has to be recognised and abolished along with negative stereotyping and labelling. Specialised support should be extended and focused within mainstream schools, if necessary using existing special schools and clinics as resource centres.

Provision for learners with diverse needs must wholeheartedly embrace inclusive practices. When effectively delivered, professional collaboration promotes confidence, self-belief and ‘can do’ mindsets regarding endless possibilities for personal, social and intellectual growth. Procedures which include thoughtful and regular monitoring to enhance emotional wellbeing, acknowledge achievements and generate further progress are key ingredients in maintaining successful development. If prescribed curricular topics or learning pathways prove to be ineffective, the duty for educationalists is to implement or ‘reclaim’ appropriate courses of study and training programmes for their students.

In summary, proponents of inclusive education aspire to developing welcoming, coherent and vibrant systems which:

  • are open and respectful to all without any imagined or created barriers to admission and full participation
  • provide personalised learning pathways which ensure meaningful progress regardless of personal attributes and social background
  • encourage learners to take responsibility to attain their desired learning outcomes through well-planned and accommodating procedures and practices
  • offer a comprehensive and well-integrated range of counselling, guidance and supportive strategies in conjunction with relevant professional agencies and community services
  • help to build and maintain peaceful, equitable and flourishing local communities.