Inclusion rhetoric

“Inclusion” is something that it is easy to be in favour of. However, inclusion rhetoric often conflates very different kinds of issues, ignores social consequences in order to focus on the individual and, at worst, acts as a front for a dumbed-down pedagogy that works against the interests of the working class.


I secured my first teaching position at a time when children with physical disabilities were starting to be encouraged to attend mainstream schools. My school admitted its first child who used a wheelchair. The science labs were on the first and second floor of the building and so a lift was installed. All of this was perfectly reasonable and an example of how to include children with different needs.

However, imagine that a child is particularly badly behaved. Perhaps she comes from a difficult background or perhaps she has psychopathic personality traits that mean that she lacks empathy. Perhaps the former caused the latter. Suppose we then decide to give this child a label for her poor behaviour. Let’s call it ‘antisocial behaviour disorder’. Including this child is now a quite different prospect to including the child with the wheelchair.

I moved on from my first school when I was still quite a young teacher. My second school was in a more deprived area. I remember teaching science to Year 10 one Wednesday afternoon. A boy – let’s call him “Joe” – was misbehaving. He kept shouting out swear-words whilst I was trying to address the class. I had placed him near the front and he repeatedly turned around, saying things to the other students that I couldn’t quite hear but, from their reactions, I could tell were quite insulting.

We had an ‘on call’ system where, in an emergency, a senior member of staff was available to come to a class. I called for help and an Assistant Head turned up. He took Joe outside. I expected him to take Joe away but, after a couple of minutes, the Assistant Head opened the classroom door and Joe came back in. “I have a good relationship with Joe,” He explained to me, “he’s promised to behave now.” And the Assistant Head left. Joe smiled at me and then continued to behave as he had done previously.

Joe should have been excluded from the rest of that lesson. Indeed, when I became an Assistant Head myself, that is what I would do. Once, a child would not leave the room, I noticed an empty classroom along the corridor and so I moved the rest of the class. I then phoned the student’s parents and asked them to come and pick him up.

Social Consequences

If I were to tell this story to a professional who is used to dealing with children’s issues on a one-to-one basis then I might get the following response: How is excluding Joe from the lesson going to teach him anything about how he should behave? What is he going to learn from that?

This is looking at the issue in quite the wrong way. Whether Joe learns something or not, the exclusion is for the benefit of the other members of the class. That Wednesday afternoon, Joe’s classmates did not get a science lesson. And that’s not on.

A similar argument can be made about sanctions such as detentions. What did anyone ever learn by being in detention? I don’t know, but at least it points out to the rest of the school population that there are boundaries and there are consequences for crossing those boundaries. Despite popular perceptions, students generally know right from wrong and they have an acute sense of justice. They expect a school to deal with the bad behaviour of others, particularly if it has an impact upon them. They will lose respect for an institution that appears not to act.

Certainly, society at large has sanctions in place for crossing boundaries, ranging all the way from speeding to murder. We don’t do students any favours at all by preparing them for a different kind of society to the one that actually exists.

I was listening to a segment of BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. Someone from the ‘Give Racism the Red Card’ organisation was speaking following a racist attack in an English school. She simply could not bring herself to condemn students who racially abuse teachers. Instead, she wanted to focus on the way that David Cameron had described migrants in Calais as a ‘swarm’, implying that this was a cause of students’ racism. She also trotted-out constructivist platitudes – it’s not enough to simply tell children that racism is wrong, they need to construct that understanding for themselves. I am sorry, but racism is plainly wrong. I am quite prepared to tell any student at some length exactly why it is so wrong and why it has been such an evil and malign influence throughout our history. And then they can write me an essay on it.

Failing the working class

Of course, there is another answer to the Joe situation. You will have noticed that the Assistant Head subtly shifted a little blame onto me by implying that my relationship with Joe was not as good as his. Blaming teachers in these sorts of situation is quite common.

For instance, you might suggest that my lesson was not engaging enough for Joe. Perhaps I hadn’t planned it with his needs in mind. Maybe I needed to use principles of universal design to ensure that everyone could access the lesson. Perhaps Joe’s behaviour was a consequence of the fact that he could not access the lesson in the way I had presented it. I could have been guilty of micro-exclusion.

Advocates of this sort of thinking will suggest that lessons need to be adapted to the individual needs of the students. Although learning styles might not exist, it is certainly true that students will express a preference for one activity over another. Indeed, I can think of many students who would prefer to be learning football rather than algebra. Allowing children such choices has been tried in many progressive schools in the past and has not been hugely successful. Robert Peal chronicles the approach in his book.

However, most schools would not go this far. They would still have traditional subject disciplines but would perhaps try to allow student choice and differentiation within that. Does a particular student like drawing? Well, perhaps we can get him to work on a poster instead of listening to the teacher. Let’s give the other students options too. This strategy works to manage behaviour. I’ve tried it in the past.

The problem here is that we dumb-down the curriculum by doing this. Given the choice between a bowl of ice-cream and a plate of veggies, it is a strong-willed child who chooses the veggies. And so children in tough, working class schools get this adapted, self-directed colouring-in curriculum while the children of elites attend independent schools and all learn algebra and history, properly. Algebra and history are examples of the kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ that Michael Young talks about; the kind of knowledge that provides access to the elite professions. And so this kind of approach entrenches class division and privilege.

Thankfully, schools are emerging that take a more enlightened approach to educating the disadvantaged. Expect a lot of inclusion rhetoric to be fired in their direction.


9 thoughts on “Inclusion rhetoric

  1. Indeed – I can see why the progressives love the ones with extreme positions like the woman you describe. It justifies their nonsense as well as deflecting attention from them. Funny I managed to go through the whole education system without any racism from any of the staff or students – we were a community. That community was more important than race, colour, gender, etc.

    I am not saying this solves all the problems in society but given that I grew up in the only city in Europe with a large ethnic population and which has so far never had a race riot of some description – I would say we are onto something. But then some people want to complain whether the problem is real or imagined, which only makes it harder to tackle issues like racism properly.

    As for inclusion – agree 100% and I think that what Peal highlighted so brilliantly was the facts that lie behind government intervention and why certain teachers and members of the establishment aren’t and can’t be trusted. Sacrificing the education of 29 for 1 child hardly shows respect for the education the children are receiving. The fact they 29 internalise this should be to the shame of those who insist on including children at all costs.

  2. mrlock says:

    “This is looking at the issue in quite the wrong way. Whether Joe learns something or not, the exclusion is for the benefit of the other members of the class. That Wednesday afternoon, Joe’s classmates did not get a science lesson. And that’s not on.”

    Well yes, and they also know that they can do the same as Joe and be allowed back in the class after a chat as long as they have a good relationship with the Assistant Headteacher. i.e. the boundaries have been compromised for Joe and Joe knows he can get away with it, but they’ve also shifted for everyone else in the room.

    Detentions are most effective for those who don’t get them. We had a great detention system – every child who was late to a lesson or didn’t do homework got a detention of an hour with me as head of school. There were 8 or 9 students who were in detention every week. We could not make them do homework or be on time (we did sometimes, keeping them, but they’d lie/ deceive/ whatever). Those 8 or 9 were there every week and it did not help them. But what it did do was keep the bar high for all the pupils who did not receive a detention, or the “good” pupils who forgot their homework once, had a detention, and never forgot it again because of the support of the certainty of action.

    And that’s the point about inclusion. I’m in favour of inclusion. It’s those that are in favour of pandering to poor behaviour who are not inclusive – inclusion is supporting those who can’t achieve without different support to meet high expectations – including if necessary a different school setting or different forms of education but usually extra classes or very strict expectations on effort, parents meetings and so on.

    Inclusion is NOT shifting the expectations down to meet existing behaviour and effort. Far from being inclusion, that excludes those pupils from gaining a good education, and as with Joe above, takes a piece of other pupils’ education with them.

  3. Tara Houle says:

    Inclusion has become one of those “it” phrases for public education systems around the world. While it sounds good, like most things, after a while the shiny brass starts to wear off and the tarnish starts to show through.

    Your comments about how inclusion has now come to represent a dumbing down of the curriculum is spot on. We no longer are allowed to celebrate excellence of academic achievement with the bright kids in our school, as that would cause hurt feelings for all the other students. At least that’s what the grown ups tell us. We no longer celebrate academic excellence in schools. Instead, we uphold mediocrity, in the pursuit of inclusion. It’s disgusting, and it’s wrong.

    The educational kool aid of the day will continue to be drunk by those who like to believe this progressive malarkey, because it sounds so very shiny and new. Be wary of those claims which sound too good to be true. Like most things, they ring hollow after a while.

  4. Chris says:

    HI Greg,
    For me as a teacher, the example of Joe is an interesting one. I agree that the Assistant Headmaster was both arrogant and negligent in the way he handled the situation. I would feel the same way you did if that was his response. He was not supportive and he did nothing to assist in dealing with Joe’s behaviour.

    The next question for me as a teacher is, “What do I do with Joe?” If his negative behaviour, especially in a Year 10 class, continues, should be be permanently excluded? Then what? It solves the problem for the rest of the class, but should it be left there?

    Inclusion to me is not keeping Joe in the classroom at all costs to the other students. Inclusion is using as many avenues as possible to understand why Joe acts the way he does and how his behaviour can be modified. Maybe, that process ultimately occurs mostly in the classroom. Maybe, at least for a time, it occurs outside of the classroom. But Joe being kicked out of the classroom simply kicks the can down the road. The cost to society of students not completing a basic education is high.

    • Philip says:

      Agree with Chris on inclusion of Joe.

      As for original post: ‘Algebra and history are examples of the kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ that Michael Young talks about; the kind of knowledge that provides access to the elite professions. And so this kind of approach entrenches class division and privilege.”. Are the elite professions inclusive? Would they ‘let you in’ simply because you have Algebra and history?
      Recent articles about the ‘ glass ceiling’ within middle class education highlights additional issues in making social mobility for working class children.
      The education system has always been perceived as the place where ‘progress’ can be made, especially since post war; ‘get yourself an education and you will make it’. Think this is now being questioned.

  5. Let’s suppose that most of the conceptual frameworks this post draws on are flawed (‘diagnosis’, ‘inclusion’, ‘traditional’, ‘powerful’ knowledge) and we go back to first principles. What do individuals need to know and what environment is going to be most conducive to their acquiring that knowledge? Flawed concepts just make things needlessly complicated.

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