By Stuart Whitfield

Posted 5 November 2019

As I approach the end of a long (very long!) road to completing my MA thesis on SEN and Inclusion and look forward to working as the ILA’s AEN professional development lead over the coming year, there seem to be more questions than ever around inclusion in international schools. The focus for 2019’s International Youth Day ‘Transforming Education’ was centred around “efforts to make education inclusive, accessible and relevant for all youth” a concept that stems from Goal 4 of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. (United Nations, 2019

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Yet what does this mean in our schools? For years academics have banded around this term inclusion without a consensus on its definition. Inclusive education has been a contested term since its appearance, with strong advocates as well as strong opponents (Brantlinger, 1997 in Messiou, 2017). Governments have reacted, signed up to treaties and pledged commitment to inclusive education but school systems have been left to interpret what this means in their settings and most crucially, what impact this has on young people progressing through education. 

With this in mind, it seems timely to reflect on my professional experiences of approaches schools use to meet the needs of their learners. I have been very privileged to have worked in some fantastic schools in my career so far, including special schools, mainstream schools and international schools. While they have all presented a wide range of challenges, disappointments and success stories, the inclusive agenda has always proved the trickiest path to navigate. 

What I have learnt: 

Special schools

“Special schools” can provide very precise, tailored instruction which enables students to make holistic progress. Teachers and support staff can work with small classes and even offer 1:1 learning environments. By focusing on skills that enable students to move into adulthood as independently as possible, learners can take risks and experience success that has meaning far beyond the classroom. Curricula developed with this journey in mind are very different to those aimed at academic accreditation and exam grades however, and these school structures can come at the expense of learning within an inclusive community. 

“Mainstream inclusive education”

“Mainstream inclusive education” systems seem to be the answer. In theory. All individuals learn together. There are no entry tests or restrictions on who can attend. Universal design ensures the school is fully accessible and systems are in place to ensure that barriers to learning are removed. In practice though, school systems often interpret inclusion in such a way that its original meaning is lost in the provision of inclusive support structures. Clifton (2004) rightly states that “inclusion, and thereby participation, in the educational system, is more than simply access to education”. Withdrawal classes, 1:1 support, Inclusion Units, Behavioural Support Units, Autism Units, The Inclusion Room, setting, streaming, teaching assistants, learning support assistants, all attempt to tread the path towards inclusion but often simply open a door to a standardised setting into which the student must fit. 

International schools

International schools adopt a diverse range of approaches to inclusion. They are often rooted in educational systems from national models and set out to combine the best of their host country’s culture and environment with established frameworks from the national systems they export. In doing this, many students are offered a unique and enriching international education which shapes them into flexible, creative and proactive global citizens. The latest ISC data suggest that over 50% of international schools are non-selective and “94% of them admit students with disabilities or disorders in reading, writing or maths.” Having worked in schools that offer the small group model, additional teaching and learning support, 1:1 time with a specialist, co-delivery and team teaching and the latest technology to deliver their curricula, I have been fortunate enough to have  experienced, first-hand, the benefits and limitations of the these strategies. 

Many of the support systems mentioned above contribute to ‘student integration’ as defined by the UN in 2016 as the “process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions”. Short term interventions utilising support mechanisms are very different to long term integration, masquerading as inclusion. 

In an increasingly competitive market, many schools are aiming to be all things to all students. It is common for inclusion to appear throughout school literature and for learning support departments to have prominent pages on school websites detailing arrangements to assure the community that all students are included. However, what is far less evidenced is how international schools put this into practice and how embedded the inclusive ethos is. 

A clear understanding of what schools want to be and a determined, sustained, in-practice drive to get there is crucial if schools are to move towards a truly inclusive model. Practitioners need to feel empowered to support the needs of their students without leaning on the deficit model of SEN and inclusion. Schools must ensure that colleagues have supportive networks, access to effective CPD and solid leadership. Berting and Pelletier, (2017) comment on their international journey towards inclusion and crystallise, what I feel, is an enormous barrier for schools to address :  

Overall, it is essential for a school, starting with its mission, to have a clear understanding of where it stands on inclusion and how it looks in practice.

Berting and Pelletier, (2017)

All too often, policies are written, and systems put in place without challenging existing beliefs and attitudes towards an inherent deficit model: something is lacking and somehow, someone else needs to teach it. Until we can challenge these beliefs around responsibility for the progress our learners make, we cannot effectively shape attitudes towards inclusion. A shared ethos, shared responsibility, skilled team and high expectations are the foundations of inclusive school culture. 

Image source: ISC Research

The ISC found that 62.8% of international schools “want more specialist support & services (training, consultancy, resources)” on their own journeys towards inclusion. The ILA is committed to providing effective professional development opportunities and we are delighted that this year, for the first time, we are able to offer programmes in partnership with the British Dyslexia Association and nasen, both leaders in SEN training. ILA development programmes focus on best practice in all settings, taking into account the international context of many of our participants. 

In addition to these programmes there are chances for colleagues and members of the local community to get involved in learning sets and twilight sessions across the BSN campuses using  expertise from within the BSN to build professional networks and further support colleagues and families in meeting the needs of learners with AENs. 

Teachers prepared to work effectively with a diverse range of learners’ needs can act as multipliers for inclusive education – every action that supports inclusive education matters and all actors in education can make a difference in the short and long term. 

(European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2012)  

An excerpt of this piece was published in Independent Education Today, November Issue 104


Berting, R. and Pelletier, K. (2017) Collaboration between Admissions Offices and Learning Support Departments in inclusive schools: The experience of the International School of Brussels, International Schools Journal Vol XXXVI.  

European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2012 p.36 

Messiou, K. (2017) ‘Research in the field of inclusive education: time for a rethink?’, International Journal of Inclusive Education. Taylor & Francis, 21(2), pp. 146–159.  

UN. 2016. General Comment No. 4, Article 24: Right to Inclusive Education. Geneva: Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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