Hard-wiring inclusive education in schools – an integrated approach

Posted by Lee Northern

When it comes to discussions about improvements to students’ health and wellbeing at school, we believe the evidence shows that inclusion is one of the most important factors to consider. Inclusion is, in short, the improvement of the quality, equity, and social mobility of schools. Tribal’s Lee Northern, Principal Inspections Consultant, has been a vocal supporter of the importance of inclusion in education for the health and wellbeing of students and teachers alike, and shares his thoughts on the importance of inclusion in education systems here.

The importance of inclusion

Throughout my career in education, I have remained passionate about the potential of schools to be truly inclusive. Many schools and educators around the world – on a daily basis – do incredible things to support and nurture their young people, sometimes despite, rather than because of, the context in which they work. However, notwithstanding the well-meaning and sheer hard work of stakeholders at every level in education, the ultimate goal of inclusion has somehow remained elusive.

For too many children, their time at school can be unfulfilling, frustrating and ultimately unrewarding. Their experiences at school impact adversely on their self-esteem, self-efficacy, motivation, and ultimately their life chances. Schools should not only to be the springboard for children’s future successes, but also to be the place where their confidence and belief in themselves can be nurtured and, ultimately, thrive.

Children’s experiences of school largely revolve around where they spend most of their time while they are in the school – the classroom. However, this is the environment where some children can feel threatened, belittled, and begin to think of themselves as failures. The classroom becomes the space where they can’t do what others can, where they don’t keep up, and where they experience the beginnings of struggle and frustration. Learning – the core business of every school – becomes something without value to them, to be feared, avoided, and dismissed. Educators can conceive of inclusion differently and in a learning-focused way, so that – day in and day out – children’s experience of school – and especially the classroom – is one of success, reward, satisfaction and enjoyment. If education systems can improve children’s experience of the classroom (and thus of learning), then the chances are that inroads into other possible issues in school can be made: poor behaviour, low attendance, mental health issues and so on.

In many schools, much is invested in inculcating ‘positive mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’ in children. While these are beneficial, there is also motivation and success to be found in learning itself. Success in learning brings motivation. We can derive much pleasure and motivation from achieving success. As Prof Daniel Muijs points out in his blog here:

“Many have pointed out that research shows that the best way to increase motivation is learning itself, and the feeling of mastery we gain when we are successful. Focusing on strategies that improve learning remains the most important strategy. Getting a sense of mastery and learning is motivating in itself. What we want is for pupils to end up in a positive spiral, in which motivation and learning continuously reinforce each other.”

It seems that truly embracing a vision for inclusion must be ‘hard-wired’ into everything a school does – and how it thinks about and organises its curriculum, teaching and assessment. In some instances, despite well-meaning intentions, a focus on inclusive learning can sometimes be restricted to the margins of a school’s work or be ‘bolted on’ to already crowded remits of schools and school staff. If educational institutions wish to truly embrace inclusion, to really ‘hard-wire’ inclusion into the fabric of the school, they must think deeply about what happens each day in the classroom and about children’s experiences of learning.

Treating the cause, not the symptoms

 For reasons such as workload, sustainability, manageability, initiative-fatigue and so on, it is believed that we cannot be truly inclusive by merely ‘bolting’ on provision, such as through commonly seen ‘catch-up’ interventions. These approaches have their place, but they can be hugely labour and cost-intensive, suffering frequently from diminishing returns over time. They are often ‘hamster-wheels’ of intervention to which educators return, year after year after year.

 In focusing on ‘catch up’, establishments are really attending to the symptoms – rather than the cause – of underachievement. In a similar way, when schools introduce multi-layered sanction and reward systems to tackle behaviour or attendance, they are often tackling the consequences of poor learning, not homing in sufficiently on the causes of these issues in the first place. These concerns flow in large part (although not entirely) from their experiences of learning in the classroom, and their reactions to this experience.

Research undertaken in 2017 by the Education Policy Institute (here) found that in relation to disadvantaged pupils, attainment gaps typically double at each major transition point from 4.3 months at the end of Early Years, to 9.5 months at the end of Key Stage 2, to 19.3 months by age 16. Institutions need a fresh way of thinking about inclusion, by focusing on ‘keeping up’ rather than ‘catching up’, and on children succeeding and feeling good about learning, lesson in, lesson out.

This is echoed in another more recent report published by Ofsted in their excellent suite of ‘Curriculum research reviews’ (here). In the June 2021 research review for mathematics (here), the report states:

“Teachers and leaders should try to strike a balance between curricular approaches that enable pupils to keep up with their peers and reactive approaches that identify, help and support pupils after they have fallen behind. These reactive approaches are more likely to rely on assessment, diagnoses, personalisation and interventions. In the English mathematics education system, emphases on reactive approaches are associated with a wide attainment spread and a long tail of under-achievement. Almost 180,000 students had to re-sit GCSE mathematics in 2019.”

What really matters to students and should be focused on is what causes these gaps – and this is to do with gaps in learning. To start closing these gaps – by being inclusive and aware of students’ needs – then we need to systematically and rigorously address these gaps in learning from the very outset of pupils’ education and throughout the journey through the curriculum they receive. The best place to tackle gaps in learning is in the classroom, day-to-day, as they emerge. Research has shown (examples here and here) the teacher has the single biggest impact on pupils’ learning, so it is in the classroom where we ought to be focusing our efforts and rethinking our approach.

In effect, as the Ofsted report says, we need to develop an approach to learning that emphasises ‘keep up’ over ‘catch up’. In my opinion, establishments cannot make ‘catch up’ work effectively or efficiently enough over the long term. Truly inclusive education requires ensuring as many pupils as possible keep up with their learning, all of the time – in each and every classroom.



To keep up to date with Lee’s latest activities, talks, and blogs – connect with him on LinkedIn, visit his blog, or follow Tribal Group for our company-wide announcements and activity.

Talk to our professionals for help and advice on how you can begin to make your establishment more inclusive for students, and more.


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