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Notions of inclusion and play in early years childcare and education are contestable, uncertain and create challenges for those who work with children and their families. In addition, it is recognised that a well qualified children's workforce promotes inclusive learning for children. However, variations exist in how inclusion and play are constructed by early years practitioners within and across the UK and other European countries. Such variations arise from social, cultural, political and historical landscapes specific to each country, but each country faces common challenges in terms of sharing professional expertise and making space for debates about 'inclusion' and 'play'. The aims of the PLEYIn project intended to create such spaces for early years practitioners with the needs of all children and their families in mind.
Four partners contributed to the formulation of the bid to the Leonardo da Vinci Lifelong Learning Programme for Partnership funding for a two year project from 2009-2011. The partners were the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, the College of Humanities and Economics in Sieradz, Poland and Newman University College (NUC), Birmingham, UK. The aims of the PLEYIn project were:
to create networks of early years practitioners across partner countries sharing vocational experiences and education opportunities
to identify and develop practice focused strategies that are play based and designed to include all children and families within the communities where practitioners work
to establish common concepts of inclusive learning through play
to share and develop skills and expertise through training seminars
to promote the use of sustainable resources available in the communities where practitioners are located, whether in rural or urban areas
to undertake research and dissemination activities nationally and internationally in order to share and evaluate the partnership project.
Article 26 of the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) guarantees 'the right to educationâ€¦ directed to the full development of the human personality and promot(ing) understanding, tolerance and friendship' (Inclusion International 2009). Of equal importance is the right of children not to be discriminated against, as expressed in Article 2 of the United Convention of Rights for the Child (UNCRC) (UN, 1989). Logically therefore the implication is that all children have the right to receive the kind of education that does not discriminate on grounds of disability, ethnicity, religion, language, gender or capabilities and offers equality of opportunities in terms of outcomes (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO 2003). The concept of human rights has evolved through advocacy for minority rights by the United Nations (UN) in the interwar and post-war years. In response to the Nazi persecution of tens of thousands of people from minority groups during the Second World War, the call to respect all human rights, first expressed through the UDHR in 1948, was enshrined in the ethos of the UN. This placed an emphasis on 'equality and human dignity and the worth of every person' (Smith 2010:25). By the end of the 20th century, mainly due to lobbying by disabled people's organisations, disability had become visible in the arena of international human rights, and subsequently second and third generation laws have placed more emphasis on the education of disabled children.
A complex design was chosen for the seminars. The structure for the seminars was in two parts. The first part consisted in presentations by academic staff from each of the three countries, which provided an overview of inclusion and play within their country. Longer times for presentations were allocated to guest countries within each seminar, as local practitioners were not familiar with the policy contexts in those countries. The second part of the seminars consisted in group discussions stimulated by three case studies, located in each of the three partner countries. The method employed in this second part was the focus conversation. It could be argued that a focus group is being deployed as a specific method of data collection, but the term 'focus conversation' was preferred. A focus conversation acknowledges that there is a willingness to participate in discussion of a 'shared experience knowledge and interest' and also to explore statements and ideas' (Clough and Nutbrown 2002: 78). Participants have been informed of the aims of the project as well as the aims of the seminars: the focus on inclusion, play and early learning has been made explicit. The purpose of this research design was to generate qualitative data, commensurate with the interpretive paradigm chosen. For this second part of the seminar, participants were split at random into groups, each to discuss the case studies. There were slightly differences in the three seminars regarding the number of groups for focus conversations and the number of case studies discussed. Participants in each of the three groups in England seminar discussed only one case study. Participants in seminar groups in Romania and Poland discussed all three case studies. For research purposes, it was only the second part of the seminars that was to be video-recorded, with participants' prior approval and consent. Responses to the focus questions were also noted on a flip chart for future analysis. In addition, evaluations from participants at the end of the event were undertaken. The project team, as facilitators of the discussions, was also part of the participant group. For the third part of the seminar, the groups came back together in order to share conclusions and final thoughts.
Figure 1: Participant numbers
Number of participants
More recently in England there has been a growing recognition that the system is failing to meet the needs of some children currently included in mainstream. In 2005 Mary Warnock referred to the 'disastrous legacy' of her 1978 report, arguing that there are 'limits to what can be achieved in mainstream schools, given the diversity of children's needs and the finite available resources' (Warnock in Cigman 2007:xii). Critics say that the idea of 'full inclusion' ignores the obvious 'practical realities' of disability and the rights of other children to an effective education (Hodkinson & Vickerman 2009: 80). This has led to the growing belief that that inclusion should not be about location, but about choice, and access to a high quality education that leads to equal opportunities in later life, placing special schools within the definition of inclusion as part of a 'continuum of provision'. It is even argued that segregation could be viewed as a form of positive discrimination for children with SEN (Low in Cigman 2007). This view has been embraced in the 2011 Green Paper, which seeks to 'remove the bias towards inclusion' for children with SEND (DfE 2011) and underlines a lack of political will, driven mainly by financial considerations, for the radical systemic overhaul that would ensure that children with a broader range of needs are included in mainstream education. Cigman (2007) however differentiates between presumption and assertion, advocating inclusion as the default position, rather than the other way around. Despite the rhetoric of inclusive education as a fundamental human right, ambivalence is evident amongst policy makers and advisors, mainly due to lack of resources and negative attitudes.
2. England examples
Communication Principle: Well developed skills in communication and engagement with children, families and other agencies.
Knowledge and Understanding Principle: Sound knowledge and understanding of relevant subjects that relate to inclusive provision eg. political, historical and cultural context, the impact of poverty, relevant frameworks for early identification, intervention and support, cultural background, pedagogical strategies that meet individual needs and challenge barriers to learning and ensures accessible, flexible and responsive provision.
Reflective Practice Principle: Professional values and attitudes towards working with a wide range of individual needs that are informed by ongoing CPD, reflection and awareness of reflexivity.
Networks principle: Awareness of macro level influences at community and societal level including structural limitations and challenges of integrated and multi agency working, informed by particular government agendas and consequent resources.
Advocacy Principle: Promote the rights of the child and the family in the setting and beyond.
Diversity Principle: Challenge stereotypes by recognising and disaggregating elements of identity and culture in relation to eg. language, disability, ethnicity, religious belief, class, experiences and perceived expectations.
Partnership Principle: Be sensitive to the rights and needs of every family to facilitate a mutually respectful partnership that values difference and diversity.
Play Principle: Challenge a predominantly utilitarian discourse and promote the important of play as a tool for inclusive provision.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Romania tried to move away from a traditional social and school segregation of children with special needs and disabilities. Changes regarding inclusive education were developing against a background of reforms in health, education and children protection fields. Since 1996, Romanian governments have pursued various social, economic and financial changes to improve the performance of the health and social protection system. In spite of these changes, health indicators are among the poorest in Europe. This explains why the health sector is posing the biggest challenges today and produces the highest dissatisfaction rates among the population. A significant contribution was also made by the RENINCO network (National Network for Information and Cooperation in Promoting Community Integration for Children and Youngsters with Special Education Needs), an independent not-for-profit organisation which assumed many of the tasks for implementing inclusive education in Romania. One of the problems of implementing inclusive education in Romania was confusing and confused terminology even in official documents and legislative provision. Thus, several terms were used such as impairment, handicap, disability, integration and special needs. They were used as synonyms and without being thoroughly defined. A linguistic innovation was needed because in Romanian, 'inclusiv' is an adverb with a precise meaning but it did not translate into the English word 'inclusion'. A new term 'incluziv' was chosen for this purpose (see Vrasmas and Vrasmas 2007). Currently, several terms are widely used in official policy documents and in practice, such as 'special education needs' (SEN), 'inclusive education', 'integration' and 'strategies in inclusive education' (Ungureanu 2000). Romanian literature in the field acknowledges that achieving inclusion means challenging current attitudes, prejudices and mentalities regarding children with special needs, as well as changing policy and practice of exclusion and separation (Mara 2009). In terms of integration, children with SEN can attend mainstream schools and can follow the same curriculum as other children, but there are also specific rehabilitation and intervention methods available for additional support. Two important instruments for these children are the Individual Services Plan (ISP) and the Personalized Intervention Plan (PIP). In this context, studying the development of children with special needs in order to determine new educational strategies - better adjusted to their needs and therefore more efficient - has become one of the priorities for specialists preparing to work with these children (VrÄƒÅŸmaÅŸ 2001). Finally, it is worth returning to play at this point and its role in inclusive education practice in Romania. Official documents (curriculum, syllabus, etc) as well as teachers and parents recognise the value of play in early years practice, and that play is the main activity enabling children to learn and to develop. Nevertheless, the traditional model of play in kindergarten is a structured one: often children play at their table, drawing or colouring, or with table games. The assumption for kindergarten practitioners is that structured play is more valuable than unstructured play. The layout of the classroom does not allow children to explore all types of play. Outdoor play is also a challenge for most of the kindergartens, because they are not suitably equipped for promoting children's outside play.
3. Romanian examples
Early intervention principle. The intervention for inclusion of children with special needs should begin as early as possible, not only when the child is enrolled in the educational system (kindergarten or school).
Continuity principle Inclusion efforts should be continuous, not fragmented and interrupted. Only this way the benefits provided by the actions meant for inclusion can accumulate and have positive effects.
Sharing responsibility principle The partnership between education institutions, practitioners, families and community is a basic condition for inclusive education. Inclusion should be facilitated by efforts of all the relevant social actors and agencies in community, not only by the efforts of practitioners/ specialists and families.
Networks principle It is important to establish or consolidate inclusion networks composed of practitioners, specialists, families and other relevant members of community, for a proper dissemination within them of exemplars of good practice.
Tolerance principle Practitioners working with children with special needs have the most important role in encouraging the tolerance towards these children. They and families involved should take actions for changing stereotypes and prejudices against these children.
Diversity principle Diversity (cultural, ethnic and religious) should be seen as a resource and not an obstacle for inclusion.
Extracurricular activities principle Involvement in extracurricular activities of the children with special needs completes and supports formal steps to inclusion.
Family involvement principle Family involvement is crucial for the process of inclusion. All actions of practitioners (decisions regarding further steps, educational activities planning, etc.) should be based on family participation and engagement.
Play principle Play is one of the most important tools for inclusion of children with special needs. Free play, not constraint by rules and valuing the creative and emotional potential of children, brings invaluable benefits for inclusion.
In Poland there are several definitions of "social inclusion". It is often considered to be the opposite of "social exclusion" and translates as a process of 'social re-adaptation'. Literature indicates that social inclusion underlines a number of difficulties, but two major problems appear to have an impact on other aspects of inclusion. The first is that in Poland there is a lack of any organization or provision which has responsibility for coordinating and monitoring children's overall development. It is currently devolved to individual departments, public services and institutions but their actions are not coordinated or joined up. The second is that the system of teacher and care-taker education requires immediate changes as it is currently anachronistic and does not consider fundamental professional values. Professional development needs to encourage practitioners to have an open-minded attitude and to accept difference and diversity. Currently it does not develop creativity and civil involvement, nor does it build key competences for professional career self-planning and social-management skills with reference to group/team teaching (CzyÅ¼, Falkowska, 2009: 5-6).
It is acknowledged that the first years of a child's life are the optimal period for intervention in emerging difficulties in learning. Such interventions can respond to developmental delay or difficulties and plan for therapeutic treatment of disorders if necessary (OkoÅ„, 1987; Przetacznik- Gierowska, 1993; Gruszczyk- KolczyÅ„ska, ZieliÅ„ska, 2004). Recent policy development has led to a reform of education in Poland. The new curriculum (Ministry of Education, MEN: Core curriculum for nursery schools and pre-school education, 2009: 23-25) focuses in particular on educating pre-school children and young learners and emphasises the role of play as a natural medium of education in this developmental period.
4. Poland examples
Depth diagnosis of the family principle: Well developed skills in family diagnosis; Thinking about all the risk factors and protective factors. treatment of the child's welfare as a supreme principle.
Environmental influence principle: The family situation should be analyse in the broad context of environmental. The ability to perceive the positive and negative characteristics of the environment, cultural, historical and political. Flexibility actions. Be sensitive to individual family circumstances.
Network principle: The main condition for effective family support is to create a network of experts and institutions. Identify individuals / groups / organizations coming, which will coordinate the activities of other.
Permanent skills developing principle: Professionals working with families must constantly improve their skills. Train in the new social risks and forms of assistance. They should have a background in social skills, law, education.
Changes at the central level principle : Institutions, NGOs, local governments should influence the government to make necessary changes in the law. Lack of regulations or bad regulation causes that aid is ineffective or not feasible.
Inclusion principle: Actions should take into account the individual circumstances of families and individuals such as language, disability, and work towards their inclusion in the community. Children, regardless of the family of origin, should have development conditions similar to the conditions for the development of other children in the same country
Individual strengthening principle: Activities of professionals must be directed at individuals. It should invest in more manpower than the support material. Relation to children should be used with individual curriculum.
Principle of continuation: After giving the family/child support they should not be alone. It is necessary to monitor the fate and actions. Help in further planning the development of life
Play principles: This rule was not formulated by the participants of the seminar. This is probably too little experience in this field in Poland. It should be fun to develop as a means of inclusion, especially young children and promote a method for action in early childhood education centers.
The main approach to constructing the statement of principles was through an examination of principles and constant comparison with the data from each country involved in the project - a similar process to how data were processed from the seminars. This required repeated reading of all the principles to elicit and compare each factor related to inclusion founded in each country. Each factor was compared with the rest of the data and indexed to an analytical category. Whenever a factor was not consistent with any of the existing categories, a new factor was created. The final result of this process was a complete statement of principles. Through this process of comparing principles, it became evident that a content analysis approach could have added a further layer of analysis of the principles, but it was decided that a hierarchy was not required. A set of principles, articulated as a whole and constructed from the data, demonstrated a grounded approach to the process.
5. Statement of Principles
a. Inclusion is best supported when there are strong connections between practitioners, specialists, families and agencies. This acknowledges shared responsibility, and that these work in an integrated way to co ordinate activity in the interests of the child and family.
b. Inclusive practice recognises that diversity of culture, language, religious belief, social class and ethnic origin provide a positive resource that should promote the wellbeing of all children and families.
c. Mutually respectful partnership with families is fundamental and that this is underpinned by the need for well developed professional skills to enable respectful, flexible and appropriate interventions that are sensitive to individual family circumstances and promote inclusion
d. Play is a key tool for inclusion in the early years, especially for children with special educational needs. Practitioners should understand the value and potential of the pedagogy of play and that education and training focus on developing knowledge and understanding of play for inclusion.
e. All those involved in working with children and families are committed to continuing professional development, reflective practice and have a sound understanding of the factors that frame and shape their practice.
f. Practitioners have a key role in challenging stereotypes and prejudices and should promote the rights of the child and the family in the setting and beyond.
g. Intervention and support, to be effective, requires continuity of provision, monitoring and evaluation to allow for future provision to continue to support inclusion.
h. Organisations should be proactive in seeking to influence policy makers to sustain and promote inclusive practices
i. Intervention for inclusion should begin as soon as possible.
j. Extra-curricular and community based activities are an essential tool for the inclusion.
We learned about how the project provided the opportunity for participants in each locality to meet and discuss themes related to inclusion and to strengthen the links between them. Talking about the difficulties in their practice or sharing examples of good practice were ways of raising their awareness of what a formal professional network or a stronger community of practice could achieve for them. They embraced every opportunity to learn a little more about examples of good practice, resources and strategies used in other countries.