Models of Inclusive Education

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Inclusive Education: What is Inclusion?

Models of SEND: Social vs Medical

Inclusion, integration and exclusion 4

The SEN Framework




The education of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a key challenge for the UK. It is essential to the production of a fully inclusive society in which all consider themselves as valued for the contribution they make. All children deserve to access good quality education that addresses their needs and supports them to learn to ensure that they can thrive and climb the ladder of opportunity. With inclusion and inclusive education attracting as buzzwords to which, many educational establishments subscribe, there are rising concerns about the quality and access to SEND provision. This assessment forms an introduction to my research into the contested area of educational inclusion. However, to fully understand and appreciate the concept of an inclusive educational setting I will first look at the differing perspectives on inclusion, and the way that both social and more predominately medical models have influenced and shaped current thinking. There will also be consideration for barriers to inclusion and the key differences between inclusion and integration. In addition, reflection on some of the significant legislation that underpin current thinking in this area will be given.

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Inclusive Education: What is Inclusion?

Inclusive education is an ardently contested area of which there can be no doubt. A knowledgeable approach and positive attitude toward inclusion begins by understanding the concept and the theory behind it. In work published by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE), Booth and Ainscow (2002) summarise some of the principles surrounding inclusion through, what they term, the ‘Index for Inclusion’. The Index, which has obtained international recognition, takes the social model approach of disability as its starting point and then builds on good practice, organising around a cycle of activities which then guides its users through the stages of preparation, investigation, development and review. It is seen as a valuable resource to support the inclusive development of schools and to challenge and support the development of establishments that already consider themselves ‘inclusive’. Definitions of inclusion in education from the ‘Index of Inclusion’ are as follows:

  • Valuing all students and staff equally.
  • Increasing the participation of students in, and reducing their exclusion from, the cultures, curricula and communities of local schools.
  • Restructuring the cultures, policies and practices in schools so that they respond to the diversity of students in the locality.
  • Reducing barriers to learning and participation for all students, not only those with impairments or those who are categorised as `having special educational needs’.
  • Learning from attempts to overcome barriers to the access and participation of particular students to make changes for the benefit of students more widely.
  • Viewing the difference between students as resources to support learning, rather than as problems to be overcome.
  • Acknowledging the right of students to an education in their locality.
  • Improving schools for staff as well as for students.
  • Emphasising the role of schools in building community and developing values, as well as in increasing achievement.
  • Fostering mutually sustaining relationships between schools and communities.
  • Recognising that inclusion in education is one aspect of inclusion in society.

Booth and Ainscow (2002)

In the Index, ‘barriers to learning and participation’ provide an alternative view to the much held concept of ‘special educational needs’, conferring that a label attached to some children can lower overall expectations of their progress.  Understanding inclusive education as reducing barriers to learning and participation as well as identifying alternatives for learning and participation for all learners, the Index for Inclusion provides an approach to developing schools and educational institutions based on inclusive values and self-review. Promoting inclusion within mainstream schools, where support can be appropriately provided, should however remain the cornerstone of any strategy. Those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs. There are strong educational, as well as social and moral, grounds for educating children with SEN, and or with disabilities, with their peers. Inclusion is, however, a complex and contested concept and its manifestations in practice are countless. Views below are drawn from a variety of sources and viewpoints, from professionals working with children, government documents and organisations that campaign for rights concerning SEND, to look at a range of perspectives on what inclusive education means.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) are an organisation led by disabled people focused on campaigning and information sharing on education, training and apprenticeship issues:

“Inclusive education, also called inclusion, is education that includes everyone, with non-disabled and Disabled people (including those with special educational needs) learning together in mainstream schools, colleges and universities.”

(ALLFIE, 2018)

The aforementioned CSIE is another organisation that through campaigning promotes the growth of inclusive schools within the UK and has been at the cutting edge of education change for more than 35 years:

“Arguments for inclusive education are well documented and rest on notions of equality and human rights. Much more than a policy requirement, inclusion is founded upon a moral position which values and respects every individual, and which welcomes diversity as a rich learning resource.”

(CSIE, 2018)

The National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) is a membership charity organisation for professionals working in inclusion. They support educational professionals by providing resources and training to help meet and identify the requirements of individuals with special educational needs. The president of the organisation, Chris Darlington speaking in an article for the TES during 2003 recognised inclusion as:

“Inclusion is a process, not a state. NASEN believes effective inclusion can only be achieved when all those involved are able to participate confidently”. “Its definition has to encompass broad notions of educational access and the importance of catering for diverse needs. Key principles are valuing diversity, entitlement, dignity, individual needs, planning, collective responsibility, professional development, and equal opportunities.”

(Darlington, 2003)

The next quote is taken directly from a publication issued by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in 2001 following substantial changes in the law. The “Inclusive Schooling” publication brought about the production of statutory guidance for a new framework for inclusion. These changes when implemented strengthened students’ rights to a mainstream education:

“Schools supported by local education authorities and others should actively seek to remove the barriers to learning and participation that can hinder or exclude pupils with special educational needs.”

(DfES, 2001, paragraph 7)

These differing definitions have much in common, but also vary in their use of language. Whilst most perspectives view inclusive education as going well beyond one specific group of learners, the DfES’s description focuses on ‘special educational needs.’

Even though the term inclusion appears consistently and regularly in government documentation, no official meaning of it is clearly defined, and in the UK the terms ‘inclusion’, ‘inclusive practice’, ‘inclusive education’ or ‘integration’, do not appear anywhere within primary legislation. Subsequently, when government reports, academics and parents speak of ‘inclusion’, ‘inclusive practice’ or ‘inclusive education’, they may seem to be using the same term while the equivalent may not be what they imply.

Models of SEND: Social vs Medical

Some contend that the right to inclusion is not as straightforward with arguments that non-inclusion is equivalent to the discrimination and segregation which may occur as a result of racism or sexism (Christensen & Dorn, 1997). This approach compares clashes to promote inclusion as comparable to those who challenge segregation policies and racist discrimination, often referred to as the ‘social model’ and is clearly distinguished from the ‘medical model’. This section discusses personal experiences of inclusion and exclusion and how they have been a major driving force in the development of an inclusive education, with many SEN and disabled adults, struggling to redefine their own experiences of education. One contributory factor which has remained influential in this fight towards redefinition has been the shift towards a social model of disability.

Models are a useful tool to help think about and discuss a topic, but they can be simplistic and make things appear clearer cut than they actually are. As such, Rieser and Mason (1992) describe models of disability as not necessitating the truth as accepted by scientific fact but as a guide for others to make sense of the information. Most organisations currently sit somewhere between the social and medical models and use aspects of both when forming attitudes and interacting with disabled people, as such the attitudes disabled people experience inevitably affect the way disabled people interact with others.

Mason writes, herself a parent of a disabled child, how medical approaches to impairment give rise to the view that people are objects to be ‘changed’, ‘improved’ or even ‘treated’ and that they can altered and made ‘normal’ (Rieser and Mason, 1992, p. 13). Hence, this medical model informs the development and structure of legislation and is reflected in the attitudes of people and any related negative consequences. In relation to disability discrimination, certain aspects of the Equality Act 2010 follow the medical model of disability as they focus on what a person is unable to do. The Act also sets out specific criterion which must be met if an individual is to be protected under the legislation. The medical model of disability disregards how society itself might change but views the disabled person as needing to fit in.

In contrast, the social model of disability, once called ‘the big idea’ of the British disability movement (Hasler, 1993) has become the ideological test of disability politics in the UK having been given academic credibility from work completed by Mike Oliver during the early and mid-nineties. The fundamental definition of the social model comes in a document first drafted by activist group, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) during the 1970s, which was later supported by the work of disabled academic Mike Oliver. Oliver states that it is in fact society which disables physically impaired people, imposing disability on top of impairments by the way that disabled people are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society (Oliver, 1996:2009). He goes on to further state that disabled people are therefore considered an oppressed group in our society and that to understand this we must ‘grasp the distinction between the physical impairment and the social situation, called disability’; that the definition of impairment as lacking part (or all) of a limb, or having a deficient or defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body. Oliver defines disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation that takes little or no account of persons with physical disabilities and thus effectively excludes them and that inclusive education is considered the social model of disability applied to education (Oliver, 1996:2009). Inclusive education requires the restructuring of the education system so that all pupils and students achieve their potential and value each other. All of us involved with education must engage in the continuous task of changing these deep-seated attitudes and discriminatory behaviours if we are to create an inclusive future in which all will benefit.

Comparisons of the medical and the social models, as defined by Rieser (2001) are illustrated below (Table 1) and show the implications for educational establishments of each way of thinking.

Table 1 Comparison of the medical and social models of disability in education

Medical model

Social model

The child is faulty

The child is valued


Strengths and needs are defined by self and by others


Identify barriers and develop solutions

Impairment becomes the focus of attention

Outcomes-based programmes are designed

Assessment and monitoring

Resources are made available

Segregation and alternative services

Training for parents and professionals

Ordinary needs are put on hold

Relationships are fostered

Re-entry if ‘normal’ enough or permanent exclusion

Diversity welcomed; child is welcomed

Society remains unchanged

Society evolves

Rieser (2001, p. 139)

While much research focuses on disability attitudes and responses, learners with special educational needs and or disabilities are not the only ones marginalized in learning situations. Exclusion can be based on a range of factors be them economic, educational, racial and social.

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Specific models of thinking can impact learning opportunities by limiting the expectations of both learners and teachers with discussion about educational provision for children with SEN and disabilities being largely ignored. The voices of those for whom that provision is intended is often overlooked with legislation being driven by those in government. In research carried out with forty people of different ages, Armstrong (2003) demonstrates the impact of such models by giving a voice for those positioned outside of the mainstream of society who, as children had been identified as being ‘mentally retarded’, ‘sub-normal’ or as having ‘learning difficulties’. These historical accounts trace the development of special education and play a major role in informing how we, and others think about inclusion. Armstrong cites the case of Michelle who during the mid-nineties was unconvinced by the reasons for her placement in a special school:

‘I don’t really think I should have been at a special school. Sure, I had problems with some reading of hard words and spelling, but everyone has those problems in some stage in their lives. Some of those kids in ordinary schools have problems with spelling and things like that.’

(‘Michelle’ cited in Armstrong, 2003, p. 68)

The question here for Michelle was that of who was defining her interests. Whilst her complaint was not to do with the quality of her education but for the decisions that were being made about her based, not on her views, but on the professionals’ expectations of people being labelled with ‘moderate learning difficulties’. The consequence of these decisions was deeply distressing, yet Michelle is very clear on her own positioning.

‘Nothing was discussed with me. All that I know is that it feels as though I’ve had a kind of like stamp trade mark put on me saying. “Oh, you’ve got a mental age of a 12-year-old” and things like that. That’s all I know. It makes me feel stupid because I know that I can do better, and I could have gone to a proper, normal school but they don’t see it like that. It’s the government that does those kind of tests and makes these decisions.’

(‘Michelle’ cited in Armstrong, 2003, p. 69)

Her views here were not sought after, she had no say in decisions that ultimately led to her segregation in the special education system all through her school and college life, placing her firmly on to a pathway of disadvantage and discrimination.

‘…I feel like an outcast – It makes me feel so goddamn angry! It makes me feel as though it will affect me for the rest of my life, as though I’ll always have that stamp on me.’

(‘Michelle’ cited in Armstrong, 2003, p. 70 )

The labelling of ‘learning difficulties’ has become one that saturated all aspects of Michelle’s life and continued to do so for an ever-increasing number of children. In Michelle’s case, college perpetuated her childhood positioning and as such legitimated her exclusion from wider society and clearly indicates a strong resistance to the identity that had been thrust upon her. The intrusion of professional decision-making inhibited the transition to adulthood by denying her the opportunity to locate this transition within the context of her rights as a citizen.

Inclusion, integration and exclusion

There can be a tendency to focus on statutory provision for those students with SEN and disabilities as distracting from, what I would consider, the real issue. One that defines the processes of inclusion and exclusion that leave many students, not just those with ‘special educational needs’, unable to participate in mainstream society (Booth, 1996). Hence, the complete study of inclusion should concern the understanding and the broader issue of marginalisation and consequences of this process for marginalised groups such as ethnic groups, mature students, those in economic crisis and countless others. The point here is that we cannot consider these groups in isolation if we are aiming to make real changes in the way education works (Dyson, 2001).  Definitions of ‘inclusion’ therefore have moved away from that specific focus on disability towards a broader view that encompasses these often-marginalised groups. Whereas, ‘inclusive education’ has given meaning to a provision of a framework within which all children regardless of their ability, cultural or ethnic background, gender or language be equally valued and henceforth provided with real and accessible learning opportunities. Such a view of inclusion presents a major challenge to existing systems and structures that have themselves contributed to the barriers that learners experience. Inclusion then requires the transformation of learning contexts involving a restructure and reform of educational systems ensuring that all pupils can access the entire range of educational and social opportunities available to them. This process of transformation not only has radical implications for the way we think about the origins of behavioural and specifically learning difficulties, but also requires ‘systemic change and a national policy’ (Mittler, 2000).

With ‘integration’ implying that the onus for change appeared to be on the student to adapt to the school, rather than for the school to alter its own practices to include a greater diversity of pupils. ‘Inclusive education’ therefore goes beyond ‘integration’ and implies a radical shift in attitudes and a willingness on the part of schools to transform practices in assessment, curriculum and pedagogical approach. The notion of inclusion does not set boundaries around kinds of learning difficulty or disability, but instead focuses on how the school can accommodate a diverse range of needs.

The SEN Framework

The 1944 Education Act created eleven categories of ‘handicap’ which included such terms as ‘delicate’ and the much maligned ‘educationally subnormal’ as well as terms such as ‘blind’, ‘deaf’ and ‘physically handicapped’ (HMSO, 1944). It also encouraged a segregated approach, supported by misinterpretation of the legislation and severe prejudice, which was reinforced by the role of educational institutions in implementing controversial medical interventions meaning that many children were deemed to have such severe impairments that they were not included in the act and labelled as ‘ineducable’. It was not until 1970 and The Education (Handicapped Children) Act that those children once described as ‘ineducable’ became the responsibility of the Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Jumping ahead 8 years, the Warnock Report (1978) estimated that approximately 20% of children would have SEN at some stage in their school careers and recommended that, as far as possible, these needs should be met in mainstream rather than special schools. The report also adopted the term ‘special educational needs’ to describe all children who may have individual educational needs. This change in the use of language coincided with a significant recommendation for change in educational practice and that provision for special education should ‘wherever possible’ occur within mainstream settings (Warnock Report, 1978). The 1981 Education Act again stressed the need for children with special educational needs to be educated within a mainstream provision where possible and introduced the principle of integration. However, it was not until 1994 that the Warnock committee’s commitment to education within mainstream settings was translated into the Government’s support for inclusive education.

In 1994, the UK Government signed up to the Salamanca Statement, drawn up by United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which called upon all Governments to ‘adopt as a matter of law or policy the principle of inclusive education, enrolling all children in regular schools, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise’ (UNESCO, 1994). The Statement placed educational reform firmly within a broader social agenda and emphasised that mechanisms for planning, monitoring and evaluating provision for inclusive education should be ‘decentralised and participatory’ encouraging the ‘participation of parents, communities and organisations of people with disabilities in the planning and decision making’ (UNESCO, 1994, p. 9). Following this announcement and widespread demand to establish individual rights as a key component in policy making, the Education Act of 1996 was created consolidating the Education Act of 1944 and certain other enactments relating to education (Daniels and Garner, 1999). Further amending caselaw and legislation quickly followed, including the Special Educational Needs & Disability Act (SENDA) 2001 and a revised Code of Practice which sought to strengthen the right to mainstream inclusion, before the most recent Special Educational Needs & Disability Code of Practice 2015, which came into force in September 2014. It includes guidance relating to disabled children and young people, as well as those with SEN. There is also clearer focus on participation of children, their parents, and young people in discussions and decisions about their support and provision, meaning that many children and young people with SEND will have their needs met within local mainstream early years providers, schools or colleges.

A month before the Code of Practice was approved, in a report published on 26 June 2014, a House of Lords Scrutiny Committee made several criticisms. They stated, amongst other things that ‘Insufficient improvements have been made in the final draft to accurately reflect the underlying law on which this statutory guidance advises’ and that ‘there is a ‘real risk’ that the Code of Practice may imperfectly achieve its glossy objectives’ (, 2014).


The inclusive education debate has undoubtedly helped to raise concerns about  SEN and disabled children in the UK and as ‘a global agenda’ (Pijl et atl., 1997). However, it has also highlighted the many dilemmas and tensions which result when disability is seen as a separate issue. Disabled children are not a homogeneous group. They may identify more strongly with other aspects of their overall identity, such as their gender, economic status, ethnicity, etc. Belonging to one or more of these groupings significantly increases their vulnerability. The persistence of the forces that marginalise individuals or groups of learners, and those models that would categorise them makes the struggle for inclusion an ongoing one. With the many different ‘stakeholders’ in education and the history of professional interaction suggests that cross-boundary collaboration is likely to remain challenging, as will the longstanding correlation between the measurement of educational performance and family and social background. Unfortunately, the financial retrenchment that currently afflicts all public services may make tackling these problems more difficult. Education is, however, a much broader concept than the acquisition of skills. Inclusive education aims to promote democratic principles and a set of values and beliefs relating to equality and social justice so that all children can participate in teaching and learning. Through its championing of marginalised groups, inclusive education has the potential to promote such values and beliefs.

References (2014). House of Lords – 3rd Report of Session 2014-15 – Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2018].

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