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Inclusion and equity: the big challenge for education systems

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Despite 25 years of international debate, there remains considerable confusion in the field as to what the idea of inclusive education means.

In some countries it is still seen as involving attempts to integrate disabled children into regular schools. Internationally, however, it is increasingly seen as a principle that supports and welcomes diversity amongst all learners. In this way, inclusion is seen as a means of improving education for all.

International developments

Over many years I have worked as a consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on a series of international initiatives in relation to this agenda. The story of these developments is explained in a new report, Towards inclusion in education: Status, trends and challenges, which I drafted with the support of a group of international experts. 

The report argues that education systems based on the principles of inclusion and equity are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes and discrimination, in order to create welcoming communities, build inclusive societies and achieve high-quality education for all. It also provides guidance and suggestions to help countries minimise barriers to learning and ensure the genuine inclusion of all learners.


In summary, six actions that emerged from the developments summarized in the report are recommended. These point to the importance of:

  1. Establishing clear definitions of what is meant by inclusion and equity in education;
  2. Using evidence to identify contextual barriers to the participation and progress of learners;
  3. Ensuring that teachers are supported in promoting inclusion and equity;
  4. Designing the curriculum and assessment procedures with all learners in mind;    
  5. Structuring and managing education systems in ways that engage all learners; and
  6. Involving communities in the development and implementation of policies that promote inclusion and equity in education

Together, these recommendations have major implications for practice within schools and across education systems. They also challenge those in advisory and support roles, such as educational psychologists,  to consider the implications for their work.

Moving forward

The six recommended actions call for coordinated and sustained efforts, recognising that changing outcomes for vulnerable students is unlikely to be achieved unless there are changes in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of adults. The starting point must therefore be with policy-makers and practitioners: enlarging their capacity to imagine what might be achieved, and increasing their sense of accountability for bringing this about. This may also involve tackling negative assumptions, most often relating to expectations about certain groups of students, their capabilities and behaviours.

It is also important that inclusion and equity in education are studied, encouraged and evaluated with an intersectional view that covers early childhood care and education, primary, secondary, technical and vocational training, and tertiary education. This will only be possible, the report argues, if governments and civil society recognize that talents are equally distributed between rich and poor in all cultures, genders and nationalities.

Most importantly, this means that governments must make a clear and genuine commitment to inclusion and equity, emphasising the benefits for parents and children, and for the community at large, whilst recognizing that social inclusion and inclusive education go hand in hand.

Promising developments

The situation across the world in relation to this challenging policy agenda is complex, with some countries making great strides. For example:

  • For more than 30 years New Brunswick in Canada has pioneered the concept of inclusive education through legislation, local authority policies and professional guidelines.
  • The Italian government passed a law in 1977 that closed all special schools, units and other non-inclusive provision. This legislation is still in force and subsequent amendments have further strengthened the inclusive nature of the education system. 
  • Having enacted legislation making disability discrimination in education unlawful, Portugal has gone much further in enacting an explicit legal framework for the inclusion in education of students with and without disabilities.

In drawing attention to these examples of policy development, it must be stressed that they are not seen as being perfect. Rather, they are countries where there are interesting developments from which to learn. They are also varied in respect to the approach being taken. The common factor, however, is that they are all based on the idea that inclusion and equity are principles that must inform all educational policies. 

A transformational approach

Together the recommendations made in the UNESCO report represent a transformational approach to educational development. They are based on the idea that enhancing inclusion and equity are the means of achieving excellence within national education systems. The report argues that this provides the foundation for creating sustainable development and a way of developing innovative solutions to the world’s greatest problems. The big question is, do we have the collective will to make it happen?

Read the new UNESCO Report – Towards inclusion in education: Status, trends and challenges

Further reading can be found in the UNESCO Journal, Prospects.

2 Comments so far:

  1. […] education systems that make diversity a strength, and where every learner matters equally’, says Mel Ainscow, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester and drafting coordinator for the […]

  2. […] Inclusion and equity: the big challenge for education systems, by Mel Ainscow […]

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