Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 11: Inclusive education

19In almost every country, inclusive education has emerged as one of the most the dominant issues in the education of SWSEN. In the past 40 years the field of special needs education has moved from a segregation paradigm through integration to a point where inclusion is central to contemporary discourse. Even so the concept of inclusion is not unproblematic, both conceptually and practically (Hegarty, 2001). This chapter presents material on six themes relating to inclusive education: the concept, its origins, international perspectives, approaches to its implementation, related research evidence, and critiques.

From the outset, it must be said that inclusive education is a complex, if not a problematic concept. Despite the internationalisation of the philosophy of inclusive education (UNESCO, 1994, 2008), for a range of historical, cultural, social and financial reasons its implementation has been uneven across the world. It has been a particularly problematic concept in developing countries, where resources are limited and fewer than 2% of children with disabilities receive any form of education.

Inclusive education affects not just the conceptualisation of special educational needs and the nature of education provided for SWSEN, but it calls into question the broader aims of education, the purposes of schools, the nature of the curriculum, approaches to assessment, and schools’ accommodation to diversity. Hence, some of the principles of inclusive education are traversed elsewhere in this review, in particular in the introduction (Chapter One) and the chapters on the educational context (Chapter Six), curriculum (Chapter Eight), assessment (Chapter Nine), pedagogy (Chapter Ten), teacher education (Chapter Thirteen), and universal design for learning (Chapter Sixteen).

11.1 The Concept of Inclusive Education

A succinct definition of inclusive education is provided by Lipsky & Gartner (1996, 1999), who described it as students with disabilities having full membership in age-appropriate classes in their neighbourhood schools, with appropriate supplementary aids and support services. To Antia et al. (2002), inclusion denotes a student with a disability unconditionally belonging to and having full membership of a regular classroom in a regular school and its community. They contrasted this with ‘integration’, or ‘mainstreaming’, both of which imply that the student with a disability has the status of a visitor, with only conditional access to a regular classroom, but primary membership of a special class or resource room.

In their review of 28 European countries, Meijer et al. (2003) described three different approaches to including pupils with special educational needs: one-track (including almost all pupils in the mainstream), multi-track (a variety of services between mainstream and special needs education), and two-track (two distinct educational systems). In this chapter, the main focus is upon the first of these – the one-track approach.

In recent years, the concept of inclusive education has been broadened to encompass not only students with disabilities, but also all students who may be disadvantaged. Earlier, Skrtic et al. (1996) had argued that inclusive education goes far beyond physical placement of students with disabilities in general classrooms, but should involve schools meeting the needs of all their students within common, but fluid, environments and activities. This broadened conceptualisation of inclusive education was recently articulated in the meeting at the forty-eighth session of the UNESCO International Conference on Education, held in Geneva in November 2008, where it was acknowledged that ‘inclusive education is an ongoing process aimed at offering quality education for all while respecting diversity and the different needs and abilities, characteristics and learning expectations of the students and communities, eliminating all forms of discrimination’ (UNESCO, 2009, p.126).

11.2 The Origins of Inclusive Education

Advocacy for inclusive education revolves around three main arguments. Firstly, several writers claim that inclusive education is a basic human right. For example, Christensen (1996) argued that exclusion or segregation of students with special needs is a violation of their human rights and represents an unfair distribution of educational resources. Similarly, Lipsky & Gartner (1996, 1999) asserted that inclusive education is a fundamental right, derived from the principle of equity, which, if recognised, would contribute significantly to a democratic society. This is also emphasised in UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement (1994) and by Slee (2001), the latter considering that inclusive education is about the cultural politics of protecting the rights of citizenship for all students. Writing from a British perspective, and as a person with a disability, Oliver (1996) argued that the education system has failed disabled students by not equipping them to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, while the special education system has functioned to exclude them from both the education process and wider social life. He thus saw inclusion as a political as well as an educational process.

Secondly, as Lipsky & Gartner (1996, 1999) pointed out, in designing educational programmes for students with disabilities, the focus must shift from the individual’s impairments to the social context, a key feature of which should be a unitary education system dedicated to providing quality education for all students (cf., Meijer et al.’s (2003)one-track approach mentionedabove).A similar point is advanced by English writer, Skidmore (2002), who found that teachers have two contrasting ‘pedagogical discourses’ – the discourse of deviance and the discourse of inclusion. These differ along a number of dimensions, such as teachers’ views on the educability of students, their explanations of student failure, and their curriculum models. He argued that the discourse of inclusion provides an alternative vision of the relationship between education and society that runs counter to the processes of segregation and differentiation that have dominated the development of mass schooling. The latter point was also expressed by Slee (2001), who claimed that the more schools have been called upon to include the masses, the more they have developed the technologies of stratification and exclusion. Slee saw a danger, too, in inclusive education deteriorating into assimilation or absorption.

A third argument asserts that since there is no clear demarcation between the characteristics of students with and without disabilities, and there is no support for the contention that specific categories of students learn differently, separate provisions for such students cannot be justified (Lipsky & Gartner, 1996, 1999).

11.3 International Perspectives on Inclusive Education

In a recent book outlining international perspectives on inclusive education, Mitchell (2005) and his authors explored the notion that the characterisation, purpose and form of inclusive education reflect the relationships among the social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts that are present at any one time in a particular country and/or local authority. Among the 16 propositions to emerge from this overview, seven are particularly pertinent to the present review:

  1. Inclusive education extends beyond special needs arising from disabilities and includes consideration of other sources of disadvantage and marginalisation, such as gender, poverty, language, ethnicity, and geographic isolation. The complex inter-relationships that exist among these factors and their interactions with disability must also be a focus of attention.
  2. Inclusion goes beyond education and should involve consideration of employment, recreation, health and living conditions. It should therefore involve transformations across all government and other agencies at all levels of society.
  3. While many countries seem committed to inclusive education in their rhetoric, and even in their legislation and policies, practices often fall short. Reasons for the policy-practice gap in inclusive education are manifold and include barriers arising from societal values and beliefs; economic factors; a lack of measures to ensure compliance with policies; the dispersion of responsibility for education; conservative traditions among teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers; parental resistance; lack of skills among teachers; rigid curricula and examination systems; fragile democratic institutions; inadequate educational infrastructures, particularly in rural and remote areas; large class sizes; resistance from the special education sector (especially special schools); and a top-down introduction of inclusive education without adequate preparation of schools and communities.
  4. Inclusive education exists in historical contexts in which vestiges of older beliefs co-exist with newer beliefs.
  5. Inclusive education is embedded in a series of contexts, extending from the broad society, through the local community, the family, the school and to the classroom.
  6. Because cultural values and beliefs, levels of economic wealth, and histories mediate the concept of inclusive education, it takes on different meanings in different countries, and even within countries. The form taken by inclusive education in any particular country is influenced by the nature of the settlements reached at any one time between (a) traditional values such as social cohesion and group identity, collectivism, images of wholeness, fatalism, hierarchical ordering of society, and (b) modernisation values such as universal welfare, equity and equality, democracy, human rights, social justice, individualism, and parent choice.
  7. Economic considerations play a significant role in determining approaches to inclusive education. These include (a) a recognition that it would not be financially realistic to provide special schools throughout a country, (b) the adoption of a human capital policy of developing all individuals primarily as a means of enhancing the economy, and (c) an attitude that persons with disabilities are economic liabilities and are therefore of low priority.

The United Nations and its agency, UNESCO, have played a significant role in promoting inclusive education, as noted in Chapter One, section 1.4, in the present review.. The most significant event took place in June 1994 when representatives of 92 governments and 25 international organisations met in Salamanca, Spain (UNESCO, 1994). The resulting agreement, known as the Salamanca Statement, demonstrated an international commitment to inclusive education. It included these agreements:

  • 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, and
  • regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving an education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.

The Statement 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’.

More recently, in December 2006, the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly confirmed a Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, which included a significant commitment to inclusive education. Article 24 is the most relevant to inclusive education. It stated, inter alia, the following:

  1. States Parties recognise the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels, and life-long learning, directed to:
  1. The full development of the human potential and sense of dignity and self worth, and the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human diversity;
  2. The development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential;
  3. Enabling persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society.
  1. In realising this right, States Parties shall ensure that:
  1. Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability;
  2. Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;
  3. Reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements is provided;
  4. Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;
  5. Effective individualised support measures are provided in environments that maximise academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.

A total of 145 countries signed the Convention and, as of June 2010, 87 had ratified it (including New Zealand).

It should be noted, however, that neither the Salamanca Statement nor the Convention explicitly states that all SWSEN should be educated in fully inclusive settings at all levels of the education system. Nor do they explicitly exclude such an interpretation. In other words, there is a degree of ambiguity regarding the intentions of both documents with regard to the meaning of inclusion.

With the impetus provided by the UN and UNESCO, and other influences such as those outlined in Chapter One, it is not surprising that virtually all countries have policies on inclusive education, or are in the process of developing them. To attempt to summarise them would be a major task. It is perhaps sufficient to mention some countries’ approaches in order to illustrate the developments that are occurring,

England. In this country, the 2004 document Removing barriers to achievement: The Government’s strategy for SEN (Department for Education and Skills, 2004) made a clear commitment to inclusive education by embedding inclusive practice in every school and early years setting. It cited the 1997 Green Paper, Excellence For All Children, as signaling the government’s commitment to the principle of inclusion and the need to rethink the role of special schools within that context. It also referred to The SEN and Disability Act 2001 as delivering ‘a stronger right to mainstream education, making it clear that where parents want a mainstream place for their child, everything possible should be done to provide it’ (p.25). A small, but significant, caveat to the principle of inclusion, however, can be found in the 2001 Code of Practice (Department for Education and Skills, 2001), which stated that ‘A parents’ wish to have their child with a statement educated in the mainstream should only be refused in the small minority of cases where the child’s inclusion would be incompatible with the efficient education of other children’ (p.14). A further indication of England’s commitment to inclusive education is the government’s decision to place the Index for Inclusion (Booth & Ainscow, 2002) in every school.

Australia. Several Australian states have made a commitment to inclusive education. In Western Australia, for example, the aim of the Building Inclusive Schools (BIS) strategy since it commenced in 2002 has been to raise awareness across all levels of the education system of changing societal expectations in relation to the education of students with disabilities and the legal imperatives that now impact on schools. It is described as ‘a professional learning program that promotes and supports the cultural shift of inclusive educational practices in all public schools’. (For details of the Building Inclusive Schools strategy, see the following website:

Similarly, the Inclusive Education Statement 2005 in Queensland aimed to (a) foster a learning community that questions disadvantage and challenges social injustice, (b) maximise the educational and social outcomes of all students through the identification and reduction of barriers to learning, especially for those who are vulnerable to marginalisation and exclusion, and (c) ensure all students understand and value diversity so that they have the knowledge and skills for positive participation in a just, equitable and democratic global society (for details see the website: (

Europe. The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education has been developing ‘Indicators for Inclusive Education’, with the aim of developing ‘a methodology that would lead to a set of indicators suitable for national level monitoring, but that could also be applied at the European level’. The indicators are expected to have ‘a clear focus on the policy conditions that may support or hinder the development of inclusive education within schools’. (see

US. The United States has a voluminous literature and a range of policies relating to inclusive education, although the term is not employed in official documents. A recent reflection by Sailor (2009) will suffice to sum up the present status of inclusive education:

Without question, one of the thorniest policy questions to confront American education in the second half of the twentieth century and continuing today is the issue of placement for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Federal policy consistently has used the least restrictive environment (LRE) language in statutory and regulatory policy to enhance the integration of students with disabilities and greater access to the curriculum of general education. In addition, families assisted by advocacy organizations have litigated successfully to achieve these ends for their children with disabilities. Some of these cases have produced favourable interpretations at the level of the Supreme Court. Finally, university researchers associated with special education departments around the country built a strong case for more positive educational and social outcomes for children when they are educated alongside their nondisabled peers. Despite this three-pronged effort, educational segregation of students with disabilities continues on a large scale today (p.467).

Sailor’s final point is reflected in Table 12.3 in Chapter Twelve, which shows that in 1995, only 26.2% of students with disabilities were receiving their education in regular classroom settings.

11.4 Approaches to Implementing Inclusive Education20

As Skrtic et al. (1996) pointed out, inclusive education goes far beyond the physical placement of children with disabilities in general classrooms. Rather, as many writers have emphasised, it requires nothing less than transforming regular education by promoting school/classroom cultures, structures and practices that accommodate to diversity (Christensen, 1996; Department of Education, 2001; Dyson et al., 2003; Shaffner & Buswell, 1996). In implementing inclusive education, attention should be paid to three levels: the broad society and education system, the school and the classroom.

Societal and education system level. At this level, factors such as the following have been identified as playing important roles: (a) the policy context of the wider community (Dyson, et al. 2003), (b) collaboration between government agencies and between them and non-government organisations, and (c) collaboration among educators, parents, peers, other school personnel, and community agency personnel (Department of Education, 2002; King-Sears, 1997).

To bring about inclusion, according to Oliver (1996), changes must take place at all levels of society. These include differences becoming positively valued, education systems becoming morally committed to the integration of all children into a single education system, schools becoming welcoming environments, teachers becoming committed to working with all children, curricula becoming freed of ‘disablist’ content, and disabled people being given skills to enter the labour market.

School level. At this level, the key question is what evidence is there that mainstream schools can act in ways that enable them to respond to student diversity to facilitate participation by all students in the cultures, curricula and communities of those schools? After extensively reviewing the literature on this topic, Dyson et al. (2003) were able to find only six studies that provided trustworthy evidence relevant to this question. In determining the extent to which schools facilitate (or inhibit) inclusion, two school-level themes ran through these studies: the importance of school culture (e.g., the values and attitudes held by staff) and leadership and decision-making. School leadership was also emphasised by Ainscow (1995), Schaffner & Buswell (1996) and Stanovich & Jordan (1998). The latter found that the strongest predictor of effective teaching behaviour in inclusive education settings in Canada was the subjective school norm as operationalised by principals’ attitudes towards heterogeneous classrooms21. Developing school support networks has also been identified as an important facilitator of inclusive education (Ainscow, 1995; Shaffner & Buswell, 1996), as has encouraging a strong sense of community with professionals and paraprofessionals working collaboratively with parents (Skrtic et al., 1996).

Classroom level. Of course, the success or otherwise of inclusive education critically depends on what takes place minute-by-minute in regular classrooms. Inclusive education does not mean the coexistence of one programme for a student with special educational needs and another for the other students. Rather, it implies changing the programme and teaching approaches for all students in a class. In this sense, inclusive education is something of an educational Trojan Horse, since it involves not only accommodating regular classroom programmes and teaching strategies to the needs of SWSEN, but also making adjustments to meet the diverse needs of other students in the class. In general terms, this means teachers adopting student-centred pedagogy, as distinct from curriculum-centred pedagogy (McDonnell, 1998; UNESCO, 1994).22

Inclusive education also requires close collaboration between regular class teachers and a range of other people, including specialist teachers, teaching assistants, therapists, and parents. Features of consultation models that have been advocated include (a) the regular classroom teacher having primary responsibility for students’ overall programmes, (b) equal professional status of the regular teacher and the specialist teacher, (c) the involvement of parents in decision-making and planning (Antia et al., 2002)23, (d) teaching assistants working in partnership with teachers to provide supplementary, but not the sole, input to SWSEN, and (e) most additional support being provided in situ, rather than through withdrawal (Davis & Hopwood, 2002).

11.5 Research Evidence Relating to Inclusive Education

In his review of efficacy studies of inclusion, Lindsay (2003) concluded that they do not provide a ringing endorsement of the concept. Similarly, Kavale & Mostert (2003) claimed that the evidence is mixed at best and clearly suggests the need for caution. They noted, for example, that analyses of regular classrooms in the US show that they are places where undifferentiated, large group instruction dominate and teachers make few adaptations, with the result that there is little individualised programming. They also noted that while some positive outcomes have been found, there is also evidence of negative consequences for students with disabilities, including poor self-concepts and inadequate social skills and low levels of peer acceptance.

Research into inclusive education can be divided into studies concerned with ascertaining the perceptions various stakeholders hold towards inclusion and those investigating academic and social outcomes.

11.5.1 Teachers’/principals’ perceptions

In order for inclusion to work in practice, teachers and principals in regular schools must accept its philosophies and demands. According to Salend & Duhaney (1999), in their review of studies (largely American), educators have varying attitudes towards inclusion, their responses being shaped by a range of variables such as their success in implementing inclusion, student characteristics, training and levels of support. Some studies reported positive outcomes for general teachers, including increased skills in meeting the needs of all their students and developing an increased confidence in their teaching ability. Negative outcomes included the fear that the education of non-disabled children might suffer and the lack of funds to support instructional needs. For special educators, the benefits included an increased feeling of being an integral part of the school community and the opportunity to work with students without disabilities.

Similarly mixed, but generally positive, attitudes towards inclusion were reported by Scruggs & Mastropieri (1996). About two-thirds of the US teachers they surveyed supported the concept of mainstreaming/inclusion. A smaller majority were prepared to include students with disabilities in their own classes, their attitudes depending on the type and severity of the disability. Only one-third or less believed they had sufficient time, skills or resources necessary for inclusion, especially for students with severe disabilities. In their study of Canadian teachers’ and principals’ beliefs about inclusive education, Stanovich & Jordan (1998) found two strong predictors of effective teaching behaviour in inclusive classrooms. The strongest one was the ‘subjective school norm’ as operationalised by the principal’s attitudes towards heterogeneous classrooms. The second major predictor was an ‘interventionist school norm’, a measure derived from a scale ranging from the idea that problems exist within students (‘pathognomonic’), at one end, to the idea that problems result from the interaction between the student and their learning environments (‘interventionist’), at the other end.

11.5.2 Parents’ perceptions

Parents play a critical role in bestowing social validity on inclusion and in facilitating its implementation. Duhaney & Salend (2000) reviewed 17 studies published between 1985 and 1998 that investigated the perceptions of inclusion held by parents of children with and without disabilities. They found that these were complex, multidimensional, and affected by a range of intervening variables. Both groups had mixed, but generally positive, perceptions of inclusive education. Parents of children with disabilities believed that inclusion promoted acceptance by non-disabled peers and helped their children’s social, emotional and academic development. Concerns included a loss of access to specialised personnel. Parents of children without disabilities valued their children’s greater awareness of others’ needs and their enhanced acceptance of human diversity. Some, however, were concerned that their children would not receive sufficient assistance from their teachers and they might emulate inappropriate behaviours of children with disabilities.

There is evidence that countries with more segregated provisions (e.g., Belgium, France, the Netherlands (until recently), Germany and Switzerland) report parental pressure for inclusion, and there is positive parental support in countries with existing inclusive practices (e.g., Cyprus, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. However, parents whose children have more severe special needs are said to prefer segregated settings for their children (e.g., Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) (European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2003).

11.5.3 Students’ perceptions

Inclusive education involves several stakeholders, not least of which are the students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities. What are their perceptions of inclusive education? Klinger & Vaughn (1999) presented a synthesis of 20 US studies of programmes involving students with high incidence disabilities in settings ranging from kindergarten to grade 12. The consensus of the findings is that those with and without disabilities wanted the same activities, books, homework, grading criteria and grouping practices. Both groups recognised that since not everyone learns in the same way or at the same speed, teachers should slow down instruction when necessary, explain concepts more clearly, and teach learning strategies.

A recent New Zealand study by Hornby (2010) challenged the assumption that inclusive education is applicable to all SWSEN, irrespective of their degree of disabiity. He studied former students of two special schools – one for students with learning disabilities and the other for students with behavioural difficulties - who had been re-integrated into mainstream schools for the last few years of their schoolimg.The results indicated that many of the students subsequently  exhibited limited inclusion in their communities in terms of low levels of employment, education and community adjustment. The students also reported mainly positive experiences regarding their time in special schools or units and mainly negative experiences in mainstream classes. Hornby attributed these findings, in part at least, to the goals of education for the last few years of schooling being focused on academic attainments, when vocational, social and life skills may have been more useful in assisting the SWSEN to make successful transitions to adult life.

11.5.4 Educational achievement and psychosocial development

There is a considerable, almost bewildering, body of research that addresses the question of how inclusion impacts on the achievements of students with and without special educational needs. In interpreting these studies, several cautions must be taken into account: (a) some of the earlier studies may not be relevant to current conditions, (b) many of the studies compare placements only and do not ‘drill down’ into the nature of the educational programmes the students received, (c) many studies are methodologically flawed, and, of course, (d) all studies are specific to the context in which they were conducted.

In general, methodologically sound studies have come up with mixed results, the majority reporting either positive effects or no differences for inclusion. (Some would argue that if there are no differences, this is also an argument for inclusion: why have segregated education programmes when they are no better than placement in regular classes?) The following is a representative sample of research carried out in this area.

Positive findings

In an early meta-analysis, 11 empirical studies carried out between 1975 and 1984 were analysed. It was shown that mainstreamed disabled students (mentally retarded, learning disabled, hearing impaired, and mixed exceptionalities)24 consistently outperformed non-mainstreamed students with comparable special education classifications. Two types of mainstreaming were included: part-time with occasional pull-out resource class attendance, and full-time inclusion in general classes. Of the 115 effect sizes calculated, two-thirds indicated an overall positive effect of mainstreaming. The overall effect size was 0.33, which translates into a gain of 13 percentiles for students in mainstreamed settings (Wang & Baker 1986). In a more recent meta-analysis, Hattie (2009) obtained a somewhat more modest effect size of 0.21 in favour of mainstreaming.

A Canadian study of 3rd grade students with ‘at risk’ characteristics (e.g., learning disabilities, behaviour disorders) compared the impact on achievement of a multi-faceted inclusive education programme. The intervention group (N=34) received all instruction and support in general education classrooms, while the comparison group (N=38) received ‘pull-out’ resource room support. The intervention group also received a programme that included collaborative consultation, cooperative teaching, parent involvement and adapted instruction in reading, writing and mathematics. The comparison group continued using general education teaching methods characterised by whole-class instruction and minimal cooperation between the general and special teachers. Significant effects were found in the writing scores for the inclusive education group. The general education students were not held back by the presence of the at-risk students in the classroom; on the contrary, their reading and mathematics scores benefited from the additional interventions offered by the programme (Saint-Laurent et al., 1998).

A US study addressed the effects of an inclusive school programme on the academic achievement of students with mild or severe learning disabilities in grades two - six. The experimental group comprised 71 learning disabled students from three inclusive education classrooms. In these classrooms special education teachers worked collaboratively with general education teachers, each student’s programme was built upon the general education curriculum, and instructional assistants were used to support the SWSEN. The control group of 73 learning disabled students were in classrooms which were to become part of the inclusive programme, but in which the students received traditional resource class programmes. Results showed that the students with mild learning disabilities in the inclusive classrooms made significantly more progress in reading and comparable progress in mathematics, compared with those in the resource classes. Students with severe learning disabilities made comparable progress in reading and mathematics in both settings (Waldron & McLeskey, 1998).

In a study carried out in Hawaii, the effects of placement in general education classrooms or in self-contained special education classrooms on the social relationships of students with severe disabilities were reported. Nine matched students were studied in each of the two placements. The results showed that those who were placed in the general education classrooms had higher levels of contact with non-disabled peers, received and provided higher levels of social support, and had much larger friendship networks (Fryxell & Kennedy, 1995).

One of the most comprehensive studies of the effects of inclusive programmes on the development of social competence in students with severe disabilities is that reported by Fisher & Meyer (2002). In a matched-pairs design, 40 students were assessed across two years of inclusive versus self-contained special education classrooms. Those in the inclusive programme made significant, albeit small, gains on measures of social competence, compared with students in self-contained classrooms

A recent Dutch study reported on the differences in academic and psychosocial development of at risk students in special and mainstream education. It was found that those in special education classes did less well in academic performances and that these differences increased as the students got older. In psychosocial development, variables such as social behaviour and attitudes to work also favoured students in regular classes (Karsten et al., 2001).

A UK study compared the outcomes for adolescents with Down syndrome of similar abilities but educated in mainstream or in special schools. The results showed no evidence of educational benefits for those in segregated settings, despite the higher teacher-student ratios. Those who attended their neighbourhood mainstream schools made significant gains (two-three years) over their special school peers in expressive language and in academic achievement (Buckley, 2006). Note, however, that this study has not been published in peer-reviewed journals.

A 2004 study in England showed that the presence of relatively large numbers of SWSEN (not analysed by category) in ordinary schools did not have a negative impact on the achievement of general education learners at the local education authority level. Rather, attainment seemed to be largely independent of levels of inclusive education. Other factors, such as socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity and language, seemed to be much more significant. Furthermore, the researchers found evidence that SWSEN were making good progress academically, personally and socially. They also found some evidence (chiefly in the views of teachers and pupils) that inclusion can have positive effects on the wider achievements of all learners, such as on their social skills and understanding. On the other hand, they also found some indications that having special educational needs might be a risk factor for isolation and for low self-esteem (Dyson et al., 2004).

A recent English study produced similar results, finding no evidence that the presence of higher proportions of learners with special educational needs (also not analysed by category) in secondary schools lowered the performance of general education students. Indeed, as with the previous study, many educators in those schools believed that the inclusive education strategies used actually contributed to improved overall educational achievement (Rouse & Florian, 2006).

The impact of inclusion on the achievement of general education elementary school students was also investigated in a US study reported by Sharpe et al. (1994).. Two groups were studied: 35 students whose classes included five students with learning disabilities, and 108 who had no classmates with special educational needs. Measures of academic achievement were taken over a three-year period at three points: pre-inclusion, inclusion and post-inclusion. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups of learners on basic skills of language arts, reading and mathematics. Certainly, there was no evidence of any decline in the academic or behavioural performances of learners in the inclusive setting.

Similar findings were reported in a recent Canadian study. Friesen et al. (2009) analysed data from British Columbia to compare the performance of successive cohorts within every public elementary school in B.C. (as measured by the change in individual test scores between grades 4 and 7), to see if the proportion of disabled peers makes any difference to the achievement of non-disabled students. They concluded that  ‘Attending school with a higher percentage of students with disabilities is found to have only extremely small and statistically insignificant effects on the reading and numeracy achievement of non-disabled students’ (p.1).

Mixed and negative findings

In one of the earliest meta-analyses, 50 studies compared general (i.e., inclusive) and special class placements. It was found that placement in general classes resulted in better outcomes for learners with mild mental retardation, but poorer outcomes for students with learning disabilities or behavioural/emotional problems (Carlberg & Kavale, 1980).

A comprehensive review of inclusion research involving students with autism also reported mixed results. In one set of studies, those who were fully included (a) displayed higher levels of engagement and social interaction, (b) gave and received higher levels of social support, and (c) had larger friendship networks. This was counterbalanced, however, by another study that found that these students were more frequently on the receiving, rather than the giving, end of social interactions. The review also described a study in which the effect of inclusive education, compared with segregated education, on the language ability of autistic students was evaluated. The fact that there were no differences between the two placements was interpreted as supporting inclusion, since segregated placements were shown to be of no benefit (Harrower & Dunlap, 2001).

Peetsma et al. (2001) reported on a longitudinal study on the effects of inclusion on the academic and psychosocial development of Dutch students with mild learning and behavioural difficulties. The results were that, after two years, only a few differences in development were found: students made more progress in mathematics in inclusive settings, but school motivation developed more favourably in special schools. After four years, students in regular schools had made more progress in academic performance, whereas there were no differences in psychosocial functioning. However, a small–scale qualitative study, which was incorporated as part of the major study, showed that students with psychosocial problems made somewhat better progress in special education than in regular education, pointing to the need to pay attention to the psychosocial development of students with mild disabilities when they are placed in inclusive settings.

Several studies have found that quality of instruction, rather than placement, is the most important predictor of student achievement. For example, in one study of mathematics achievement of students with hearing impairments, placement in regular or special classes did not seem to impact on achievement. Rather specific features of quality placement included a supportive teacher, regular and extensive reviews of material, direct instruction and a positive classroom environment (Kluwin & Moores, 1989).

These findings were echoed in a report by Ofsted (2006) on English provisions for SWSEN. It considered that the most important factor in determining the best outcomes for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities was not the type but the quality of the provision. Effective provision was distributed equally in the mainstream and special schools visited, but there was more good and outstanding provision in resourced mainstream schools than elsewhere.

One final point of mixed evidence can be found in a report from the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (2003). This suggested that inclusion generally works positively at the primary school level, but serious problems emerge at the secondary level. This was attributed to increased topic specialisation, the different organisation of secondary schools, and the increasing gap between the achievement of SWSEN and other students with age.

11.6 Critiques of Inclusive Education

As Lindsay (2003) has pointed out, while the philosophy of inclusive education holds considerable sway at the turn of the 21st century, there is by no means unanimous support for it in the literature. Although he believes that any segregative provisions constitute a denial of human rights to disabled persons, Oliver (1996) believed that the success of integration at the ideological level has made it almost impossible for it to be examined critically. So what are the principal points that have been raised in the many critiques of inclusive education?

Starting with Lindsay (2003), he claimed that UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement (1994) contains many contestable features: an overemphasis on the uniqueness of individual learners, a lack of clarity as to what is a regular school, and an imbalance of emphasis on the social model compared with the medical model. With regard to the latter point, while supporting the trend away from a medical (within child) model to a social (environmental) model, Lindsay felt that the recent narrow adherence to the social model has promoted the notion that inclusion is solely a question of rights and that the question of its efficacy in practice is irrelevant. He argued that it is not a matter of one or the other model but of finding the right balance between the two and of understanding how each interacts with the other. He further argued that the best way of enhancing children’s rights is through rigorous, substantial research projects that demonstrate effectiveness.

The issue of what model is the most appropriate in determining the way forward in inclusive education was discussed by Clark et al. (1995). Until recently, they claimed, special education has been dominated by two paradigms: the psycho-medical one, which focuses on deficits located within individual students, and the socio-political one, in which the focus is on structural inequalities at the macro-social level being reproduced at the institutional level25. To these two paradigms, Clark et al. added a third, an ‘organisational paradigm’, in which special education is seen as the consequence of inadequacies in mainstream schools and, consequently, ways should be found to make them more capable of responding to student diversity. This can be achieved through such means as schools implementing findings from research into effective teaching, operating as problem-solving organisations, and supporting teachers through the change process.

In his critical examination of inclusive education, Hegarty (2001) made three main points. Firstly, he argued that if the notion of inclusion is to have any utility it must signify something other than excellence in education or good schools, which some definitions seem to highlight. Secondly, he asserted that for some SWSEN being included in a regular school environment is neither possible nor desirable (e.g., students with a visual impairment will need mobility training outside a regular classroom). And, thirdly, he claimed that while the notion of inclusion is important, an over-emphasis on it runs the risk of distorting the hierarchy of values in education generally, which has as its core the twin objects of developing young people’s potential and equipping them for adult life.

Several writers have criticised the employment of what they perceive to be rhetoric on behalf of inclusive education, at the expense of empirical evidence. Thus, with a US frame of reference, Fuchs & Fuchs (1994) argued that ‘the field’s rhetoric has become increasingly strident and its perspective increasingly insular and dissociated from general education’s concerns’ (p.295). They felt that radical proponents of full inclusion, such as Skrtic et al. (1996) and Lipsky & Gartner (1996, 1999) want nothing less than the elimination of special education and its continuum of placements. In a similar vein, other US writers asserted, like Kavale & Mostert (2003), that the ideology of full inclusion has influenced policy and practice disproportionately to its claims of efficacy, with its proponents often rejecting empirical evidence in favour of the postmodern. Likewise, Sasso (2001) and Kauffman (1999) have presented swingeing attacks on what they perceive as postmodern and cultural relativist doctrines in special education in general and inclusive education in particular. Kauffman (1999) went on to question the validity of some assumptions made by ‘full inclusionists’, suggesting they have ‘lost their heads about place, about the spaces occupied by people with disabilities’ (p.246) and that physical access does not necessarily imply instructional access. At the very least, these writers urge caution in the implementation of full inclusion. Preferably, as Kavale & Mostert (2003) argued, empirical evidence should be the cornerstone of deciding where students with special needs should be served. Or, as Sasso (2001) suggested, rather than treating inclusion as an outcome measure, it would be more logical and helpful to view it as a treatment variable.

Other criticisms have been advanced. These include the challenge of Fuchs & Fuchs (1994) to the view that the mainstream can incorporate students with disabilities when it has so many difficulties in accommodating existing student diversity. From an English perspective, Norwich (2002) adopted a similar, albeit somewhat less critical, position, arguing that there is properly a duality about the field of educating SWSEN. While the field should have integral connections to general education, its distinctiveness should also be recognised. This relationship, he argued, is best conceptualised as a ‘connective specialisation’, a term which refers to an interdependence of different specialisms and a sharing of a relationship to the whole. Norwich felt that his position stood somewhere between both the ‘separatist’ and the ‘radical or full inclusion’ positions. Hall (2002) has presented a more radical view, arguing that proponents of inclusion overlook the value of the ‘disability culture’ in fostering opportunities for students with disabilities to associate with and learn alongside others who share similar identities and life experiences. She concluded by suggesting that changes to the existing special education system, rather than a movement to full inclusion, would be more effective in supporting the disability culture.

For a recent critique of inclusive education, see Farrell (2010).

11.7 Summary

  1. Inclusive education is one of the most dominant issues in the education of SWSEN.
  2. It is not unproblematic, both conceptually and practically.
  3. A commonly accepted definition of inclusive education is: SWSEN having full membership in age-appropriate classes in their neighbourhood schools, with appropriate supplementary aids and support services.
  4. In recent years, the concept of inclusive education has been broadened to encompass not only students with disabilities, but also all students who may be disadvantaged.
  5. Advocacy for inclusive education revolves around three main arguments:
  1. inclusive education is a basic human right;
  2. in designing educational programmes for students with disabilities, the focus must shift from the individual’s impairments to the social context, a key feature of which should be a unitary education system dedicated to providing quality education for all students; and
  3. since there is no clear demarcation between the characteristics of students with and without disabilities, and there is no support for the contention that specific categories of students learn differently, separate provisions for such students cannot be justified.
  1. The characterisation, purpose and form of inclusive education reflect the relationships among the social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts that are present at any one time in a particular country and/or local authority.
  2. While many countries seem committed to inclusive education in their rhetoric, and even in their legislation and policies, practices often fall short.
  3. The United Nations and its agency, UNESCO, have played, and are playing, a significant role in promoting inclusive education.
  4. Inclusive education goes far beyond the physical placement of children with disabilities in general classrooms, but requires nothing less than transforming regular education by promoting school/classroom cultures, structures and practices that accommodate to diversity.
  5. The evidence for inclusive education is mixed but generally positive, the majority of studies reporting either positive effects or no differences for inclusion, compared with more segregated provisions.
  6. In general, the presence of SWSEN in regular classrooms does not have a negative impact on the achievement of other students.
  7. Criticisms of inclusive education have focused on what some writers consider to be an emphasis on ideology at the expense of empirical evidence and challenges to the view that the mainstream can incorporate students with disabilities when it has so many difficulties in accommodating existing student diversity.


  1. This chapter is mainly drawn from Mitchell 2004b, 2005 and 2008.
  2. The impact of school reforms on inclusive education is of particular significance and was outlined in Chapter Six of this review.
  3. See Chapter Six, section 6.6, for further comments on leadership.
  4. See chapters Eight, Nine and Ten, for more detailed ideas on classroom-level adaptations.
  5. See also Chapter Fourteen.
  6. Throughout this section the original terminology employed by the authors is retained.
  7. See also Chapter Three of the present review for a more detailed discussion of various paradigms.