Inclusion is the key to school for everyone

"It requires teachers, school management, all school staff really, to reflect on their own work and to confront their own assumptions. And it's human to find that difficult," says Elisabeth Persson, Senior Lecturer in Pedagogical Work at the University of Borås and Research Director for the Project "Inclusive Learning Environments."

The concept of inclusion comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. She explains it as "a principle that is to permeate everyday work in educational settings with the broader perspective of creating opportunities for children and young people to participate in a democratically sustainable society."

"There is a lot of confusion about the concept and it is misused very often in the school context. Often it is used to support all the students being in the same physical space. But, in fact, it's all about students getting the support and help they need to become the citizens we need in a democratic society. Then our differences become an asset," she explains.

The University of Borås has a broader perspective on inclusion compared to many others. Researchers see it as possible within an inclusive approach to have a student, for a short period, receive education in a smaller group or individually, with an eye towards long-term benefits.

"There are students who have different types of disabilities or social problems that need support that sometimes cannot be given within the regular framework of the class. But the goal is for them to learn to stand on their own feet and manage well as adults."

The broader view is not really controversial, but Elisabeth Persson believes that there is a widespread view that physical placement is the main issue.

Inclusion is about how we treat other people.

"Whether students are excluded or brought attention to is a result of how they are removed from the room, as inclusion is about how we treat other people. How we think about these questions is revealed by our actions. But those who are separated out can easily end up being excluded; therefore, the goal must be for them to receive help and support with the needs they have in order to be able to participate in the long term," she explains.

She indicates that many schools lack an inclusive approach. Current grading systems can be a reason.

"This means that students of the same age are meant to be able to meet certain knowledge requirements. Together with the current climate, with, for example, ranking lists in schools and municipalities on how many students attain the lowest grade of E (i.e. the limit for passing a course in grade 9, Editor's Note), it is easy to shift the focus from creating inclusive learning environments. This despite the fact that previous research has shown that there is absolutely no contradiction, rather that inclusion gives better results when it comes to grades.

Inclusive learning environments
Development teams consisting of educational staff and school leaders form the hub of the programme to develop inclusive learning environments. The groups meet continuously for three years from the start of the spring term 2017.

Each leader designates one or more process managers, and process managers form a process management team. They have a meeting at least twice a term.

The managers at the management level form a steering committee that, together with Ifous project managers, leads the programme.

Representatives from all groups and schools meet at national two-day seminars.

The researchers at the University of Borås contribute research material and arrange seminars as well as conduct practical research in close cooperation between researchers and participating schools/principals. The researchers also follow the work of the development teams.

The abbreviation Ifous stands for Innovation, Research and Development in School and Preschool, based on the Swedish "innovation, forskning och utveckling i skola och förskola." Ifous is an independent research institute.

The aim of the programme is to attain increased knowledge of how methods, working approaches, and organisational factors can improve the conditions for the creation of inclusive learning environments.

The research she refers to is, among other things, a well-known project that was carried out in 2010-2015 and that is still referred to in this school debate. The project "Inclusive Education" was conducted in cooperation with Essunga Municipality and Nossebro School. Therefore, it's often called the Essunga Project. It was in this project that Elisabeth Persson began to research inclusion.

Essunga Project was unique because researchers could follow the students for a long time. First, they followed the work done at Nossebro School during one academic year and then they met the pupils again when they were in upper secondary school to see if there were any traces left of their previous schooling in an inclusive learning environment.

The project was divided into two parts. The first was about changing the approach, stemming from modern pedagogical research, towards a more inclusive learning environment for all staff--not just teachers, but all staff, such as higher administrators, janitors, or school cafeteria staff. Even the parents and students were actively involved in the change process.

In the second part of the study, the researchers interviewed a selection of students who had left the primary school in 2010 and 2011 at the end of their third year at upper secondary school.

"It was shown that these students had confidence in their own ability and knowledge. They could define goals and described that they had strategies for how to reach them. They were aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and they talked a lot about their own responsibility, which they thought was important to take part in working life," said Elisabeth Persson.

They also trusted other people and the school as an institution. And they finished their upper secondary education with good results. This despite the fact that Essunga was a municipality where educational background was relatively low. But the project showed that an aware school staff could break that pattern, as the students truly succeeded

"But there are no clear prescriptions for how a school can achieve an inclusive learning environment. Each school is unique with its culture and tradition and carries with it much of its past way of doing things," she continues.

Now the researchers are halfway through another project, the "Inclusive Learning Environments" programme, where they work with seven municipalities. The programme is financed by Ifous (see the fact box on how the programme is organised, Editor's Note). The role of researchers is to provide municipalities with support for more inclusive learning environments and to follow the processes while conducting research.

"We have not come so far that we can report any results."

But, as mentioned, the municipalities will not receive a ready-made toolbox for how to achieve inclusive learning environments. The question is far more complicated. One thing is clear, though. For example, large classes or many children with diagnoses need not impede barriers to developing an inclusive learning environment, one of the things shown by the Essunga project.

"Seeing the problems clearly means there is a greater likelihood of correcting them. Everyone strives to reduce school drop-outs. Thus it's important not to promote a sense of being an outsider in which one, from an early age, feels that one doesn't have a place there, can't do something or have the ability. We have good examples that a changed approach, which largely concerns the attitude of the teachers and the leadership of the principal, can increase goal fulfilment," she says.

"Sometimes I think we talk more about rules than what is essential to schooling's purpose. Focus in discussions today may be on whether students may have mobile phones or not. Previously, it was whether kids could have ball cap on, and we got stuck in that kind of discussion instead of getting to that which is essential."

In the teacher education programmes at the University of Borås, students will be introduced to the concept of inclusion in the very first term. After that, they will work each term with issues of inclusion, and work to meet all pupils' needs--both those who need extra support and those who need challenges.

"In this way, we can change schools in the long run, even if we do not reach politicians. I am very pleased that I can spread knowledge about inclusion, and I really feel that all children and students should spend time in a setting that gives them the opportunity to experience participation and inclusion," says Elisabeth Persson.

Text Anna Kjellsson
Photo Suss Wilén, Mostphotos
Translation Eva Medin

Read more

The research area Pedagogical work