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Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Saving the planet … and beyond

Frank O’Hagan

Carpe diem?

What are children and young persons to conclude from the many differing points of view which circulate about the future of planet Earth? Trump-like attitudes abound. Sceptics perceive activists as absurd and confused. Some proponents of the status quo harbour illusions of normality and stability as continuing onwards from decade to decade. Others simply tout spin over substance to cause distractions or attempt to kick thorny conundrums into the distance for future generations to grapple with and possibly resolve. Groucho Marx succinctly summarised this short-termism – “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” In contrast, there is what is sometimes referred to as ‘cathedral thinking’ or in other words ‘being good ancestors’. Our predecessors bequeathed exquisite buildings for us to admire. Can we, in turn, leave a delightful and healthy world as an inheritance to our descendants?  

The young can become confounded by the multitude of different opinions and pressures in circulation. They have a right to know what those in positions of responsibility at both local and national levels are proposing and must be allowed to voice their apprehensions. It is essential to respond to the significant doubts which they may wish to raise. Should there be regular publications of targets already missed, as well as having an agenda for future action? What more can politicians, environmental planners and business leaders undertake to make up for lost time? How critically do civilians scrutinise deficits in modern living and in what ways can they greatly improve the quality of everyday life? While these are legitimate questions for investigation, there are similar queries concerning youths’ own endeavours, and those of their families and communities, in lessening the dangers of climate change.

Obstacles to overcome

Educationalists will have specific principles to observe in order to provide clarification, elucidation and hopefulness for all age groups. While teaching may be aimed, either directly or indirectly, at outlining current progress and eliciting discerning feedback from pupils, care must be taken not to over-exaggerate. Guidance should ensure that learners grasp trustworthy facts and the outcomes of genuine, scientific research. Lessons and activities need to be well-judged and take due account of their abilities and stages of maturity. A focus on their investigative and problem-solving skills will boost motivation and confidence. As some might have felt perplexed and experienced a sense of helplessness through a succession of reports on the media, a warm and inclusive learning ethos can reduce emotional upset and help avoid deleterious impacts on mental wellbeing.

There have been numerous efforts to build an alertness of risks associated with the likes of extreme weather conditions or toxic fumes causing ill-health and early deaths in cities. However, some commentators have noted what has been called an ‘information deficit model’ – valid facts not known or understood – is still to be found in sectors of society. This is a separate phenomenon from that of the denial of indubitable facts and statistics. When such circumstances prevail, interest and inspiration can decrease. Nonetheless, it is apposite to not to ostracize either of these factions but rather to give time to examine the reasons underlying their prevalence. This standpoint facilitates opportunities to figure out how they came to adopt unconventional positions and to engage in dialogue.

What are the challenges which have to be overcome in improving our ecosystem?

Another obstacle is that the threats connected to climate change normally are not instantly noticeable and, as a result, treated as inconsequential. While it is relatively easy to understand the immediate menace of a global pandemic, the linkage between homes being flooded and carbon emissions is less obvious. By highlighting and explaining the gradual variations which are occurring and the requirement for long-term planning, perceptiveness can be increased and doubts resolved.

It is fortuitous that, when it comes to facing controversies, the well-known myth of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand when dangers loom generally does not apply to eager learners. They are cognisant of the message conveyed in this myth and have enough savvy to review and confront the predictions which envisage the destruction of Mother Earth. Let’s wish them every success!

A dynamic and comprehensive curriculum

Much closer attention is now being given to teachers’ knowledge and skills vis-à-vis sustainability. Additionally, the contributions of specialists in schools, further and tertiary education and industrial-related research substantially heighten awareness. While fully accepting the importance of formal qualifications, credit also has to be accorded to the value of other forms of educational inputs which encourage mindfulness and responsiveness in the 3 to 18 years-of-age range. There are identifiable features of coursework which are immediately suitable for inclusion. As well as providing vital information, they can delineate practical solutions and emphasise positive individual and collective roles for clear-sighted intervention.

The curriculum on offer requires to be all-embracing. It not only needs to extend beyond saving the biosphere but, furthermore, ought to include the numerous means through which contemporary living conditions can be upgraded. The topic of climate change is only one element, albeit a markedly important one, of a wider study encompassing the saving of our planet … and beyond. Its overall aim is the enrichment of the living environment for all humankind. Within this broader framework, a commitment on decarbonization towards net-zero emission targets can be regarded as a ‘saving’ aspect. When the agenda morphs into the creation of a truly healthier, greener and life-enhancing environment, objectives are magnified towards ‘saving and beyond’. Thus, a more comprehensive approach incorporates improvements to tackle poor living conditions, unhealthy diets, misuse of pesticides, destruction of sea beds from excessive dredging, the dumping of garbage and radioactive materials at sea, and the list goes on. It also contains suggestions for consideration on appropriate, eco-friendly involvement. Education really matters!

We are family – all in it together

We live in a common home and our society now has the opportunity to create a happier, safer and flourishing world. While teachers and tutors can partake meaningfully, it would be unreasonable to expect only education settings – nurseries, schools and colleges – to embark on this onerous task. Fortunately, there are many sources for learners to exploit over and above their formal curriculum – for instance: guidance from parents and guardians; the supportive influences of peers; enlightening books, newspapers and television documentaries; dedicated sites on social media; and sponsorships by organisations which focus on improving agriculture and fishing. Authentic, scientific data and advice are accessible from comparable founts of vision to endorse and hasten a beneficial, cultural transformation.

A detailed syllabus on this over-arching theme is exceptionally complex. For anyone even mildly interested in the subject, there is an extensive range of conventional and technical terms in general usage such as: greenhouse gases; carbon capture; environmentalism; ethical investment strategies; transparency on resourcing; sustainability; greenwashing; and recycling. Thoughtful reflection on the terminology can deepen our foresight and understanding of the difficulties which have to be appraised. Moreover, there is a very broad spectrum of relevant topics which takes in: the reduction in road and air travel; greater use of public transport; wastage of rare metals; pollution of land, sea and atmosphere; biodiversity; wind, marine and solar power; energy saving in homes and buildings; peat land preservation; and the traceability and purchase of food and goods.

This immense array of varied contents necessities a highly organised schedule across age bands and curricular areas in order to steer clear of duplication and to ensure maximum impact. It is commendable when schools have devised an inventory relating to the integration of learning prospects. Though these may seem arduous undertakings, the good news is twofold: staff in education are occupied already in this enterprise and, for pupils, their ensuing acquisition of comprehension and prescience guarantees advancement in terms of personal, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Love learning, love your planet

At the early and nursery phases, children form habits with regard to cleanliness, communication, personal safety, good manners and kindness to others. In creative and investigative play activities, they develop an appreciation of camaraderie, flowers, plants and animals. The value of an enjoyable and stimulating early education is undoubtedly of real benefit in fostering their respect and sensitivity towards their immediate surroundings and nature in general. Individual displays or in friendship groups, at times in the company of family members, can enable them to demonstrate their interests aroused by drawings, designs and photographs.

As pupils move through primary school, they have opportunities to learn more about everyday living and how to take good care of ecosystems. A firm basis for responsible citizenship is being established. Project work is often arranged to cover a wide variety of themes, allowing children to select, investigate and then share their findings. For example, on the fashion industry, they might examine disclosure as regards where goods are produced, what they are made from, the distance they travel before being sold, how well the workers are paid, whether these commodities are likely to be recycled or discarded, etc. Likewise, take the girl who reported that her investigation in an upper primary class had been on the damage caused by plastic waste. She mentioned that she had learned about an island of rubbish, larger than Britain floating in the Pacific Ocean, and the devastation of plastic to sea life. The following year, her class had taken part in a topic on rain forests with freedom pick their own projects. Her skilful presentation had focused on the destruction of forests and its harmful consequences to biodiversity, including disturbance to animal inhabitants. This assignment promoted independent learning and touched on aspects of English, mathematics, biology, environmental studies and technology besides exploratory and fact-finding skills. All worthwhile and motivational.

The cross-curricular nature of ecology and green politics is evident throughout secondary education, an opinion forcefully made by a second-year teenager when interviewed, and requires effective cooperation from different departments. This characteristic holds the likelihood of deepening the understanding of complex issues though analysing them from separate perspectives. While STEM subjects are regarded as particularly pertinent – teaching about the efficient use of energy in physics or the production of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen in chemistry – most subjects offer a great deal to explore. A few illustrations underline this point: business studies and economics highlighting how ethical investments can be advantageous for the environment; religious and moral education examining ways in which a united front on improving bionetworks can result in increased communal happiness; and art and design assisting in the production and distribution of imaginative posters or pamphlets for World Earth Day (22nd April).

Should every day be Earth Day?

Optimistically, by the time that students are leaving secondary school, they will be fully equipped to reflect expertly on perplexing dilemmas as migrations due to crop failure or tensions among nations arising from the pursuit of scarce commodities. They will have acquired the necessary competences to comment on how success and failure rates by governmental agencies should be published and judged. On occasions, they may feel obliged to monitor how mandatory requirements and subsequent penalties for non-compliance by individuals or public bodies are implemented. All being well, they will become the guardians urgently required to safeguard humanity.

Young people care, therefore they are part of the solution

If addressing climate change is urgent, why has headway been incoherent and tardy? It has proved to be comfortable to ‘talk the talk’ but considerably more challenging to ‘walk the walk’. The dominance of rationalism, following the philosophical dictum ‘Cognito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) of Descartes, lingers on in some current thinking and still influences much of what takes place at major conferences. No matter how erudite the conclusions might be, if they lack pragmatism and empathy, they are of little value. The concept of ‘caring’ in this context implies not only appropriate degrees of perception and understanding but a steadfastness in implementing evidence-based responses.

While they await to find out in what manner those in positions of authority are prepared to move forward, the futures of juveniles are to some extent put on hold. It is clear that many adolescents feel obliged to call out for vigorous action to avoid planetary suicide. As responsible outspoken advocates, they deserve our praise. It was enlightening to hear one primary school girl was earnestly supporting the view that children can spread ideas on good practices to a widespread audience in addition to their families. A touching and impressive case of pupil power and influence was a children’s play which was attended, among others, by the wives of the President of USA and the Prime Minister of UK while the G7 Summit was taking palace in Cornwall in June 2021. Heartfelt messages must be heeded. Virtue-signaling by dignitaries – especially when lacking in genuine honesty and affirmation – is merely hollow and hypocritical.

Youths who have studied and understood impending perils – whether these link to pollution, unrestricted excess, climate change, a dearth of international collaboration, and the like – neither wish to propose utopian dreams nor to write death wish notes. They comprehend that there is no quick fix and also that some countries are already living on the edge of existence. An emergency has already arrived but positivity has not been vanquished. For them, false narratives, complacency and nihilist stances on future calamities being ‘too big to handle so live only for today’ are not acceptable. Learners know that, cherish it or not, they too are involved and have their parts to play. They identify themselves as global citizens and demand a ‘can do, make it happen’ mindset to be adopted.

Concluding remarks

Education locations, at all stages from nurseries to universities, are in a very powerful position to promote life-affirming policies and practices and to assist in reaching ambitious targets which have been agreed. They deserve the support of governments and scientific communities to further develop their programs of study on how to save and improve the condition of a planet in need of loving care and treatment.

Effective educational inputs can be regarded as valuable human assets which enable students to concentrate on constructive routines for facing challenges rather than becoming accustomed to feelings of disempowerment. Using their own research and critical thinking, youthful scholars are able to embrace the role of ‘learner as scientist’ in their search for explanations and answers. It is an energetic form of attentive engagement. As a consequence of their successful efforts, they come to realise that it is individual and communal behaviours and customs which cause so much damage.

Through their studies, all understand that there are choices which can no longer be sidelined by society at large. They learn to reject procrastination, doom-purveying pessimists, fake news and pseudo-scientific buzzwords. They understand that people, including themselves, need to make informed decisions and to confirm that they are completed inside designated timescales. Many have proved that they are already a force for good and aim to ensure that their incremental steps will ultimately result in giant leaps forward.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

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Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Inclusive education

Education Really Matters: Social Deprivation and Education

Frank O’Hagan

How far have we progressed?

There is a painting in The Louvre in Paris entitled ‘The Clubfoot’ (also known as ‘The Club-footed Boy’) by Jose de Ribera who is renowned for his depictions of the human condition. It is a portrait of a vulnerable youth and conveys stark observations on both hardship and physical disability. There are differing interpretations concerning this magnificent and moving painting. These range from the view that it expresses dignity and defiance under duress to the opinion that it is a bitter comment on the degeneration of dutifulness and care. For my part, I think that both of these positions are credible and can be reconciled. Neediness gives rise to people displaying distinct features of perseverance and personal worth but also of melancholy and desolation.

Although De Ribera’s painting dates from over 300 years ago, to a large extent it reflects issues and conundrums relating to prevailing attitudes on destitution and misfortune among the underprivileged. It might be felt that we have advanced far as a society and that such adversities are now under control. While it is true that there have been many changes for the better, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that numerous challenges remain. Is it right to feel annoyed at the present state of educational provision for children who are deprived? How can we respond to and build on the capabilities and resilience of juveniles with significant needs?

Addressing poverty and marginalisation

A common misunderstanding is to equate communal affliction simply with financial deficiencies. Deprivation has many guises. It is a complex and intractable phenomenon which also covers affairs dealing health and welfare, parenting, housing, infrastructure, urban and rural dysfunction, inadequate schooling and unemployment. Ironically, policymakers are generally aware of what should be undertaken to rectify recognised concerns. Mere tokenism occurring in officialdom ought to be treated as unacceptable.

All learners, regardless of age, require to: be well nourished; live in reasonably healthy and safe environments; be able to obtain essential services without major inconveniences; and be actively engaged in educational or training programmes which are aimed at enriching individual circumstances. Breakdowns pertaining to any these factors can result in distress coupled with a sense of hopelessness and, on occasions, of annoyance and anger. Education is a critical route in the direction of amending matters. The burden of responsibility also reaches across a wider spectrum of local and national administrative services.

Recent research and media outlets frequently refer to ‘hard to reach’ families and suggestions are offered on ways in which helpful dialogue can be initiated on their behalf. Though the term ‘hard to reach’ is usually well intended, it can sound rather patronising or even act as a label. If professionals are to use it, then the converse must be conceded: that they themselves also can be difficult to contact as far as needy people living in stressful situations are concerned. It is a two-way problem. One does not have to look too far to find a deep-seated lack of trust regarding specialist practices within disadvantaged groups. Care has to be taken to avoid inadvertently creating or reinforcing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Empathic responsiveness is imperative in ensuring that interventions are not perceived as holier-than-thou interferences.

Actions speak louder than words

It is too easy for the ‘haves’ to reproach the ‘have-nots’ as being lazy and short-sighted. The tendency of some is to assume that the fault exclusively lies with those who are suffering from impoverishment. For those in a privileged position, it is plain sailing to worry less as to the present and to be able to concentrate on long-term planning, for example, in saving for fees to cover the cost of their children’s future education. In contrast, when tackling the ubiquity of poverty, zealous educationalists aim to fix attention on social solidarity and the transformation of ill-fated, lived experiences. They take relevant account of contextual factors and never ignore the tribulations created by environmental tensions. They are fully aware of why their students are distracted by the makeshift and changeable conditions which they have to endure.

So, how can a rich and plentiful – but divided – society accurately take cognisance of and operationally counteract the impact of penury on educational opportunities and achievements? To initiate steps forward, there has to be a sincere political judgement of the hurdles being encountered. Approaches to overcoming barriers in pragmatic and realistic ways require to be both gimmick-free and, as far as possible, evidence-based. Some leaders in education have been going on about ‘closing the gap’ for a considerable time now, sometimes merely with the purpose of aiming ridicule at their opponents. Rather than empty words, no matter how heartfelt they are meant to sound, we need positive and efficient action.

Beware of the myths which surround the new paternalism of ‘up-levelling’. For a start, legislators cannot accomplish any substantial progress without the backing of low-income families, communities, schools and voluntary agencies. Available channels towards obtaining the most suitable kinds of resources and assistance are very limited in times of austerity resulting in a lack of sustainable livelihoods and cut-backs to public services. What is more, there is no single pathway which can overcome all the complications posed by societal ordeals. Without taking proper evaluation of, and responding positively to, the variations across the characteristics of young persons and their circumstances, schedules for improvements will falter.  

Key strategies for development and implementation

The cost of carrying out policies and projects is always an important factor. Additionally, their operation must focus on how to establish and maintain a high standard. Otherwise, devolved finances can be wasted on a valid idea which has been poorly executed. Nonetheless, various options are promising with the following eight proposals being offered for deliberation. Space only permits a very general outline of their content and functions.

1. Early identification and support. When experiencing restrictiveness due to existing in a state of paucity, it is little wonder that parents and guardians have much to deal with – for starters, managing to pay for food, rent and energy bills. As a result, infants can unwittingly receive insufficient attention or even suffer from neglect. All phases of human development are important and, given appropriate intervention, the previous negative effects of privation can be overcome. Inclusion, engagement and enjoyment are pertinent driving forces on the road to success. A nation’s focus must always be on the right of every individual to have the best possible start in life.

The ‘flexible’ mind is sustained by life-affirming opportunities to grow, develop and flourish. In particular, the pre-school years have been highlighted as a key period to help those from underprivileged backgrounds. It is a stage when both free play and organised activities can evoke interest and provide motivation to acquire autonomy, emotional suppleness, creativity and competences. It is also a time when fathers and mothers (a caution: the role of ‘fathering’ must not be side-lined) regularly need updates and are willing to discover more on positive nurturing skills. For many of their children, encouragement in ‘learning how to learn’ will be decidedly gainful while in pre-school provision and beyond.

2. Promoting resilience within family units and communities. The impact of want and malnutrition varies among youths and the influences of parental upbringing are complex. Collaborating with and empowering all residing in impoverished districts are essential. The bolstering of beneficial features – shelter, safeguarding, and compassionate care – can do much to strengthen youngsters in surmounting daily obstacles. Involvement in well-suited programmes should aim at breaking intergenerational cycles in respect of marginalisation, low expectations and academic failure.

Partnerships will be welcomed in connection with the overall enhancement of domestic life and in suggesting out-of-school pursuits, for example, adults and adolescents together profiting from advice on financial management covering topics on budgeting, welfare payments and the avoidance of debt. Unlocking concealed talents and indicating routes out of the entrapment of destitution must remain unwavering aims among all civic commitments.

3. Extending additional educational support. Schools under pressure warrant the means to ensure that they are not receptacles for passive acceptance of failures or shortcomings caused by administrative systems. If anything, it is fitting that they are sustained in a position of having even higher than normal expectations on behalf of their pupils. In the media, there are often tactless references to ‘failing schools’ and, over and over again, these appear to be serving poorer catchment areas. Educational establishments which have to meet with the demands posed by harsh economic conditions merit extra funds and should not be evaluated by the same academic criteria as others situated in more well-to-do locations. They have a claim on planned compensation as regards the allocation of teaching specialists to aid anyone encountering substantial difficulties and designated assistants to promote inclusive practices. The expansion of trained staff for literacy, mathematics and personal, social and health education in primary schools – and also in selected subjects in the secondary sector – should always be kept under review. Above all, it is valuable for the power of education be let loose to counteract misfortune by enabling learners to identify their troubles and, in time, to overcome them through gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to augment their wellbeing. The young have dreams and aspirations which deserve to be recognised and fully endorsed.

4. Developing communal integration and participation. There is a strong case for establishing more efficient and coherent services across health, education, social work departments and voluntary groups. Interventions aimed at alleviating disadvantage are obliged to be dynamic and multi-faceted in providing solutions across an extensive range of predicaments. Unfortunately, collaboration among agencies to develop and enrich distressed zones can be fragmented and time-limited. If information and directives are not competently distributed and understood in neighbourhoods, many may fail to know how best to become meaningfully involved. Perseverance, openness and transparency are indispensable ingredients for the implementation of constructive methods when engaging households in the process of improving the quality of everyday lives.

5. Effective use of public assets. The affluent and well-informed do make first-rate use of accessible municipal assets to supplement their children’s overall educational erudition. However, it would be expedient if there were more openings for everyone living in rundown localities to have better contact with these amenities and to benefit from them in genuinely purposeful ways. In general, insufficient use is made of the nation’s stock of regional resources to advance their chances for stimulating out-of-school learning. Museums, art galleries, libraries having computer-based facilities to counter ‘digital poverty’, historic monuments, science centres, sports programmes, apprenticeship courses, coaching schemes and the like can all be put to good use in reinforcing the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.

6. Utilising the expertise of altruistic volunteers. Another initiative aimed at narrowing the gaps in enterprise and scholarship is the deployment of unpaid helpers, including retired professionals, as mentors or advisers to interact constructively with young people. Thoughtful scrutiny is necessary to recruit from a wide variety of current or previous occupations and to select those who have the proficiencies which can inspire and transform lives. There are many conceivable inputs which committed citizens could contribute: tutoring to upgrade accomplishments in literacy, numeracy and technology; revising lessons during evening sessions; offering guidance on job interviews, employability skills and careers; preparing students for formal examinations in specific subjects; assisting with applications for tertiary education and the world of work; and so forth.

7. Increasing admissions to tertiary forms of education and training. The inhabitants of economically deprived surroundings require greater admittance into tertiary forms of education across colleges, universities, formal vocational courses, and industrial placements. For instance, it is well documented that places in universities for school leavers from the poorest districts remain stubbornly low despite much hullabaloo about this scandalous issue. More radical measures for estimating aptitude and academic ability are urgently needed. These could include better use of holistic assessment processes organised by universities and the commercial sector to gauge hidden flair and talents.  Instead of allowing a slide towards any lowering of standards – a topic which has been raised by some businesses – valid, alternative procedures for determining authentic potential in identifiable areas of instruction and study should be instigated. Of particular disquiet is the danger of teenagers not embarking on the most appropriate courses for entry into future, gainful livelihoods.  

8. Evaluation and accountability in the application of policies. As implied earlier, policy decisions and initiatives ought to have built into them a formal outline of data and predictions concerning the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the official bodies which hold the purse strings. These should include clearly stated targets and measures of what will be achieved with reference to the promotion of collective equality and the enhancement of occupational prospects. As plans are put into operation, they will entail impartial appraisal to ascertain how effectual they are in relation to what they set out to complete. Transparency and the addressing of unpalatable facts are fundamental in bringing forward essential improvements. Everybody has the right to be kept up-to-date on whether undertakings have matched expectations or fallen short of declared objectives.

Concluding remarks – or will we be fooled again? Further action research to identify the most proficient means of delivering and supplementing evidence-based methods would be advantageous. It is crucial to determine what combinations operate best and in what circumstances. It could be argued that all, or almost all, of the eight discussed strategies have been around for some time in one form or another with various levels of realisation. What have been missing are comprehensive, integrated and enduring forms of engagement which effectively eliminate the prerequisites of deprivation in different settings. We owe it to today’s pupils to ensure that promised solutions are fully executed and that they are not misled as were the generations which have gone before them.

How would the youth in Jose de Ribera’s portrait feel about the progress which has been made since his days as a street urchin? While, in general, being pleased with societal and educational developments, he may wonder why they have not been more successful. He may think that as long as there are dog-eat-dog economies – whether capitalist or communist – the poor and dispossessed will always be present. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would call for educational programmes and reforms which place a stronger emphasis on everyone’s worth, efficacy and dignity. He also might wish to highlight the prospective benefits in terms of wellbeing, happiness and economic advancement within a more unified and contented world.

Footnote: Other relevant articles in this series cover: quality in the curriculum; inspirational teachers; the promotion of authentic learning; potential, attainments and achievements; and diversity, equity and inclusion. For some links, please see below at “Related”.

 (Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

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Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Frank O’Hagan

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)

A dedication

Up to the time of her death, a beloved sister of mine was a teacher for more than 40 years, working almost exclusively with pupils from deprived backgrounds or those experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When she started her teaching career in the 1960s there was such a shortage of teachers that her very large primary class had to be divided into two groups. On alternative weeks, one group attended a morning session and the other an afternoon session. Both groups were considerably larger than the average primary class of to-day. While bravely facing her imminent death, she still worried about young persons’ future lifestyles and lack of learning opportunities. Sadly, many of her fears have morphed into a reality – continuing austerity, low levels of literacy, feelings of alienation and a lack of employment prospects. As I jot down my views on diversity, equity and inclusion, my gratitude goes to her and the many teachers, educational psychologists and inspectors of education who have contributed to improvements in this field and with whom I have had the privilege to work.

The times are always a-changing

In recent years, although there have been changes for the better, concern about services for vulnerable pupils with diverse needs – who live amidst all sectors of society – continues to be a debated and disquieting issue for parents and educationalists. What is more, in periods of hardships and public cutbacks, this aspect of educational provision for our more disadvantaged students can be seen as an easy target for financial constraint and staff reductions. A range of workable strategies will be necessary to ensure that so many young people do not come to perceive themselves as enduring failures. 

Everyday attitudes about the characteristics of young learners alter and transmute, as do conventional stances regarding how their education should be subsidised and managed. These modifications are due to many different factors such as the impact of research projects, developments in teaching methods and advances in society’s views about the rights of children. Outlooks have evolved and perceptions have become more nuanced in a variety of ways. For instance, autism was once considered to be a very rare, one-dimensional and rather inexplicable disability. Nowadays, it is generally recognised as being much more prevalent and to be across an extensive and complex spectrum which comprises intellectual, linguistic, social and behavioural dimensions. Moreover, it is not unusual for pupils who have been assessed as on the autistic continuum to possess high levels of concentration and/or an in-depth comprehension concerning specific topics of interest.  Additional cultural swings have included a greater acknowledgement of the potential of many learners displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to demonstrate positive cognitive features such as creativity.

There are many promising means of developing suitable and empathetic contexts which are truly beneficial for all young people. Through well-tailored, personalised learning programmes, recent findings in educational neuroscience have provided a more hopeful perspective on the capacity of students to adapt to the difficulties which they encounter. Thankfully, there is an evident willingness among professionals to face the very significant obstacles which have to be overcome.

The message is clear that ability is not a fixed entity and that pessimistic attitudes about capabilities regularly need to be confronted. Nonetheless, key questions remain. Has society the will and capacity to address issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can plans be focussed on success while retaining inbuilt flexibility and identifiable care?  Can educational systems have targeted interventions available to ensure that any apparent ‘breakdowns’ in levels of accomplishments can be quickly ameliorated?

Current challenges to inclusiveness

It is well nigh impossible to be unaware of the presence of diversity in modern society. It manifests itself in statistical surveys and in traditions and pretexts covering age, background, gender, ethnicity, ability, religion and so forth. It is our human melting pot containing both splendour and richness. It also can give rise to apprehension and unease has when individuals or groups are viewed as ‘others’ who are not fully entitled to the rights and privileges enjoyed by ‘in’ groups (a process sometimes referred to as ‘othering’).

Values – such as acceptance, appreciation and kindness – are elements of daily living to be treasured in education and training. Meeting the needs of diverse groups implies interconnectedness and cooperation in establishing universal rights and in building an equitable society. This stance calls for an end to greed, unrestrained capitalism and the continued destruction of Mother Earth. It stipulates that the voices of all students concerning their feelings and self-identified needs should not only be heard but be listened to attentively. Undoubtedly, there exist across our troubled world many obstructions to this vision which require urgent reform. Among an extensive list, depending on customs and place, it may be the disregard of the rights of children who are forced to work rather than be educated, the underachievement of poorer white male adolescents, or vocational openings being denied to students who are physically disabled.

Difficulties encountered, when teaching young persons with varying needs, are too often viewed as arising ‘from within’ or ‘belonging to’ them. From such perspectives, recognised learning problems can be treated as if they are owned by students and their private responsibility. Highly significant environmental factors – prejudices, the lack of adequate nutrition, impoverishment – are overlooked. Consequently, learners are not properly involved in decision-making but are subjected to pronouncements which are hoisted on them by way of a hierarchical system. Parents and guardians, due to their prior experiences, also can feel excluded and may need encouragement to build trust and become actively involved in combatting inequalities.

Skilled educationalists realise that many young people require basic but essential assistance in ‘learning how to learn’ in order to ensure future progress. Staff dedicated to inclusivity will have an expertise in: (1) creating warm and stimulating climates to facilitate headway; (2) establishing purposeful learners’ plans; (3) setting short- and long-term targets; (4) applying procedures relating to advice, guidance and support; and (5) providing motivational feedback to students, parents, guardians and other relevant parties. When acquired, pertinent skills – listening, collaborating, planning, problem-solving and coping mechanisms – can be transferred across curricular areas. It is critical that, for the prerequisites and characteristics of high-quality learning and teaching to be maintained, the capability and proficiency of staff are constantly upgraded through on-going professional development.

Every learner has the right to be included

All pupils deserve to be deemed worthy of making advancements at their own levels of attainment and capacities to learn. Various forms of integration have been implemented, for instance in terms of: locations; social arrangements and communal involvement; and functional and/or instructional settings. Genuine inclusive educational environments will fuse all such approaches into a cohesive and harmonious framework from which no student is excluded. Further, they extend to cover equitable opportunities for vocational training, employment placements and lifelong learning. The overriding philosophy must leave behind a previous ‘What are your problems and weaknesses?’ way of thinking and adopt an outlook which asks ‘In what ways can we assist you to enrich your attributes and extend your talents?’ Staff endorsing an all-encompassing ethos do not see themselves as working in ‘examination factories’. If necessary, they are willing to have fewer or no public accolades as regards their rankings in ‘fake’ national league tables.

When approaches to education are focused on the identified requirements of each learner, travel along productive and rewarding pathways to success is augmented. Along with this methodology, inclusiveness can be a strong catalyst in bringing about camaraderie among students of varying abilities and aptitudes. It follows that, if possible, they should not be cut off and isolated from their peers when undertaking tasks. Learners with diverse needs can expand their knowledge and skills fruitfully in hospitable pedagogic cultures. Authentic collegiate learning provides a sound basis for the cross-fertilisation of views on how they can assimilate information and benefit from new strategies on route to further accomplishments.

For educationalists to play an effective role, they have to challenge the status quo and provide the means of developing competences to overcome social and economic hardship. Programmes which cultivate both worthwhile qualities (for example, confidence, self-esteem, honesty and resilience) and relevant know-how (healthy living, money management, occupational capabilities and so forth) to enhance future chances are of the utmost importance. For these purposes, information and communication technology is helpful in nurturing learning and teaching and in addressing differing needs. At present, computer-based learning, though often very advantageous, is not a panacea. However, further innovations, as the quality of the machine-learner interface improves, augur high prospects.

All forms of educational provision require having well-defined roles, responsibilities and protocols in place for staff who are expected to respond to vulnerable students exhibiting risky behaviours, such as substance abuse, self-harm or noteworthy learning difficulties. Circumstances might necessitate the input of professional agencies which have clear remits to contribute at whole-school, group or individual levels of involvement. Short-term targets may focus on speedy improvements in attaining specific competences, expedited by time-limited, solution-based approaches to resolving pressing concerns. Longer-term objectives could embrace the acquisition of interpersonal skills and a sense of self-assurance. Indeed, for all, it is fitting to move forward well beyond existing hindrances and to encourage positive and rewarding lifestyles.

The dangers of labelling and classification

The drawbacks of labelling can include obscuring learners’ needs, making unwarranted assumptions about their abilities, and inadvertently depriving them of occasions to engage in inclusive practices. Labels also may have a negative impact on the confidence of teachers who might come to the erroneous conclusion that a pupil’s requirements and capacities cannot be accommodated at their school. Improved appliance of assessment methods can detect the co-existence of differing cognitive and behavioural difficulties, all of which require to be addressed within carefully-organised modes of intervention.

Teachers and educational psychologists wish to ascertain strengths and requisites when assessing learners. Unfortunately, by engaging in a classification process they may unwittingly fabricate a rationale which results in pupils being even further removed from mainstream education. For instance, students can suffer a ‘triple whammy’ as when a categorisation unduly influences: (1) low expectations relating to their potential; (2) an assumption that they should not be accepted into a school; and (3) the likelihood of them being permanently excluded.

There has been a widely-held belief that categorisation and labelling are important in providing legal protection, acquiring funding and gaining access to extra assistance from services and educational establishments. Certainly, case studies to back this view can be found. Nonetheless, there are other ways in which these benefits could be obtained if a comprehensive framework of students’ rights was utilised.

Endeavouring to fit an individual’s needs into a single grouping can have deleterious consequences. In general, there has been a distinct move away from the usage of tight categories. However, even looser eclectic descriptions, such as ‘experiencing additional support needs’, carry with them the danger of being interpreted as a rigid classification. A constant emphasis on differences and a disregard of similarities opens the way to shifting from receptive towards restricted mentalities. Vigilance to ensure that a learner is not excluded (or should one say ‘imprisoned’?) via the improper use of a label is paramount. (In any case, do we not all have additional needs, albeit diverse ones at differing levels?)

Assessment which leads to well-directed assistance and incentives

Appropriate appraisal procedures are required to address difficulties and play a crucial role on behalf of learners who are experiencing them. They not only clarify levels of current competences and capabilities but also indicate which forms of involvement and aid are most advantageous. In erstwhile routines, a great deal of credence was given by professionals to formal intelligence tests and standardised results in connection with language and numeracy. More recently, there have been considerable criticism and scepticism concerning the application of such types of normative measures. Very often, as an alternative, the emphasis has been placed firmly on using assessment techniques to help structure and maintain successful tutoring strategies, adaptive behavioural interventions and uplifting learning environments.

There is much to recommend in utilising processes which combine accurate assessments of strengths and requirements alongside the identification of those circumstances best suited to needs. Carefully-staged observations of everyday situations are valuable in avoiding simplistic analyses when attempting to map out how best to intervene. Within therapeutic and educational surroundings, formative assessment can be highly beneficial in terms of promoting both effort and achievements. It enables teachers to highlight what learners have mastered already and to devise future learning pathways.

Skills relating to on-going constructive assessments may appear easy on paper but in practice require substantial expertise. They take account of: devising and setting realistic objectives for all students; sympathetically but rigorously monitoring their progression; providing feedback in an inspirational manner; and collaborating with learners in reviewing their aspirations and in planning forthcoming goals. A concerted engagement following this outline reveals hidden talents, rejects segregation and increases a sense of belonging.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of civilisation.” (Mahatma Gandi)

Conclusions

The needs of too many students are frequently missed, their perspectives misunderstood and their voices ignored among the bureaucratic and complex demands of modern education. A cultural shift is fundamental if inclusiveness is to gain traction. The acceptance of diversity and the commitment to ensuring equity for all entail high levels of advocacy, respect, tolerance, compassion and appreciation to permeate throughout learning communities. Unconscious bias has to be recognised and abolished along with negative stereotyping and labelling. Specialised support should be extended and focused within mainstream education, if necessary, using existing special schools and clinics as resource centres.

Governmental and local authority guidelines must wholeheartedly incorporate egalitarian principles and values. If official proposals or prescribed curricular topics prove to be unworkable, the duty of educationalists is to draw attention to deficiencies and to recommend or ‘reclaim’ appropriate courses of study and training programmes for their students. Schedules which include thoughtful and regular monitoring to enhance emotional wellbeing, acknowledge accomplishments and generate further advancement are key ingredients in maintaining successful developments. When effectively delivered, professional collaboration promotes confidence, self-belief and ‘can do’ mindsets regarding endless options for personal, social and intellectual growth.  

In summary, proponents of inclusive education aspire to foster welcoming, coherent and vibrant systems which:

  • are open and respectful to all learners without any imagined or created barriers to admission and full participation
  • provide individualised learning pathways which ensure meaningful progress irrespective of identity, attributes and social background
  • encourage students to take responsibility to attain their desired learning outcomes through well-planned and accommodating interchange and negotiation
  • offer a comprehensive and integrated range of counselling, guidance and supportive strategies in conjunction with relevant professional agencies and local facilities
  • help to build and maintain energetic, equitable and flourishing national and community services.

Appendix

Points for consideration

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4: ‘To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (by 2030).

United Nations: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: General comment No 4, 2016. Article 24: Right to inclusive education: ‘The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the different requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove barriers that impede that possibility.’

These are world-wide challenges. How advanced is our nation in reaching these high standards? Perhaps, more basically, are those in positions of power and responsibility fully aware of goals to which they are committed?

Note: For a brief charter focusing on the principles and characteristics of equity and inclusion in education, please use the following link: https://improvingcareand.education/home/inclusion-and-equity-in-education-key-principles-and-characteristics/

Additional note: A wide variety of items on inclusive practices are available for study and reflection at: https://inclusivepracticessite.blog

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)