If you ask one hundred people to define inclusive education, you will most likely receive one hundred different responses. Here are five responses from teachers and assistants when they were asked to describe what ‘inclusive education’ means:
1. Inclusion is about being really safe in a safe environment, and special schools are much safer than the mainstream.
2. Inclusive education works when students with high needs have one-to-one support with an assistant to access the mainstream.
3. Inclusion is a continuum of placements from mainstream through to special school placements.
4. Not all students can be included in the mainstream.
5. Special education is inclusive because if special schools did not exist many children would not receive an education.
These responses indicate the lack of consensus about the definition of inclusive education as they not aligned with the universal definition, which is explained further on.
Why is the term ‘inclusive education’ misunderstood?
While every teacher has heard of the term ‘inclusive education’, it is a philosophy that is greatly misunderstood. One of the reasons for the lack of clarity about the meaning of inclusive education is that it was not until 2016 that a specific, universal definition of inclusive education was agreed upon. Consequently, there are numerous and competing definitions of inclusive education. Further complicating this is that Australian domestic law varies in part from the universal definition.
So far, Queensland is the only Australian state or territory to develop a policy on inclusive education. This policy was implemented in 2018, and within it, inclusive education is defined in the following way:
Inclusive education means that all students can access and fully participate in learning alongside their similar-aged peers. Teaching and learning strategies are adjusted to meet students’ individual needs. Inclusive education encompasses all aspects of school life and is supported by culture, policies, programs and practices.
Queensland’s policy on inclusive education could provide a model for other states and territories. However, there is a strong tradition of segregated education in Australia and limited awareness of what inclusive education is and the benefits of inclusive education. Most teachers, assistants and parents of children with disability have never seen an inclusive school. Instead, what is thought to be inclusion is actually integration where students with disability are placed in mainstream schools without significant changes to ensure that students with disability have a sense of belonging.
There are a number of teachers who have worked hard to ensure their classrooms are inclusive for students with disability, but often these initiatives are driven by dedicated individuals rather than being the result of a systemic change within our education system. The lack of a consistent and universal definition has created uncertainty about what inclusion is and has resulted in difficulties implementing inclusion in both policy and practice.
Inclusive Education as an International Concept
The first framework for inclusive education was developed in 1994 in Salamanca in Spain. Prior to this event there had been a lot of work in the human rights space to address the problem of the exclusion of students with disabilities from school systems. Exclusion from school is a part of broader human rights abuse. The Government of Spain in co-operation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) met with representatives of 90 countries, including Australia, at the World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality. The aim of this conference was to promote inclusive education and the end result was the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs where inclusive education was described as the overarching philosophy of education for all:
The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together, wherever possible, regardless of any difficulties or differences they may have. Inclusive schools must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students, accommodating both different styles and rates of learning and ensuring quality education to all through appropriate curricula , organizational arrangements, teaching strategies , resource use and partnerships with their communities. There should be a continuum of support and services to match the continuum of special needs encountered in every school .
The Salamanca Statement led to change in policy and practice regarding the education of students with disability, but because inclusive education was not clearly defined it resulted in a wide range of meanings of inclusion. Australia was an early signatory to the Salamanca Statement, but struggled to enact the recommendations within the document.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
In 2006 the United Nations passed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 24 of the UNCRPD states that children with disability have the human right to be educated within general education with their non-disabled peers. The UNCRPD envisages the closure of segregated schools internationally. Italy was the first country to close segregated schools in 1977. Sweden has the majority of students in general education, with a small number of special schools. New Brunswick in Canada introduced inclusive education policies in 1986 and has no segregated settings. However, in Australia, there are many examples of integration but not inclusive education.
Australia ratified the UNCRPD in 2008. This ratification prompted analysis of the legal status of people with disabilities and led to reform in the delivery of supports. Signing a convention indicates a commitment from a country to work towards implementation but is not yet legally bound by the document. Ratification, on the other hand, indicates that the government is committed to implementing and complying with the convention. Hence, Australia has an obligation to implement the UNCRPD.
In 2016, a document known as ‘General Comment 4’ was adopted to Article 24 within the UNCRPD. This was the first time there was a clear, straightforward international definition of inclusive education. General Comment 4 clarifies what inclusive education is and outlines the obligation to provide inclusive education. Here is a section of General Comment 4:
The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the differing requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove the barriers that impede that possibility.
One of the most important aspects of General Comment 4 is how inclusive education is defined by what it is not. This was an important step as it was the first time that inclusive education was simply and clearly articulated.
Exclusion occurs when students are directly or indirectly prevented from or denied access to education in any form.
Segregation occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular impairment or to various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities.
Integration is the process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions with the understanding that they can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions.
Inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and the environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences. Placing students with disabilities within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes to, for example, organization, curriculum and teaching and learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion. Furthermore, integration does not automatically guarantee the transition from segregation to inclusion.
Lack of Alignment Between Domestic and International Human Rights Instruments
Despite ratifying the UNCRPD, Australia still provides segregated education for students with disability. The enrolment of children with disability in segregated settings has increased over time rather than decreased. Australia claims to meet the obligations within the UNCRPD through the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005). However, Section 45 of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) allows for the establishment of segregated programs for students with disability, and such arrangements are called ‘special measures’. Therefore, segregated education in the form of disability units, special schools and classes are lawful in Australia, which remains an issue of debate. Inclusive education is educational policy rather than law in Australia, and there is a lack of a national approach with each state and territory having their own policies.
Gatekeeping is where parents or guardians are discouraged from or refused enrolment of their child with disability into general education. Gatekeeping may be where a school only offers part-time enrolment or they claim that the school does not have the facilities or access to funding to meet the child’s needs and so they direct the parents or guardians to a segregated school or suggest home-schooling. Gatekeeping is illegal under Section 22 of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) which states that an educational authority cannot discriminate on the grounds of disability:
- by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student; or
- in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.
Schools are able to manoeuvre around the legal obligation to accept an enrolment of a child with disability through the concepts of ‘special measures’ and ‘unjustifiable hardship’. Section 45 of the Disability Discrimination Act allows for segregated educational settings and research indicates that some schools suggest to parents/ guardians that a special school offers greater opportunities. This is gatekeeping disguised as benevolence. Many parents/ guardians act on this advice rather than enrolling their child in a school where they are not wanted. As well, under the Disability Standards, failure by an education provider to make reasonable adjustments is not unlawful if to do so would impose unjustifiable hardship on the provider. Hence, this is another gap in the legislation that allows a dual system of segregated/ mainstream education to continue.
The UNCRPD affirms the rights of people with disability.
The most robust definition of inclusive education is within the UNCRPD.
It took until 2016 for human rights instruments to decide upon a clear, simple and precise definition of inclusive education.
Australia has not yet complied with the obligations to inclusive education within the UNCRPD.
Australia draws on many definitions of inclusive education rather than the one universal definition by the UNCRPD.
Many teachers and schools are unaware of the definition of inclusive education in the UNCRPD.
The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and Disability Standards for Education (2005) contain clauses that legally permit segregated education for students with disability. This is at odds with the definition on inclusion within the UNCRPD.
 See A/HRC/25/29 and Corr.1, para. 4, and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The Right of Children with Disabilities to Education: a Rights-based Approach to Inclusive Education (Geneva, 2012).