Inclusive Classrooms: What does inclusion really mean?

Taking positive steps together

Inclusion is one of those words we hear often in education, but what does it really mean and what does it look like? 

As an Assistant Head teacher, overseeing inclusion is not a responsibility I take lightly. I am responsible that every child leaves school with positive outcomes, irrespective of their family income, ethnicity, special educational need, disability, gender and religion. The positive outcomes of all children is what success should look like for any school. 

My previous experience as a SENCO and teacher in a specialist school was invaluable because it exposed me to the many barriers to learning. In recent years, the outcomes of children with SEND and/or adverse childhood experiences (including poverty) has been poor and has led to the drive for schools to be inclusive in their approach to schooling.

For five years, I taught children with Social Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) Issues, where additional needs such as ADHD or ASD were quite common. The common obstacle with many of these children were the barriers that affected their attitude towards learning and ability to engage with their learning. The common denominator with 80% of children I taught were their adverse childhood experiences.

All the children I taught had a diagnosis of SEN and an Educational Health Care Plan that stated SEMH as their primary need. A large proportion of the school population were known to social services and at the very minimum had some early help involvement from the local authority. 75% of my class were in a foster care arrangement and almost all the children came from low-income families, highlighting the correlation between poverty and outcomes within education. 

These are never good enough reasons for children to not have a positive educational experience, and why it’s important we include all children in whole-school strategies and lesson plans and in our everyday thoughts with regard to safeguarding, wellbeing and inclusion. 

Here are some ways that you can create an inclusive classroom and school environment for your students:

Build relationships 

It’s easy to forget that we, as classroom practitioners, are teaching and developing little humans. Therefore, we must develop positive relationships with them to create an environment where they feel safe and can thrive. Trusting an adult for many children is the main barrier to learning as a result of their own personal experience. It is impossible to be mindful of your students’ needs and include them in your planning and strategies without taking the time to know and understand them.

Effective programmes and methods of teaching 

The biggest contributor to great outcomes for children is undoubtedly high-quality teaching, followed closely by excellent leadership and high-quality resources. There are a wealth of programmes that will support children who have English as an additional language, e.g.  Learning Village. These programmes expose them to key vocabulary, provide oral practice and use creative ways to ensure all children have access to the lesson, including roleplay, orally rehearsing stories and linking art to writing. When a teacher considers all the ways children can access their lessons, they are better placed to support all children, irrespective of their individual needs.

Whole-school teaching frameworks 

A great model like Universal Design for Learning enables teachers to reach all kinds of learners in the class due to the variety of learning styles it encompasses. However, most schools attach the framework of a program to a core subject and rarely consider how the same framework can be used across all subjects, including foundation subjects. For instance, oral practice of a text, exposure to key vocabulary at the start of a topic, a visual stimulus, group work activities, teacher and child collaboration and magpie-ing are examples of ways in which you can structure a lesson. How often do we encourage teachers to use the same principles in our English lessons as in our PSHE or geography lessons? Even if you don’t subscribe to a specific scheme of work, a school can decide on its priorities and create a whole-school teaching framework that will see the same principles and strategies to support all learners used across the school in all subjects.

Collaboration between all stakeholders  

In order for a school to promote the wellbeing of its students and ensure positive outcomes for all, it is paramount that there is joined-up thinking with all relevant stakeholders. This includes the individual child, families, health and social care professionals, the school and other external agencies. Although the school, understandably, holds the biggest responsibility for a child’s educational success, the reality is that there are a huge variety of factors that could impede the learning of a child. The school alone will not have all the answers to solving long- or short-term problems that arise in a school or classroom. For instance, when there are concerns about a child’s home situation, social services assume responsibility for ensuring the child or family are supported. They work with the school to ensure the external factors do not affect the child’s education. Similarly, when there is a concern around their speech and language, schools liaise with a speech and language therapist for strategies to support the child in school. This proves that the success of every child is strongly dependent on all stakeholders taking responsibility, being accountable and working together. When this is done effectively, a school can rest assured that each child has every chance of educational success.

In conclusion, the Head of Inclusion will strategically plan for all children’s wellbeing and educational success, ensuring there are no barriers to them obtaining positive outcomes. However, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure this takes place on a consistent basis. Teachers can use effective teaching methods and build relationships with their children and families to ensure there is equity within their classes. External agencies who are recognised partners also have a part to play in supporting the school in its efforts to support its students. At the very heart of it all is the question WHY? If we all agree every child deserves a chance for a successful life, we will do all we can to create the kind of environment where excuses are not tolerated. It isn’t easy, but that’s why we don’t do it alone.


Emmanuel Awoyelu photograph

Emmanuel Awoyelu (@MannyAwo) is an Assistant Head Teacher of Inclusion and is also the director of The Reach Out Project, an organisation that supports disadvantaged boys in schools through mentoring. Emmanuel is also the host of the Goodman Factory podcast on Youtube. He uses his negative experience of school as his motivation to change the outcomes of disadvantaged young people in London.

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