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The Review: ‘Developing inclusive schools’ by Mel Ainscow

Mel Ainscow’s aim for Developing inclusive schools is ambitious and the work goes far beyond the usual 60 page edu-pamphlet that we have become more accustomed to in recent times.

Academic, researched and astute, he chooses not to update his previous work (Understanding the development of inclusive schools) but instead writes what becomes a sequel: both an update and a challenge to previous thinking, including his own.

Ainscow paints a picture of evolution; from a narrow focus on special education to a wider concern with process – “school improvement with attitude”. This concept is expanded on in  a number of the chapters, as is the search for “levers of change” – an attempt to move to system-level reform rather than individual school efforts.

In chapter 7, ‘Changing education systems’, Ainscow carefully unpicks historic improvements to understand what prompted change; from an analysis of London Challenge to the Greater Manchester Challenge.

The insightful evaluation of success and the ecosystems created to ensure it are precise and grounded in statistical analysis as well as trend identification. These are balanced beautifully with vignettes that consider and explore potential barriers to implementation, including social, political and cultural factors.

The book is most successful in chapters 8 and 9, where Ainscow addresses barriers and looks at new challenges facing the sector in its development of inclusive practices. Here, he returns to the need for all approaches to be contextually sensitive and urges readers not to ignore the age-old issues of interpretation and translation.

This leads to a  nuanced investigation of policy and practice referenced specifically to place and people. It’s considerable feat, which moves beyond the temptation to make sweeping comparative judgements or to believe there is any such thing as a single national perspective or experience.

 Ainscow further builds on this in chapter 10, where he introduces a framework for contextual analysis in relation to inclusion and equity, based on the assertion that the two should not be seen as separate policies.

Given the growing scale of need, this is a very timely intervention

Instead, he compellingly argues, inclusion must be seen as a process that is concerned with the identification and removal of barriers and focused on improving the presence, participation and achievement of all students.

But more than that, he makes the case for being unapologetic in putting a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalisation, exclusion or underachievement.

There is little novel or new in this book. Ainscow has purposefully looked to synthesise a huge amount of research, study and evidence into a one-stop shop of the past, present and future of inclusion.

In doing so, he bursts some of the mythology that has evolved over the past decade and recentres the focus on professional empowerment, community relationships and contextualised engagement.

This represents an important call-to-arms for a sector that is highly aware of burgeoning need, limited resources and lack of political prioritisation.

For Ainscow, the call is answered through research partnerships, a clearer understanding of purpose and a move away from an emphasis on student deficits to embracing the UNESCO principle that “every learner matters and matters equally”.

Given the growing scale of need schools must meet, this is a very timely intervention. Every education policy maker should read it, and so should every school leader interested in finally delivering on the sector’s promise to its most vulnerable learners.

I will certainly be reading this week’s party manifestos for proposals that match the reality that our schools are experiencing and the evidenced solutions on offer here.

Improving SEND and AP is certainly only part of the wider solution the education system needs to meet need. Only a bold new inclusive vision from the top will get us there.

I hope we can all demonstrate the bravery on show from Ainscow here, learn from our previous attempts and continue to move forward to develop every school as an inclusive school.

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