Published on 21 September 2023
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Inclusive policies for schools

To improve the inclusion of children with neurodevelopmental differences in mainstream schools, Cambridge researchers developed school-level education policy recommendations and resources that address barriers to learning and wellbeing.

Inclusion is a perennial challenge for schools. They have limited time, financial resources, and personnel to try to create environments where all pupils can actively participate in their learning. Although inclusion is a worthy goal, schools often question whether it is actually possible, given these constraints.

To address this policy question, Professor Duncan Astle and I set out to improve practices surrounding inclusion in schools. And, some freely available practical resources, Belonging in School, were the result.

As researchers, we are constantly confronted by the fact that the populations we study—in our case, children who experience difficulties at school—have a wide range of unmet needs. We meet hundreds of children and families as part of our scientific work, and have heard many stories about how difficult it is to access any form of assessment or provision of care. Children and families are often left feeling alienated from their schools and communities. Despite school inclusion being a national policy priority, the UK education system is failing.

Systemic shortcomings and barriers to inclusion

In theory, inclusive practices should already be the norm. Inclusion for children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) is, after all, mandated practice in England—the Needs and Disability Code of Practice dictates that every school must have a dedicated budget and system to provide specialised resources for children and young people with SEND. Similar policies exist across the rest of the United Kingdom (UK). For instance, Scotland mandates the allocation of provisions for children with additional support needs (ASN) which a broader category that also encapsulates characteristics like care experience.

Fuelled by a growing awareness of learning differences and a focus on early identification, the number of children in the UK with SEND continues to increase. In 2023, an estimated 1.4 million state school students – about 13% – were identified as having SEND. However, only 4% of schoolchildren had an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP). Those with SEND, but no EHCP, face a difficult situation: with no legal protection or plan for provisioning care and reasonable accommodations, there is no guarantee that their needs will be met.

In practice, obtaining an EHCP is often gated by access to diagnostic assessment, which is accompanied by waiting times and costs that make the process prohibitive to lower-income families. Typically, by the time the child is finally assessed for neurodevelopmental difficulties, they have spent years in a school system that failed to address their needs. They may have also faced bullying and stigmatisation, resulting in further challenges—for instance, mental health problems, long periods of absence from school, and delays in learning.

When speaking to teachers, administrators, and the families of children with SEND, we found that few are naïve about the systemic barriers to inclusion that permeate the fabric of UK schools. They know schools are under-resourced, and that the current method for provisioning resources imposes unsustainable costs on the public, local communities, schools, and individual families.

Having heard so many stories like this, we felt compelled to do something beyond what research usually entails. We needed an action plan and a means of collecting evidence—in other words, we needed a better understanding of the nature and scale of these unmet needs, and to identify the best policy route to addressing those needs.

The Diverse Trajectories to Good Developmental Outcomes Workshop

We began our journey into education policy by gathering information about barriers to inclusion at multiple different levels of society: individual schools, local communities, and the UK as a whole. In October 2022, we received a donation from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to run a workshop as part of the Global Scientific Conference on Global Flourishing. Our Diverse Trajectories to Good Developmental Outcomes Workshop aimed to integrate a growing scientific understanding of the diversity that exists in neurodevelopment with pragmatic policy recommendations for achieving good developmental outcomes. In November 2022, the Cambridge-based workshop brought together over 80 leaders in academic research, the charity sector, policy, education, and clinical practice, alongside those with lived experience of neurodivergence.

A major goal of the Workshop was to identify unmet needs, and to select what might be relevant to addressing those needs. After identifying key barriers to inclusion, participants discussed measures that could improve inclusive practices at the national and school levels. Many argued that better national policies are needed to tackle poverty and inequalities in opportunity. We agree. However, attempting to tackle poverty on the national scale was outside of our purview—people with far more experience and knowledge in this area are already trying to address these complex issues. If we wanted to facilitate as much positive change as possible, we needed to think more specifically about how we were best positioned to do so.

In writing our initial policy document, with the support of Dr Sian Lewis, we focused on summarising barriers to inclusion and promoting school-level recommendations for reducing inequity.

This original policy brief was written for a broad range of educators and policymakers nationwide. But we then concluded that a more comprehensive set of resources would help schools implement inclusive practices at the local level.

The Belonging in School initiative

In June 2023, Duncan and I launched a new initiative, Belonging in School, that aimed to build a freely available, comprehensive set of online resources for schools to develop their own inclusive policies at the local level. Our team welcomed Dr Alyssa Alcorn as the Public Engagement Lead. Belonging in School sets out practical approaches and proposes different changes that schools could make to continuously improve their inclusion practices. These approaches and recommended changes aren’t one-size-fits-all; rather, schools can choose different ways of engaging with them depending on their needs and circumstances. For instance, some schools may find it helpful to teach their pupils about sensory differences, giving them the vocabulary to express their own needs and better understand those of others. Other schools might initially focus on adjusting how they publicly reward or punish pupils’ attendance—something that is largely outside of pupils’ control. In any case, our goal was to give schools the background information and practical insights that they need in order to start making positive steps towards inclusivity.

Right from the start, we created the resource with self-sufficiency and free accessibility in mind. One early concern was that financial and staffing limitations would make it difficult for schools to incorporate a new set of tools into their regular practices. But the Belonging in School resource is ready to use, and provides staff with the information they need in order to start addressing matters relating to inclusion in their own schools. Implementing our recommendations requires no costly investments, systemic overhauls, or additional training and is designed to empower all kinds of schools.

The official launch of Belonging in School took place on 20 September 2023, online and in Cambridge when the resource became available. Crucially, the Belonging in School resource is framed around an action cycle, which guides educators through four potential approaches to engaging in a long-term process of policy improvement. Our Overview Report introduces this action cycle, and our Planning Guidance Document gives detailed advice about how to implement it in different ways. The focus on process and planning is an opportunity: it means that schools can reach for ongoing progress, not perfection.

Systemic change will become possible when we – policymakers, researchers, clinicians, teachers, and families – act boldly and work together to shape the future of education policy.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Natalia Zdorovtsova

Natalia Zdorovtsova is a researcher at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on uncovering the neurological mechanisms for behavioural and cognitive diversity in...

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