ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

about the conference

Voice, Rituals and Transitions: What is Inclusive Education Really About?

Professor Derrick Armstrong
Faculty of Education and Social Work
University of Sydney
NSW 2000


Inclusion is increasingly becoming a significant policy agenda in developing as well as in developed countries. It is an agenda that is being advanced in particular by international agencies such as UNESCO, the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development. Yet, the reality is that the idea of ‘inclusion’ is a doctrine that has been exported from the developed countries of the North and thrust upon education systems in developing countries of the South. Nor do these different agencies use the term in same ways: different usages reflect the contested nature not simply of inclusive education as a policy but of wider political contestations across the post-colonial political landscape.

Even in the countries of the North, the meaning of ‘inclusion’ is by no means clear and perhaps conveniently blurs the edges of social policy with a feel-good rhetoric that no one could be opposed to. What does it really mean to have an education system that is ‘inclusive’? Who is thought to be in need of inclusion and why? If education should be inclusive, then what practices is it contesting, what common values is it advocating, and by what criteria should its successes be judged? In this paper I will argue that the significance of international policies and interventions promoting the theme of ‘inclusive education’ must be seen within the context of a new world order. The introduction of these policies within education systems of developing countries is underpinned by a complex and contested process of social change. While social policy is dominated by the rhetoric of inclusion, the reality for many remains one of exclusion and the panacea of ‘inclusion’ masks many sins.

In many countries in Europe and elsewhere in the first world (Australia, Canada, the United States of America) the concept of special educational needs is only marginally related to a notion of ‘impairment’ and few children would understand their experiences in terms of the politics of disability. For many children the significance of special educational needs lies in its rationalisation of their educational failure, and frequently social marginalisation, within the ordinary school system. It is a concept that is also embedded in the trinity of social class, gender and race whilst obfuscating the intersection and operation of these factors as signifiers of exclusion. As many writers have previously argued it is only by deconstructing these wider social relationships that insight is offered into the role of special educational needs as a discourse of power and its abuses.

In the developed world, the idea of ‘inclusive education’ is one that has challenged the traditional view and role of special education. This challenge has been significantly driven by the disabled people’s movement in the UK, USA and in Europe. It has fundamentally questioned eugenicist policies and practices that have promote segregation and ‘human improvement’, including more recent derivations of this philosophy that have been embedded in a rhetoric of humanitarianism and social welfare. In place of eugenics, the disability movement has advanced a model of ‘inclusive education’ that is linked to a broader campaign for social justice and human rights.

That these policies continue to be contested is evident in the experience of a number of developing countries. In the UK, for example, the policy of inclusion has become a central plank of government policy since 1997. On the other hand, the radical ideas about social justice that characterised the development of inclusion as a political agitation by the disabled people’s movement have largely been lost within the technical approaches to inclusive education that frame policy applications in the narrower terms of ‘school improvement’, diversity of provision for different needs and academic achievement (Armstrong, 2005)

In the developing world inclusive education has quite different meanings and its history is often unrelated to arguments about social justice. It is frequently conceptualised as a policy option that is less resource intensive than other approaches to the provision of services for disabled children. It is a discourse that has also arisen in the context of exceptionally low achievement and the failure of educational systems to adequately address the needs of the majority of a country’s population. This places the notion of inclusion in highly contested political territory. To appreciate this, a discussion of ‘inclusion’ must be made concrete and understood in terms of the both cultural differences and their intersection with the colonial history and post-colonial contexts of countries in the developing world, which include the technological advances of the 21 st century, the globalisation of economic markets and the penetration of ‘first world’ knowledge and policy solutions into the developing world.   The precarious position of developing country economies, starved of investment, historically constrained (internally as well as externally) by the baggage of colonialism, and economically disenfranchised by the political dominance of first world countries, their donor agencies and the interests of multinational companies is commonly reflected in both the need to develop human capital alongside economic investment and the inability of these countries to lift themselves out of disadvantages that are structural, global and embedded in the historical and cultural legacy of colonialism. Within this context the exhortations of first world aid agencies and international donors for countries to adopt inclusive education as a policy prescription to address system failure and individual disadvantage can seem idealistic, if not patronising and victim-blaming. On the other hand, the discourse of inclusive education can provide a political space for contesting the wider agenda of social injustice. Here, as for example is the case with the promotion of ‘inclusive education’ by the member states of UNESCO, there are opportunities for advancing a progressive educational agenda that goes beyond the rhetoric of exhortation and the limitations of policy borrowing from first world nations. Within this context debates about special education have been located within the context of more general concerns around the themes of ‘social inclusion’ and ‘education for all’, and the negative impact of the ‘development’ agenda of first world states.  

These contrasting agendas are evident in the competing policy frameworks that address issues of internationalization in educational policy. For instance, the international development targets for education set out in the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities propose that:

States should recognise the principle of equal primary, secondary and tertiary educational opportunities for children, youth and adults with disabilities, in integrated settings.   They should ensure that the education of persons with disabilities is an integral part of the educational system.  

(United Nations 1993:Rule 6)

The Salamanca Statement (UNESCO 1994), recognising the uniqueness of each child and their fundamental human right to education, declared that ‘[i]nclusion and participation are essential to human dignity and to the exercise and enjoyment of human rights’ (Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education online).   The Statement is supported by a Framework for Action which strongly supports schools having a child-centred pedagogy supporting all children.    This Framework suggests that education systems must become inclusive by catering for diversity and special needs, thus creating opportunities for genuine equalisation of opportunity.   It begins with the premise that differences are a normal part of life and therefore learning should be adapted to cater to those differences, rather than trying to insist that children fit into a perceived ‘norm’.   As such, Governments have been asked to improve their education systems as a priority by adopting laws and policies which support the principles of inclusivity. The Salamanca Statement strongly advocates that:

Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost effectiveness of the entire education system.

(UNESCO 1994 : 3)

However, other considerations may have an equal if not greater bearing upon policy formulation and implementation in practice.   For example, the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (United Nations 1993: ‘Rule 6 of 22’) recognises that special schools may have to be considered where ordinary schools have not be able to make adequate provisions. By contrast, the World Bank, which works in conjunction with the United Nations to provide loans to developing countries, has argued in favour of inclusion, justifying this position thus:

If segregated special education is to be provided for all children with special educational needs, the cost will be enormous and prohibitive for all developing countries.   If integrated in-class provision with a support teacher system is envisaged for the vast majority of children with special educational needs, then the additional costs can be marginal, if not negligible.

(Lynch 1994)

It is not only disabled people who are to be included in this category (Des Santos 2001). For the most part, these are children who are experiencing difficulties with learning, rather than children with physical, sensory or learning impairments.

Yet, increasingly the discourse of special education is being drawn upon to frame discussions and policy concerning educational failure. This illustrates a dilemma, not restricted to developing countries, but acutely experienced in these settings.   On the one hand, the need for improved and targeted learning support coupled with the training of teachers, particularly in the mainstream sector, to work effectively with children with a range of special educational needs is very evident.   On the other hand, the language of special education can itself impede an analysis of more deep-seated problems in respect of both funding and policy for improving the quality of education for all children. The reality is that the goals of equity and equality of opportunity remain distant for many people in the developing world.   For example, those stricken by poverty often experience academic deceleration and acquire special educational needs as they pass through the school system, leading to their eventual exclusion from those sections of the school system that offer the greatest prospects for upward social mobility (UNESCO 1996).

Also implicit in much of the international policy on inclusion is an assumption that participation in education should be premised on the voices of young people being heard. This assumption, which has come to be accepted wisdom, is one that has arisen in a largely first-world literature. Little attention has been given in this literature to the ways in which participation is culturally specified through rites of passage and transition and to the role and meaning of ‘voice’ in this process. However, the nature of research and development collaborations between special educators from first world countries and developing countries, especially where the former are acting as change-agents often takes for granted concepts such as ‘equity’, ‘social justice’ and ‘human rights’ and in doing so abstracts them from the specific historical and cultural traditions of developing countries. Ironically, these concepts, which are introduced as guiding principles of education reform, mask the unequal and dependency promoting relationship between change-oriented development interventions sponsored by outside funding agencies and the recipients of such programmes. Thus, when policies on inclusive education are abstracted from the broader social context within which they are situated it is unlikely that they will be effective. More importantly, there is also a danger of limiting the very real possibilities for sharing experiences and educational thinking that do exist but which are dependent upon a very different notion of collaboration.

Homi Bhabha has argued that a view of global cosmopolitanism has emerged founded on ideas of progress that are complicit with neo-liberal forms of governance and free-market forces of competition. It is a cosmopolitanism that celebrates a world of plural cultures as it moves swiftly and selectively from one island of prosperity to another, ‘paying conspicuously less attention to the persistent inequality and immiseration produced by such unequal and uneven development’ (xiv). This ‘one-nation’ globalisation is premised upon the assimilation of difference by an over-riding imperative of technologically driven ‘modernisation’. This imperative, which has political and moral as well as economic dimensions, crosses boundaries that are both geographic and cultural. The modernisation project of New Labour in the reconstruction of the socio-economic landscape of Britain is at one with the post-colonial project by which developing countries are increasingly incorporated into the globalised world of free-trade and institutional homogeneity under the celebratory slogan of the inclusion of diversity.   Yet in a most important sense globalisation necessarily begins at home; in other words, with ‘the difference within’. It is defined by the boundaries it places around inclusion; by the homogeneity of its view of diversity. Diversity is celebrated where it extends the reach of cultural dominance. Elsewhere, the opportunity to voice a different experience, a different reality, is closed down as is the case with indigenous peoples whose land has been torn from them and whose cultures have been ridiculed, brutalised and reconstituted by colonial fantasies.

Many of the issues which have been identified in this paper have arisen as a result of a legacy of the economic inequalities which developing countries have to manage in providing educational services. These inequalities are located in the colonial heritage of developing countries and in their continuing economic subordination to the interests of the first-world nations. More recently, there have been international attempts to raise the profile of inclusive inclusion as a policy priority but the reality for developing countries is often one in which the international rhetoric of inclusion is experienced, ironically, as reinforcing the exclusion of entire peoples from economic and social opportunities. This contradiction emphasises the important observation by Len Barton (2001:10-11) that:

...inclusive education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, that of the realisation of an inclusive society.   Thus, those who claim to a commitment to inclusive education are always implicated in challenging discriminatory, exclusionary barriers and contributing to the struggles for an inclusive society.


Armstrong, D. (2005) Reinventing ‘inclusion’: New Labour and the cultural politics of special education, Oxford Review of Education, 31(1), 135-151.

Barton, L. (2001) Inclusion, teachers and the demands of change:   the struggle for a more effective practice. In A. C. Armstrong (ed.) Rethinking Teacher Professionalism in the Caribbean Context (Sheffield: Sheffield Papers in Education).

Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.

Des Santos, M. P. (2001) Special education, inclusion and globalisation: a few considerations inspired in the Brazilian case’, Disability and Society, 16 (2), 311-325.

Lynch, J. (1994) Provision for children with special needs in the Asian region - World Bank Technical Paper Number 261Asia Technical Series   Hampshire: Microinfo Ltd.

UNESCO (1994) The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education.   World Conference on Special Needs Education, Access and Quality (online) http:/

Accessed 19 th November, 2000

UNESCO (1996) Mid-Decade Review of Progress towards Education for All Paris: UNESCO.

United Nations (1993) UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, New York: United Nations.

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