By Susie Lee* and Axelle Devaux**
Rising levels of social inequality and diversity in Europe have made social inclusion a priority for the European Union. However, it remains a challenge to ensure access to quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) for all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
RAND Europe's new policy memo for the European Platform for Investing in Children, provides a context for understanding what inclusion means in education and why it matters from early on.
UNESCO (PDF) defines inclusive education as a process that helps overcome barriers limiting the presence, participation, and achievement of learners. There are a number of misconceptions, or myths, about inclusive education, which continue to hamper the discussion and implementation of inclusive practices in education. However, arguments for inclusive education are well established and deeply rooted in the notions of equity and human rights.
Myth 1: Inclusion (Only) Concerns Learners with Disabilities
Discrimination in education based on a child's disability has been a key issue addressed by inclusive education. However, over time, the issue has been expanded to include discrimination based on multiple factors, such as racial/ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or religious/cultural/linguistic association. Inclusive education does not set boundaries around particular kinds of 'needs'—rather, it is viewed as a process to reduce barriers to learning and to ensure the right to education for all, regardless of individual differences.
Myth 2: Quality Inclusive Education Is Expensive
In fact, there is evidence that the instructional cost of inclusive education is lower compared to that of segregated education. And adapting schools and systems for inclusive education does not have to use a lot of resources. Rather, an inclusive environment can be cultivated by redesigning training and practices, such as by including cultural competence in staff training or creating an ECEC setting that reflects the diverse needs of children (PDF).
Furthermore, according to evidence from low- and middle-income countries (PDF), including children with disabilities in schools leads to significant national economic gains, provided that inclusion is continued beyond school to post-school activities, such as higher education, vocational training, and work.
Myth 3: Inclusion Jeopardizes Quality of Education for Other Students
Research suggests (PDF) there are benefits of inclusive education for all students, in terms of academic, behavioural and social, and post-secondary and employment opportunities. A recent meta-analysis based on studies from North American and European countries shows that students without special educational needs achieve higher academic attainments when they are in inclusive classrooms.
More similar research on inclusive ECEC could be needed to directly assess its effectiveness, not only in later academic achievements, but also for well-being and social relations with peers and teachers. Nonetheless, research has shown that inclusive ECEC services could be of higher global quality than non-inclusive services. This evidence, together with evaluation on case studies, suggests a close association between inclusion and aspects of quality that promote positive outcomes for all children.
Myth 4: Inclusive Education Will Make Special Educators Redundant
Successful inclusive education relies on specialist teachers working with class teachers in an integrated way. We actually need more special educators than ever to implement inclusive education. In the United States, for example, overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow by 3% from 2018 to 2028.
Myth 5: Only Schools Are Responsible for Inclusion
Inclusive education is not without its challenges, as it involves changes in attitude and efforts from society. However, the challenge is less about defending the need to accommodate learner differences, and more about sharing a vision for inclusive education. For example, case studies on schools show that the commitment, agency, and a belief in collective efficacy ('we can do it') by school members, and society, are pivotal in successful implementation of inclusion in schools.
Inclusion in education is an ongoing process to remove the barriers that prevent some learners from participating in quality education. Giving more attention and support to current efforts to make learning more inclusive from early ages could help to dismantle those barriers. Quality early childhood care and education may be the critical step towards building a more cohesive and inclusive European society.
*Susie Lee is a former analyst
**Axelle Devaux a research leader in the Home Affairs and Social Policies research group at RAND Europe, which is conducting research for the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC).
This commentary originally appeared on EU Reporter on June 23, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.