Interview with Alan Dyson

Interview with Alan Dyson

The emergence of a dilemma-perspective in inclusive/special needs research is closely associated with the work of the English scholar Alan Dyson. Alan is nowadays retired but held earlier a position as a professor at the University of Manchester. I have interviewed Alan about the emergence of this perspective in the English context.


Claes: Alan, you were for a long time researching inclusive education and were also a well known person in the international scholarly discussion about inclusive education. You were also a person who quite early on warned against being carried away by this appealing, I would almost say seductive, idea of inclusion, while at the same time seeing several benefits with the idea. However, I believe you started to raise some reservations already a few years following the Salamanca-declaration. Could you tell me a little bit about how this came about?


Alan: I think it is important to realize that the discourse of ‘inclusion’ was a relative latecomer in the field of what we might call progressive education. In England, for instance, there were already many progressive movements that were established long before ‘inclusion’ appeared. In terms of ‘special needs’ education, there was a relatively-successful ‘integration’ movement aimed at educating children in regular rather than special schools.

In regular schools themselves, there had been many developments aimed at educating children experiencing difficulties alongside their peers in ordinary classrooms, giving such children access to the full curriculum, and transforming the role of the special educator into that of a consultant to and supporter of regular teachers. Beyond special needs education, there had been a largely successful movement to end selection by ‘ability’, some exciting experiments with democratic schooling and radical curriculum design, and considerable development of provision for children for whom English was a second language.


Claes: I see, there were lots of interesting and progressive changes going on in the English educational system when “inclusion” appeared on the scene?


Alan: Yes, in the mid-1990s, inclusion seemed to hold out the promise of uniting all of these progressive causes under a single banner and founding them on a unified set of principles. Given that it had the backing of international organizations (notably UNESCO) and the support of multiple scholars and advocates, it was difficult not to get excited about the developments that it might yield.

However, there were also two problems. First, the universalizing discourse of inclusion seemed to run the risk of ignoring important differences between the different progressive movements that it sought to subsume. A particular issue was the division between – to put it crudely – disability and disadvantage. The early inclusion movement seemed to focus on children who were regarded by their education systems as disabled and who were segregated and offered limited opportunities on this basis. Some reversal of this process by ending segregation and expanding opportunity seemed essential.

Yet, much of my own work, first as a teacher and then as a researcher, was focused on children whose difficulties in schooling were not attributed to disability, but derived (albeit in complex ways) from the socio-economic disadvantage they experienced. Simply ending segregation was unlikely to be enough for these children since most of them were not in segregated settings in the first place. Instead, their situation seemed to call for positive interventions in terms of their learning and, more widely, in terms of the socio-economic challenges they faced.

The discourse of inclusion could certainly accommodate both of these situations, but it seemed to me that it did so by resorting to ever-more generalized statements of principle. Indeed, this trend towards generalization seems to have continued as ‘inclusion’ seeks to accommodate more and more ‘marginalized’ groups within its ambit. Consequently, it always struck me that the discourse of inclusion, for all its concern with diversity, made little acknowledgement of the different interests of the groups that fell within its purview. On the contrary, it is arguable that its focus on disability has effectively imposed a disability template on other, very different, groups that it claims to represent.



Claes: So the first problem was that diversity within schools was not properly attended to, what was the second problem?



Alan: The second problem was – and it seems to me still is – with the implicit theory of change in the inclusion movement. The movements that predated ‘inclusion’ had already learned that change within the education system is possible, but that it takes a very long time and is exceedingly hard. Moreover, change that is driven by minority interests in such systems is largely doomed to failure unless it can find allies in the majority system. This is because such change must overcome a powerful series of vested interests, from teachers to parents, policy-makers and politicians who – often for compelling reasons - find the status quo appropriate to their needs.

In this situation, ‘inclusion’ seemed to lack a coherent and powerful theory of change. It has always seemed to focus on a mixture of the repeated advocacy of generalized principles to whoever is prepared to listen combined with the identification of a few outstanding examples of inclusive practice. It seems implicitly to have pinned its hopes on a process of individual conversion – that is the realization by good individuals of the rightness of the inclusion case and a consequent commitment to the principles of inclusion in those individuals’ practice. Undoubtedly, ‘inclusion’ has had many successes on this basis. But how widespread and sustainable those successes have been in the face of vested exclusionary interests is, it seems to me, highly debatable.

From the start, then, inclusion seemed to me to be an exciting development judged as a set of principles around which many groups, interests and movements might rally. But beneath that surface excitement were – and continue to be – many tensions, contradictions and unacknowledged problems.


Claes: Can you say more about the tensions and contradictions you identified?



Alan: When I first started thinking about the kinds of fault lines in the discourse of inclusion that I have just outlined, I found the concept of educational ‘dilemmas’ very useful. In the form in which I used this concept, an educational dilemma arises when two educational courses of action have equally desirable but mutually incompatible aims. At the level of generalized principles – which all too often is the level at which inclusion operates – such dilemmas scarcely exist. It is difficult to disagree, for instance, with the propositions that all children should be educated together and that all children should be provided with the set of circumstances that enables them to learn most fully.


Claes: I agree, on that level, inclusion is an almost non-controversial concept.


Alan: Yes, however, these principles have to be realized in particular sets of conditions – in particular classrooms in particular schools with particular sets of resources and so on. It is at this point where the hidden dilemmas begin to emerge. What if some children learn some things better apart from their peer group (should the high-attaining mathematicians always do their maths alongside their lower-attaining peers, for instance)? What if, in a situation of finite resources, giving resources to one child means that other children are denied access to them (think of teacher time as an obvious example)?

Such dilemmas are so common in schools and across the education system that teachers and policy-makers routinely find ways to deal with them, often (for better or worse) almost without thinking. Yet it seems to me important to acknowledge that such dilemmas exist and that they can never really be ‘solved’. Instead, more-or-less satisfactory ways are found of balancing the competing claims of different courses of action. But the underlying dilemma does not go away, which means that the balance that is struck at one time and place is inherently unstable. At another time and place it will seem inappropriate, or undesirable, or simply impossible, and new ways of striking a balance will have to be found.

Moreover, dilemmas emerge and are ‘balanced’ in circumstances that are structured by all sorts of social interests and perceptions. The biographies of teachers and other educators will shape the ways they perceive and respond to dilemmas. They will do so within the context of school organization, curriculum development, resource allocation and so on that reflect all manner of social, political and economic realities and interests.

In this situation, the simple advocacy of generalized principles as though they were unproblematic is, it seems to me, of limited use in surfacing and engaging with these underlying issues. If they remain unsurfaced, any new response to a dilemma resulting from such advocacy of principles will simply embody in a new form the structures that have underpinned previous discredited responses.

Again, specific examples are always helpful. The inclusion movement has typically argued against segregating some children into different schools so that they can access specialized teaching. The emptying of special schools, however, creates a classic educational dilemma – how to maintain children in their peer group whilst giving them access to the specific resources they need in order to learn. A common solution is to place additional adults in the regular classroom who are claimed to have specialist skills or, at the very least, can offer additional adult time to children who might otherwise struggle. Yet we know that such practice all too easily creates a barrier between the child, her/his peer group and the teacher. Instead of being fully included in the regular classroom, a new kind of special school emerges – this time, a special school of one child and one adult working separately in an apparently inclusive context.


Claes: Yes it does seem like there are educational dilemmas that are unavoidable.

I believe that the critique against traditional special education in England to a large extent has been driven by educational sociologists. It is my opinion that educational sociology has provided a lot of useful critique towards traditional special education, do You agree?


Alan: On the one hand, sociology has played a key role in unmasking the hidden exclusions and inequalities that underlie apparently benign responses. I think in particular of Sally Tomlinson’s landmark A sociology of special education - a powerful revelation of the negative effects of a special education system that presented itself as a benign effort to support vulnerable learners. However, where it seems to me that educational sociology has been far less successful is in translating its critical analyses into positive proposals for change. We learn from sociologists what is wrong with the current system, but we rarely learn what is right with it, much less what we might do differently. Perhaps sociologists would say that is not their job.


Claes: To put it differently, I guess you might say that they do not provide much guidance in how these inevitable tensions and dilemmas are to be balanced.

To me research has always been a very personal issue and I believe that it is similar to you. Could you say something about the importance of your background in becoming a researcher in the educational field?


Alan: One aspect of my background that has been particularly important is that, before becoming a researcher, I spent 13 years as a ‘special educational needs’ teacher, mainly in regular secondary schools serving areas of high socio-economic disadvantage. ‘Special needs’ in this context was not primarily about disability. Traditional special education responses were not particularly relevant to the children I worked with. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with these children that demanded specialized teaching, or that disbarred them from regular settings. What mattered was finding ways of making the full curriculum accessible (and, more particularly, meaningful) in the ordinary classroom. So I spent much of my time working with subject-teacher colleagues to enable them – and, in some cases, to persuade them - to teach these children effectively and working with school policy and organization to make them more responsive to the nature of the school population.

This background has always made me feel something of an outsider in the inclusion movement. I have always had the sense that the movement is largely driven from a disability perspective that is subtly different from my own.


Claes: Finally Alan, I will of course ask you about how you view the prospects for a more inclusive society including more inclusive school systems. I know that you keep saying that you have not kept up with the discussion but I still believe that you have some interesting ideas on this issue.


Alan: I think I am an optimist in the long term and a pessimist in the short term. If we look at the trajectory of education systems over the past century, it seems to me that many of them have become more humane, more universal and more effective in reaching a wide range of children. They have in other words become more inclusive, not least of children identified as disabled or otherwise marginalized. So long as societies as a whole continue on a progressive track (probable but, I admit, not guaranteed even in the ‘liberal West’), I see no reasons why these trends should not continue in education.

However, in the short and medium term it seems to me that the situation is much more complicated. In my own country, the more-or-less progressive education policies and explicit commitment to inclusion that were put in place in the 1990s and early 2000s have been swept aside by right of centre governments from 2010 onwards.

It seems to me that this is inevitable, given the resistant nature of conservative forces in education systems across the world. Moreover, it also seems to me inevitable that the inclusion movement – or, more particularly, the discourse of inclusion – will, in the medium term, begin to fade away. As an attempt to create a broad church of progressive educational thinking it has never been more than partially successful. Despite the rhetorical efforts of inclusion scholars and advocates to embrace the concerns of all marginalized groups, it seems to me that key developments in, for instance, gender and ethnicity equality or in responses to educational disadvantage have taken place with only limited reference to the discourse of inclusion. This trend is not helped by the near hegemony that disability concerns have within the discourse of inclusion.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the emergence of ‘inclusion’, those of us in the special needs field found progressive inspiration in the concept of ‘integration’. Quite rightly, inclusion advocates pointed out the limitations of expecting children to adapt themselves to an unchanged and essentially hostile regular education system and proposed a better way of thinking about the task. It will hardly be surprising, therefore, if ‘inclusion’ itself suffers a similar fate.

To go back to the notion of dilemmas. ‘Inclusion’ is not a solution to the dilemmas of educating diverse children, but is a temporary response which is by its very nature unstable. Some other response will inevitably emerge to take its place.


Claes: I do think the Swedish reader of this will see similarities between the changes in the educational system in England and present developments in the Swedish system. I guess one way for the inclusion-concept to survive given what you have said, is to open up for diversity in the full sense of the word, or, to put it slightly differently, to adopt more of an intersectional approach. I really share your conviction that we need to develop workable theories of change in order to move schools into more inclusive directions.


Thank you for this interview, Alan, it has been very interesting to take part of your experiences in and with the field of inclusive education and let us hope that your optimistic view of the more distant future will be realized.

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