Sometimes researchers are surprised by their results. So were the Dutch researcher de Boer and her co-workers when they made a review of the research of how parents look at "inclusion", or to express it more precisely, the placement of "pupils with special needs" in ordinary classes. I use quotation marks for inclusion to clarify that the researchers use a placement definition of inclusion.
Why were the researchers then surprised? Given that the issue of inclusion in many countries from the beginning was driven by parents of students with disabilities partly in opposition to other parents, they expected to find more positive attitudes to "inclusion" in the former group and more negative in the latter group but this pattern did not emerge in their review.
What were the main results then? A mixed but predominantly positive image emerged in the review. The researchers found 10 studies in which parents' attitudes towards the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes were examined. In three of these, only parents to pupils in need of special support were studied, in four only parents of other students and in the three additional studies both groups were studied.
In seven of the studies, the influence of different factors on the attitudes towards “inclusion” were studied, for example the influence of parents' level of education or of the student's type of difficulty. The reviewed studies were divided based on whether they showed a positive, a neutral or a negative attitude to the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes.
In none of the studies did negative attitudes prevail according to the criteria used by the researchers. Parents of students other than those in need of special support are described as generally positive towards the placement of pupils in need of special support in regular classes. In one study referred to in the review, 47% of these parents were positive about the placement before it was implemented and 64% after it was implemented. Parents frequently described the social benefits of inclusive education for their own children.
Parents of pupils in need of special support were somewhat more neutral in their attitudes according to the article authors. However, it should be noted that in two of the three studies where the groups are directly compared, parents of pupils in need of special support are actually more positive towards “inclusion”.
A very important point de Boer et al emphasize is that there are many parents of pupils in need of special support who think that their children should go in special groups/schools and who also express concern about the access to support and adapted teaching as well as about the child's emotional development when their children go in regular class. In one study e.g., 54% of these parents thought that they did not think their children should attend regular classes.
Higher education levels among the parents as well as more experience of "inclusion" co-varied with more positive attitudes. Pupils with behavioural problems or severe disabilities were considered, as usual one is inclined to say, to be those who were considered most difficult to place in a regular classroom.
There are a number of questions, of which I will discuss three here, that are evoked during the reading of this interesting research review: What conclusions can we really draw from the studies? What more research is needed? How should we understand the outcome in relation to the idea of inclusion?
What conclusions can we draw?
David Mitchell (2008) has presented a model for what is required to create inclusive environments. Mitchell means that it is not enough to place a pupil with special educational needs in a normal class in order for us to be able to talk about inclusion. In this way, he represents a different inclusion concept than the placement definition used by de Boer et al. Mitchell uses the following formula to show what it takes to create inclusive environments:
Inclusive education = V + P + 5As + S + R + L
V = Vision; P = Placement; 5As = Adapted Curriculum, Adapted Assessment,
Adapted Teaching, Acceptance, Access, S = Support; R = Resources; L = Leadership.
Without getting into detail with Mitchell`s model, we can see that, according to him, a lot is required by the learning environment in order for it to become inclusive. A setback with the review of de Boer et al is that it does not specify what kind of environment that respondents in the different studies have experience with.
In other words, the parent who has experience of an "inclusive" environment without vision, with weak leadership and little support, etc. probably has a different attitude to "inclusion" than that which has experience in an environment where the opposites prevail. Not surprisingly, the attitudes differ depending on where studies have been carried out.
That does not mean that we should not take parents ' scepticism seriously and it is a very important contribution by Boer et al to show that such scepticism is quite widespread and more widespread than most researchers thought before they did the review. We must never sacrifice students for a principle. It is of course a terrible experience for a parent to see her/his child in a harmful situation in an "inclusive" environment.
What further research is needed?
The question about inclusion has to a large extent been driven ideologically and too little research has been devoted to how to create inclusive learning environments. If we look at the Mitchell model above, we understand that creating inclusive learning environments is a complex task. There is therefore a need for more research on how to create such environments.
How do we understand the outcome in relation to the issue of inclusion?
The Norwegian researcher Peder Haug, as well as other researchers, have argued that the right of students in difficulties to be placed in a regular group and to be part of a learning community is not an empirical issue but an issue about social justice. From such a perspective, the surveys that de Boers and others are reviewing become questionable: What groups other than students with disabilities can be challenged in this way? Is a reasonable question from such a perspective.
From the standpoint of inclusion, it is also rewarding that these students by many respondents seemed to be seen as bringing value to the educational environment.
One should however be hesitant to draw general conclusions on difficult issues. Inclusion is often about very vulnerable students and it is important to show great humility rather than getting stuck in locked ideological positions.
In my opinion, we should try to create as inclusive school environments as possible which we will not succeed in if this task is not given priority and taken very seriously. At the same time there are very few who believe that it would be entirely possible to avoid segregated placement for some pupils and this is also clear in the Salamanca declaration refers to (see link). Let us see inclusion as a goal to pursue where needless to say no one can be sacrificed on the way.
De Boer, Anke., Pilj, SJ. & Minnaert, A. (2010) Attitudes of Parents towards Inclusive Education: A Review of the Literature. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 25(2), 165-181.
Mitchell, D. 2008. What Really Works in Special Needs and Inclusive Education: Using Evi-dence-based Teaching Strategies. London: Routledge.
Link to blog about the Salamanca statement.