This article has been published in Enabling Education 13
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Joseph Kisanji

Conversations about inclusive education have grown over the last 20 years. At international level, these conversations have been fuelled by numerous conferences and meetings, with their related resolutions, declarations and frameworks for action. But these international instruments are heavily influenced by policies, research findings, and practices from income-rich countries of the North. This can be confusing for countries of the South, as they develop their national policies on inclusive education.

Questions raised include:

  • Is there a Southern perspective on inclusive education?
  • Is enough attention paid to existing understandings and practices in the South?
  • Is there a universal design that can be adopted by each country?
  • Can a set of ideas and standards be adapted to suit each country?
  • Are universally agreed understandings appropriate for Southern countries?

In most countries it has been difficult to establish a common understanding of inclusive education and the strategies needed to develop inclusive schools. There has often been confusion between policy-makers, researchers, and practitioners about the relevance of international statements. We cannot assume that what has worked in one country or community will necessarily work in, or become relevant to, any other country or community.

There are many factors at national and community level that determine how ideas are shaped and interpreted. These factors may be historical, social and/or cultural. In communities that have retained close-knit, extended family ties, elements of indigenous customary education exist. These elements include: education that is available and accessible to all members of the community; contents and methods of informal and non-formal education that are relevant to learners’ lives; and the development of functional knowledge, attitudes and skills for cultural transmission and advancement.

Of course not all community attitudes are supportive of inclusion. Champions of inclusive education have to lobby and advocate for positive change. However, in order to understand the way a particular community already practises inclusive education, we need to analyse the indigenous understandings of the concept.

EENET provides some guidance on how to explore indigenous understandings in its action research guidelines “Learning from Difference”.1 This project aimed to help people who are involved in inclusive education to learn from their experience of inclusive practice, document it, and share it with other people – without their stories first having to be captured and interpreted by external ‘experts’ in order to be heard.

The World Bank’s Indigenous Knowledge for Development Results website2 aims to highlight the important role played by community-based practices in the development process; and to support development practitioners to make better use of indigenous/traditional knowledge to maximise the benefits of their development assistance.

Efforts like this are more likely to lead to the formulation and implementation of policies that are nationally and community owned, and thus more sustainable. Such efforts will help communities and countries to practise inclusion in the way they understand it – not according to an outside expert’s view of inclusion. By emphasising local contexts, countries will be better placed to develop education in a way that does not simply comply with international expectations. Instead attention can be paid to political and ideological visions, changes in economic performance, and external influences such as globalisation.

This newsletter is a platform for stimulating conversations on inclusive education from all perspectives – from local to international. The diversity of challenges and solutions covered in this year’s newsletter demonstrate the impossibility of developing one ‘international’ approach to inclusive education.

Joseph co-ordinates Tanzania Education Network/Mtandao wa Elimu Tanzania (TEN/MET), a national coalition with more than 200 members.
TEN/MET, PO Box 13547, Upanga, Dar es Salaam,

1 “Learning from Difference: An action research guide for capturing the experience of developing inclusive education”, EENET, 2004 (available in print and on CD-ROM)