This article has been published in Enabling Education 8
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Title: What is a Culture of Inclusion?
Author: Kugelmass, J
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2004

What is a Culture of Inclusion?

Judy Kugelmass

The Framework for Action (Salamanca) defines inclusion as a reform that supports and welcomes diversity among all learners. Its aims are to eliminate social exclusion that is a consequence of responses to diversity in race, social class, ethnicity, religion, gender and ability. This definition is not, however, applied universally.

In schools throughout the world, ‘inclusion’ is often used to refer only to the placement of children with disabilities in ordinary classrooms alongside their peers. I am interested in understanding how definitions of inclusive education are reflected in the way schools operate. This led me to investigate publicly-operated schools in England, Portugal and the United States that describe themselves as ‘inclusive’. In this article, I describe what I learned from three inclusive schools whose publicly articulated mission reflects the definition of inclusion articulated in the Salamanca Statement.

Schools have unique organisational cultures that reflect aspects of the societies in which they are found. There are, however, also organisational cultures that represent new ideas. These kinds of progressive institutions introduce innovations and serve as models for what may be possible in their respective societies. The three schools I studied represented these kinds of organisations. Each served culturally and linguistically diverse populations of students with significant numbers coming from low-income families.

The American school was located in a small city in New York State and served a student body that represented a range of economic and cultural diversity (European, African, Asian and Latino-Americans). There were also children of new immigrants and refugees, many of whom had limited English language skills. The school in Portugal served an economically disadvantaged and culturally diverse district in Lisbon, including growing numbers of non-Portuguese speaking children who had arrived from former Portuguese colonies or as refugees from other African, Middle-Eastern and Eastern European countries. The British school was located in London and served a similar population with the majority of students being bi- or multi-lingual. Among these students were children who were immigrants and/or asylum seekers from East Asian, Middle-Eastern and African countries. In each school, children with disabilities and other special educational needs were educated in general education classrooms alongside their peers.

All cultures operate on multiple levels – linked to, and supporting, one another. These levels include the visible, technical and artistic aspects of an organisation. The values and beliefs that members of the organisation share with one another are reflected in these observable features. This represents a second dimension of culture. The underlying meaning of the connections between these two levels represents a third and often hidden dimension of culture. At each school, this link was established and sustained by the uncompromising commitment to principles of inclusion I found among the entire staff. The cultures of these schools were characterised by:

  • seeing differences among students and staff as resources
  • organisational features that supported teaming among staff
  • a collaborative interactional style among staff and children
  • leadership that was shared and distributed among formal leaders and staff
  • a willingness to struggle to sustain inclusive practices
  • an understanding of the social/political nature of inclusion
  • the use of language and symbols to communicate ideals and spread commitments across the school and into the community
  • an uncompromising commitment and belief in inclusive education.

The development of inclusive approaches did not emerge as a mechanical process in which any one specific organisational restructuring, or the introduction of a particular instructional practice, generated increased levels of participation among students. Rather, what was central and common to all three schools was a focus on collaborative processes. Collaboration was both a form of practice and a manifestation of the inclusive values articulated by the staff as they attempted to create a community in which all individuals – staff and students – were valued. In each school collaborative instructional practices and organisational features were supported by a shared belief among staff and children in the value of every adult and child. This belief went beyond the way children were treated, extending to the ways adults interacted with one another, and included a celebration of the unique gifts each bought to their respective communities.

Dr Kugelmass is an associate professor. She co-ordinates the inclusive elementary teacher education programme and teaches a graduate-level course for general and special education teachers and administrators. Dr Kugelmass has worked towards developing inclusive schools internationally. She can be contacted at:

Dr Judy W. Kugelmass
School of Education and Human Development
Binghamton University
Binghamton, NY 13902