This article has been published in Enabling Education Review – Special Issue 2015 – Inclusive Education Advocacy
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Research to inform policy-makers and advocates

Verity Donnelly

Local and large-scale advocacy needs to be based on evidence and experience. It can be more effective when advocates share information and learn from each other’s contexts. Here, the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education describe a research project, the findings of which provide clear suggestions for the focus that inclusive education policy and advocacy needs to take in Europe.

The European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (the Agency) is an independent, self-governing organisation established by member countries to act as their platform for collaboration regarding the development of provision for learners with special educational needs. Member countries can learn from each other through knowledge and experience exchange.

The Agency is not an NGO. It works primarily with policy-makers to identify priorities and develop resources for policy-making. Its programmes reflect both these priorities and agreed EU policies regarding learners with special educational needs and the promotion of their full participation within mainstream education and training.

The Organisation of Provision to Support Inclusive Education (OoP) project, was conducted by the Agency from 2011 to 2013. It examined, with member countries: how are systems of provision organised to meet the needs of learners identified as having disabilities (under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, 2006) in inclusive settings within the compulsory school sector? The findings offer insights to guide policy-makers and those advocates seeking to influence policy-makers.

Project activities
Various activities were used to collect, discuss and share information:

  1. Literature review: set out the project’s conceptual framework and reviewed research literature post-2000, including past Agency work.
  2. Information and examples of practice from member countries on how they organise and evaluate provision for learners with disabilities in mainstream schools.
  3. Country visits:
    • Sweden – explore ways to strengthen the capacity of mainstream schools
    • Austria – look at a collaborative approach to quality management
    • Germany – investigate collaboration and networking to support the needs of learners with disabilities
    • Slovenia – look at developing the role of special schools to provide a resource to support mainstream
    • Malta – study in-class support and the roles of different personnel in schools/communities.
  4. Thematic seminars in these countries: policy-makers and national and local representatives explored the factors that influence the success of inclusive education.
  5. Project outputs: A final report provides recommendations (for policy-makers and those who advocate with them) for improving support systems for learners with disabilities in mainstream schools.

A web-based resource (due mid-2015) will support collaborative policy development. It will highlight project resources and key publications to encourage dialogue around:

  • How can we embed UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UNCRPD principles in national/local policy to ensure the rights of all learners to a quality education?
  • What do we understand by inclusive education?
  • How can we identify and overcome barriers to participation and learning for all?
  • How can we organise provision to meet the needs of all our school community?
  • How can we collaborate with key stakeholders to secure a commitment to change and improve?

Key policy / advocacy messages
Thematic seminar discussions and other project research activities revealed the need for:

  • Conceptual clarity regarding inclusive education
  • Strong politicians who think long-term
  • Legislation and policy that recognises the synergy between the UNCRC and UNCRPD in prioritising the rights of children with disabilities and ensuring consistent policy and practic
  • Understanding inclusion as integral to school improvement
  • A systemic view: developing the ‘inclusive capability’ of the whole education system
  • Effective co-ordination between agencies at all levels
  • Leaders who engage in self and peer review and use data/evidence to inform improvements
  • Leaders and teachers who take responsibility
  • Teachers who value heterogeneity and do not label learners
  • A view of support as the norm for all learners
  • A flexible curriculum framework to meet all needs
  • Schools/teachers who use diverse teaching and assessment approaches.
  • Inclusive accountability that involves all stakeholders and informs policy decisions
  • Teacher education and continuing professional development for inclusion so that teachers develop positive attitudes and take responsibility
  • A clear role for specialist settings to develop as resource centres to increase the capability of mainstream schools and ensure quality provision and well-qualified professional support
  • School organisation, teaching approaches, curriculum and assessment that support ‘equivalent’ learning opportunities for all
  • Efficient use of resources through co-operation, developing a flexible continuum of support rather than allocating funding to specific groups.

The following are recommendations to policy-makers (and those who advocate with them):

Child rights and participation
Policy-makers should:

  • Review national legislation and education policy to ensure that they are consistent with and actively support UNCRC and UNCRPD and uphold the right of all learners to full participation in their local school.

Conceptual clarity and coherence
Policy-makers should:

  • Clarify the concept of inclusion across and between levels of the system – be clear that it increases quality and equity for all learners. All education policy-makers need to take responsibility for all learners.
  • Consider the links between system levels (i.e. between national/local policy-makers, local education/school leaders, teachers, other professionals and learners and their families) and enhance these links through collaboration and coherent partnerships.
  • Provide incentives for schools to take all learners from the local community and ensure that methods of assessment, inspections and other accountability measures support inclusive practice and inform further improvement.

Continuum of support
Policy-makers should:

  • Develop a ‘continuum of support’ for teachers, support staff and in particular for school leaders through use of research, networking and links to universities.
  • Develop the role of special schools as a resource to increase the capability of mainstream schools and improve support for learners. Maintain and further develop the specialist knowledge and skills of resource centre personnel to enable them to support school staff and provide a specialist network that will enhance support for learners.
  • Develop more accessible curriculum and assessment frameworks and support greater flexibility in pedagogy, school organisation and resource allocation so that schools can work in innovative ways rather than fitting them into an existing system.

For more information, see: