What does inclusion look like?


This article is from the latest edition of Inclusion Now, which you can read by subscribing.

We are four researchers working within the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University who wish to share some findings of our ongoing research that had two stages. In the first stage of the research, school children took photographs of their understanding of inclusion in and around school. In the second stage, some of the images taken by the children were then shared with adults working in the field of education, to elicit their responses and interpretations of inclusion.

Inclusion within education settings has, through policies and social justice campaigns, become integral to much school policy and practice. It is often associated with belonging, participation and respect for others (CSIE 2015). Yet what is understood by the term ‘inclusion’ remains open to interpretation. In order to investigate in some depth what different people might understand about what inclusion might mean and what it might look like in practice, we decided to embark on a research project to explore the views and interpretations of both school children and adults working in education.

In the first part of our study, a photo-elicitation research method was used whereby children in four schools (two primary and two secondary) were given disposable cameras and asked to take images that they believed represented inclusion or exclusion. The children were asked to explain either verbally or in writing what the photographs they had taken meant to them. This offered a window into their worlds and their understandings of inclusion for us and for their teachers. They were also asked to give a small amount of information about themselves, such as gender, age, and whether or not they identified as having an educational need.

The photo-elicitation method was chosen because we felt this methodit encouraged the active engagement of children and young people in research rather than conducting research upon them. It was felt that children’s perspectives and experiences around inclusion might be heard more cogently than through traditional research approaches, such as interviews or observations. Using an approach in which children produce photographs and annotate them as they choose is, we felt, suitable for children as it provides involvement and ownership. Such an approach also assisted those who communicate differently or who have a preference for visual rather than verbal communication.

In the second part of the study, thirty of the photographs taken by the children were selected by the research team and anonymised via software that ‘cartoonises’ the image. These altered images were then shared with children in four different schools (two primary and two secondary), groups of trainee teachers and other adults working in the field of education during conferences, workshops or teaching sessions. The groups of adults were shown the photographs and asked for their views about whether they thought the images taken by the children represented inclusion or exclusion and to discuss and explain their reasoning. They were not informed of the children’s interpretation until the end of the group discussions. The intention of this process was to consider how personal experiences of school life, as pupils or teachers, might influence how they interpret practices that are intended to be inclusive. The aim was to go beyond defining forms of inclusive practice and instead find a way for trainee teachers and other adults working with children to ‘hear’ children’s voices, and access the ‘multi-voiced-ness’ of children’s lived experiences relating to inclusion.

To provide a flavour of what is emerging from our research, three of the many images taken by the children are shown in the following section.


The Baking Photo

A boy sits with a cupcake baking try in front of him. Two adults cooperate around him to put cake mixture into the tray.

The Baking Photo

9 year old boy who self-identified as having moderate learning difficulties, based in a primary school. He said:

“This image is of inclusion – with grown-ups to help if you can’t do it yourself”

Examples of responses to cartoonised image
Boy aged 9 with a moderate learning difficulty attending a mainstream primary school:

“This is exclusion, adults always take over and we can only watch and then they say ‘look what X has done’ but I haven’t”.

“This concerns me. The adults are doing the activity and the child is doing none of it himself”.
“Boy looks needy and not happy with the whole experience”.
“The boy is getting one to one help from his teacher”.
“(I see) Unhappiness, no acceptance of what child can do, smothering”.
“Inclusion – Child in middle is being helped and they are trying to involve him”.  

The 9 year old boy who took this photograph saw this as inclusion. The comments by the adults, however, tended to show a discomfort with the image, revolving around the children and ownership of the baking activity. The positioning of the two adults and the two children and how this was framed in the image seemed, via their responses, to imply exclusion. Some interpreted the boy in the centre as receiving personalised support, while others showed concern, suggesting that the teacher was ‘smothering’ the child or taking over control of the task. Concern seemed to revolve around the relationship between the adults and children and the level of engagement each had in the task depicted.


The Mobile Phone Photo

Two girls look at something together on a mobile phone

The Mobile Phone Photo

Twelve year old female pupil in a secondary school, who did not identify as having educational needs. She said:  “Using your mobile phone to keep other people out. Secrets.”

Examples of responses to cartoonised image

18 year old female student: “Inclusion – looks like friendship, not forced or organised”.

“Inclusion as both engaged”.
“Exclusion: girls together sharing something on screen of the mobile. Looks to me like they are finding amusement in something not particularly nice on the phone.”
“Don’t know what they are doing on phone, could be bullying could be asking more friends to come out”.
“Inclusion –Both girls appear relaxed and happy in each other’s company”.
“Mobile phones – exclusion for poorer children”.

There were similarities with how this image and the previous baking image were perceived. With the mobile phone example, responses identified the image as either being inclusive, with friends sharing something, or as friends excluding, or even gaining amusement from possibly bullying others. The differing suggestions appeared to be predicated on the same aspect of the image; the assumed intimacy between the girls, portrayed by their physical closeness and body language and an assumed distance between them and other pupils not portrayed in the picture. Perhaps these differing interpretations also point to a wider issue of how mobile phones, and the social media accessed through them, mediate relationships between people.


The Smiling Photo

Two children next to each other are smiling

The Smiling Photo


Twelve year old female pupil in a secondary school who did not identify as having educational needs.  She wrote:

“Inclusion. Friends include each other in having a good time”.

Examples of adult responses to image

“Their expressions are happy”
“Gender and ethnicity = inclusive?”
“A shared moment – positive.”
“Finding the same thing funny.”  
“Facial expression of girl seems very happy”

In contrast to the mobile phone image, the responses to the smiling image were consistently positive, focussing on the emotional expressions of the two teenagers pictured and their close proximity to each other, with attention given to the relationship between the two people in the image. The more positive views surrounding interpretations of this image may be because, as well as the two children appearing happy, physically close and comfortable in each other’s presence, they are looking directly at the camera suggesting an openness or sharing of this emotional warmth beyond themselves, and with the photographer.


We are not suggesting that one view is more accurate or has more value than another when it comes to ‘seeing’ or capturing inclusion. Our interest is in understanding why those involved with the research, both children and adults can offer different and often contradictory views around inclusion and what they feel it is, or ought to be. The use of photo-elicitation as a method of research created the opportunity to access different points of view about what constituted inclusion or exclusion, or somewhere in between. The children and young people interpreted the image through the lens of their own experiences and commented accordingly. This certainly seems to be the case with the second boy who commented on the baking image by saying “exclusion – look what (name) has done, but I haven’t”. In the case of adult interpretations of the images, rather than put themselves into the position of those in the image their discussions circulated around space, place, positioning or a modification of presence. For example, there were many comments such as ‘it would be inclusive if x moved here…’. While the use of photo-elicitation as a method of research created the opportunity to access different points of view about what constituted inclusion or exclusion, few made explicit references to whether practices were fair, equal or just.

In this article we have only shared a snapshot of our research and a few comments relating to just three photographs. What we are hoping to do is gather further views from both children and adults. In particular, we are interested in hearing the reactions of Inclusion Now readers to the images and the comments. Are the images inclusive? Do you agree or disagree with the views offered? Moreover: what is inclusion? Can it be captured? How do we know that inclusion has ‘happened’?

We have a small amount of funding to extend this project and are able to offer workshop sessions with groups of children in schools around the UK to gather further views and experiences about inclusive education. If you would like to discuss hosting a workshop, or anything in relation to this research please do not hesitate to contact us via Dr Clare Woolhouse.

Clare Woolhouse (corresponding author) Linda Dunne, Fiona Hallett and Virginia Kay, Edge Hill University


18 Responses to “What does inclusion look like?”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Great to read more about this project. I wondered if the researchers might follow up the social justice question in a further round of research, and whether the team plans to use this technique again, perhaps to explore other issues?

    • Clare Woolhouse says:

      Thanks for your comment Charlotte. We are about to start a new phase of the research where we will be extending the project and working with a larger number of schools across England, and will be hoping to use the same technique to study a wide range of issues that are of importance to children and those who work with them.

  2. Michelle Edmunds says:

    Really interesting project, highlighting the differences in perception. As an inclusion manager within a nursery school I do have a specific interest into the subject. Personally I don’t know if moments of inclusion can be captured without speaking to those involved, for example in the baking photo, I’d want to speak to the child being helped to gain his perspective on whether he felt he was being assisted or having ownership taken away from him and ask the adults why they approached his participation in this way. I’d be very interested to hear more about the findings of the project.

  3. Clare Woolhouse says:

    Thanks for your comment Michelle, it is great to hear from people in the field. It is an interesting point that we didn’t necessarily get the views of those pictured within the photograph. Although by asking a range of children and adults to comment on the images we were hoping to get views that reflecting on the practices shown both positively and negatively.
    We certainly hope to publish more widely when the finding from the next phase have been studied.
    best wishes

  4. Zena Martin says:

    For me, this strengthens my preference for person-centred approaches to inclusion, particularly in the first photo. The important point from this seems to be the need to know the perspective of the individual. Does this type of provision make him feel included and enhance his experience, or does it remove his independence? And if it is the former response, is he aware of any alternative types of support or provision? Decisions and opinions about what is inclusive and not inclusive can be made quickly and emotively, but it is a far more complex and very personal thing. The challenge and skill is in capturing the genuinely personal response. I think this project makes some creative and innovative steps towards capturing that. Please let me know when your findings are published. Thank you.

  5. clare woolhouse says:

    Thanks for your response Zena, I think understanding inclusion as a personal experience is so important. We have had a paper published and a second is in press, so if you want to email me your address I can send you copies.

    best wishes

  6. Chantal Piercy says:

    The first photo reminded me of how sometimes as a teacher you do not allow a child with SEN to grow fully due to smothering. What is the issue in letting the child do it himself and make a bit of a mess? All that may have happened is a bit of extra spillage of cake mixture on the baking tray and a little extra washing up! The child would have then felt more accomplished at his own cake making achievements and been proud of himself! The last photo is very animated and does look inclusive. I would love to hear about any more research on this topic please. Using photos is a really unique idea.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      thanks for your comments Chantal, you raise a really good point, a bit of extra mess is well worth it if the child has a better experience of the activity.
      We have had a paper published and a second is in press, so if you want to email me your address I can send you copies.
      best wishes

  7. Caroline Page says:

    Such a wide ranging topic. It is always a challenge, I think, to interpret images accurately without, as a previous commentator has suggested, getting the views of those actively involved. Any ‘snapshot’ as we know (I’m thinking about lesson observations here) can never be a truly accurate representation of a given, and therefore I feel extended detail from involved parties and interested parties would enable a more effective understanding as to what ‘inclusion’ really means within a school environment.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      A very good point, we are planning to extend the research having been awarded some funding, so we will try to get more information from photographers and commentators as we go along.

  8. Jacky says:

    Very interesting to read the different perceptions. Would be useful to include as part of a twilight for teachers to highlight the different interpretations and stimulate discussion among teachers to review their initial interpretations to what they think is required and what the learner requires. So often the learners voice is not heard. It highlights that what we ‘adults’ think is inclusive is not always the case. I Look forward to reading the wider picture.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      Thanks Jacky,
      The RISE team would be very keen to offer a twilight workshop with teachers around this topic, so please email me if that would be something your school would be interested in.


  9. Helen Phillips says:

    I found it is always a very grounding idea to get pupils opinions on things. As adults in education we spend a lot of time and energy deciding how things should be without always involving the people it involves and effects the most. Schools need to look much wider than Inclusion being about SEN pupils, in the diversity of today’s world we need to look for every opportunity to be Inclusion in all aspects of our relationships with one another. The pictures shown as a lovely representative of inclusion being a natural process in relationships and not a bolt on activity.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      Thanks for your comments Helen, indeed we hope to make pupil views central to planning for inclusion.

  10. Michelle Ross says:

    Hi, I’m a SENCo in two Primary Schools and completed the SENCo Award with Edge Hill a couple of years ago. You should use the photos as part of an exercise for the SENCo’s on your course to inform their assignment on Inclusion – it would make a great discussion topic for them and, perhaps, help them to analyse inclusion within their own schools too. Hearing both sides of the argument around a specific image would be a good way to prep your SENCo’s in terms of drafting an argument for their essays.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      Hi Michelle,Yes a great idea, we have already integrated some of this work into our undergraduate and postgraduate education courses in order to support new teachers and SENCOs with understanding issues of inclusion. As the research develops we hope to make more use of it across many more of our programmes.
      best wishes

  11. Mary Hooper says:

    True inclusion means individuals are part of society and the learning process in a natural way, free from contrivance.

    Just as a person with black hair feels included, so should an older person, a person of mixed race or a person with a physical disability feel included. Obviously, in the classroom and mainstream school certain physical and organisational skills would need to be consciously incorporated to allow this to happen. Some pupils may be negatively impacted by being in a mainstream setting if this is not financially or logistically possible.
    Our aim should be that all are equal without differentiation and each person is just accepted, rather than being accepted on a scale based on contribution, success and popularity. Some students just cannot contribute anything that is visible or tangible and therefore in some societies may have less value in the community. Our aim is for everyone to feel valued, whatever they can or cannot contribute and for everyone to feel equal in a natural way, as is their right.

    • clare woolhouse says:

      A powerful point, well made, thanks Mary, I totally agree, it is so important for all children to feel valued.

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