Inclusion Now 51

Currents Of Change

We at Inclusion Now stumbled across a recent research article via Twitter that looks at the challenges education professionals at one FE college faced over time in trying to implement inclusive practice. We asked its author, David Meir, to tell us more about himself and about his research.

David Meir

[You can read the full research here.]

I stumbled into education more by accident than design. My background was in sport, and through not knowing what else to do with my career I landed a part time role as a lecturer in sport in an FE college in the North West of England. It was my role to develop and deliver a Level 1 BTEC Sport programme through the widening participation agenda.

Due to my inexperience I had a limited understanding of inclusion and what it meant in practice. I was however very fortunate to find myself employed at a college who put inclusive practice at the centre of their approach to learning. This was a continuous process that had been implemented since 1991 with the ultimate aim of creating a fully inclusive college. The programme became a reflection of the inclusive ethos of the college and was developed over time to be inclusive in both enrolment and delivery. It provided an opportunity for all students to be educated in a mainstream environment regardless of their disability and / or learning difficulty. Students were always given an opportunity to succeed and were never turned down regardless of their needs or challenges.

Inclusion at the college was simply defined as seeing every person as a student first, providing support to enable them to achieve their goals through a non-segregated curriculum. This approach was driven by the department of Additional Learning Support (ALS), and the ethos of inclusion that was developed made an impact on the lives of numerous learners and created a culture of equity throughout the college. The process of inclusion is now under threat as the college is in a financially and ethically diminished form; it is in a state of crisis through the fiscal policy of austerity. Overall there has been a third cut from the Further Education and Skills budget since 2010 with the drop in the overall budget falling from 3 billion to 2 billion between 2009 and 2015. The greater the cuts to the sector, the greater the threat to developing and sustaining inclusive practices.

I believe the experience of the programme and the college is an important story to tell. The research I undertook over two stages focused on a 13 year period between 2004 and 2017 in order to gain a shared understanding of people’s views and experiences of developing the Level 1 sport programme in an inclusive way. Numerous people who were involved in the development and delivery of the programme shared their experiences including lecturers, curriculum managers, ALS workers and ALS coordinators. For the first stage of the research a narrative was produced by intertwining participants’ responses with my own critical reflections in order to create a collaborative story. Discussion focused on the development of inclusive practice through an understanding of its historical development, the current issues that were being faced and the future concerns of the college as it tried to navigate the complicated social, economic and political landscape. What follows is an extract from the narrative that hopefully conveys both the programme and the college’s actions in their attempts to develop inclusive practice as well as addressing the challenges faced and concerns for the future.

“Through cross-college colleagues offering the time, guidance and support the course started to take on the key elements of an inclusive programme. Certain members of staff enlightened me about the notion of inclusion, what it means and what it was for. Had I always been inclusive in my natural actions, maybe, but now I understood it in practice. Watching students with additional support needs grow in confidence, become more independent and gain the respect of their peers enabled all stakeholders to see the value of an inclusive approach. It brought people, students and staff alike, together that would otherwise not have interacted and prompted conversations, reflections and thus learning that would otherwise not have happened for all concerned.

“Yet this was not enough, more must be achieved; sit them in front of a computer, make them type, make them work. In six years we went from five modules to ten, from a certificate to a diploma; more, more, more! There was no time for building those relationships that were so desperately required. During this time we lost sight of our purpose, what we stood for. We were unable to see the damage being done until it was too late; these changes were irreversible. A fundamental question remains unanswered from this time: does inclusion still define the college and the programme or has it moved on, to a new reality with no place for inclusion beyond the rhetoric; beyond an ideal whose time has passed with no place in this competitive world? The strength of an idea is the belief that others have in it; we will see.”

This narrative provided evidence as to how the programme was well supported, how collaborative working was hugely beneficial, how staff and students were enabled to increase their awareness of issues around disability and how inclusive practices can be applied within a specific vocational programme. The course had its flaws and due to increased performative pressure progressively focused on outcomes rather than process, which brought clear challenges in the maintenance of an inclusive approach. The course was however committed to the process of inclusion at all times.

Stage two collected qualitative data through individual and focus group interviews with lecturers and ALS staff working on the programme between 2014 and 2017. College managers were also interviewed to develop a broader understanding of the current state of inclusive practice on the programme and at the college as a whole. The aim was to determine the current issues and future challenges for delivering and developing inclusive programmes in these contexts.

The key issues raised included austerity and its impact on resourcing, provision of support, the ambiguity of how inclusion is understood and the capacity for sharing knowledge and collaborative working within the college. Findings indicated that the college is in a very complex situation with regard to the deliberate and destructive policy of austerity. The lack of resources puts the process of full inclusion under threat; inclusion has been marginalised in both policy and practice. Due to this the college can no longer be considered as a site of resistance; pockets of resistance exist but at an operational level it is a place of compliance. The justification of this position is that for the college ‘compliance is the reality of survival’ yet this paradigm shift away from inclusion requires collective resistance to reinforce a belief in a democratic, emancipatory and subversive world. Inclusion and inclusive practices and the fight for social justice is understood through the understanding that FE is never neutral; it does not exist apart from the social, economic and political worlds that surround it. Ensuring the continued development of inclusion at the college requires an understanding of, and reconnection with the past, a desire to resolve the present and to develop the future, working towards a more socially just and inclusive college through challenging perceptions and practices that work against the development of full inclusion.

David Meir