Every learner matters and matters equally

by Mel Ainscow

‘Fixed-term exclusions in the most deprived areas of England have gone up by over 70% in the last four years.’

‘Where did all the GCSE pupils go – and why has no one noticed?’

‘Councils report rise in number of home-educated children with complex needs.’

These disturbing media headlines confirm that many of our young people are being marginalised by the English education system. Despite the efforts of successive governments over the last 20 years, what is clear is that home background is still the best predictor of success. What is even more worrying is the way more and more students are being excluded from educational opportunities.

Since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, followed by the Conservative government in 2015, the market-place has become the basis of education policy. This has led to a range of barriers in respect to the education system’s capacity to respond to learner diversity.

Matters related to the curriculum are one concern, particularly the narrowing of the educational ‘diet’, which is limiting opportunities for some learners. There is also concern about the growing trend of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being marginalised through grouping arrangements based on notions of ability, despite the massive research evidence which points to the problems associated with such approaches.

There are worries, too, about the increasing number of students being excluded from schools, through both formal and informal means – such as parents being coerced by schools into “home educating” their children, often before GCSE exams – and the increased numbers being placed in special or alternative provision away from their peers.

There is a particular challenge in relation to the education of disabled children. The importance of including them is stressed in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which commits to ending segregation by ensuring inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate support. However, when the UK government ratified this Convention in June 2009 it placed restrictions on its obligations. The first of these restrictions stated that the definition of a ‘general education system’ would include segregated provision.

The UK is one of only two countries in the world to place such restrictions (the other being Mauritius). In September 2016 the UN Disability Committee published a statement setting out how governments can move towards greater inclusion. Again, the UK has ignored this and remains out of step with the rest of the world.

These disturbing trends are occurring at a time when the rest of the world is attempting to move towards policies that are informed by the principles of inclusion and equity. These efforts are guided by the United Nations’ Education 2030 Framework for Action, which emphasizes inclusion and equity as laying the foundations for quality education. In this way, the international policy agenda is clear, as summed up by the motto used in recent UNESCO guidance: ‘Every learner matters and matters equally’.

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