31st October 2017

Inclusive education: something we all need to talk about (part 1)

By Sharon Maloney

Inclusive education refers to the capacity of ordinary local schools to respond to the needs of all learners, including those requiring extra support due to learning or physical disability, social disadvantage, behavioural challenges, cultural difference or other barriers to learning. Inclusive education recognises that all children can learn and that all pupils, including many considered to be non-disabled, need some form of support in learning during their time at school. 

For teachers and educational institutions, this means identifying particular barriers that children experience in learning. This involves undertaking assessments of the child’s difficulties with the aim of reducing or, wherever possible, removing obstacles to learning.

In this blog post, we will look at the importance of inclusive education and clarify the terminology and current approaches. Subsequent blog posts will cover the issue of inclusive education in Hong Kong as well as common types of special needs and how we can help all learners. 

Why is inclusive education important?

The reality is that today schools accommodate students from different ethnic groups, language groups, culture, family contexts, socio-economic situations, with different interests and purposes for learning, and every student has different abilities and styles of learning. Diversity is the new reality. Schools can no longer operate as if one curriculum and way of teaching will fit most students. We know this does not work.

But inclusive education is also about more than formal education. It includes the home and the community. It is about changing attitudes, behaviours, teaching methods, curricula and environment to meet the needs of all children. Inclusion is a dynamic process that is constantly evolving according to local cultures and contexts and is part of the wider strategy to promote an inclusive society.

It is aimed at encouraging community capacity building between parents, teachers and community members; to engender behavioural and social change, to strengthen skills, competencies and abilities of all people and communities so they can overcome causes of exclusion and suffering. It fosters the participation of policy makers and other investors in changing societal attitudes, building harmony, and mobilising changes to achieve quality education and improvements to community resources and the environment.

Effective schools are educationally inclusive schools. This is evident not only in their performance, but also in their philosophy and their willingness to offer new opportunities to pupils who may have experienced previous difficulties. Students are able to pursue a common set of curricular goals or learning standards but accomplish them in different ways. The key to implementing inclusive education in schools lies in quality teacher-training, combined with a holistic approach to supporting inclusive education. Only when all students feel they are truly a part of their school community then is inclusive education successful.

Inclusion is, and will continue to be, a controversial topic. There are many competing demands and governments have a difficult task in developing policies and services that meet everybody’s needs. It will require authentic and open discussion about differences, and an institutional respect for people of all backgrounds and abilities. Above all, an inclusive society benefits all because it is about respecting and celebrating the differences of each one of us.  

What are the benefits of inclusion?

There are considerable benefits to introducing inclusive education into society, not least that it promotes a tolerant society.

1. For children with disabilities

  • They learn new social and real life skills from peers that will equip them for living in the community
  • They have the opportunity to develop friendships with typically developing children
  • They get access to education in their community, rather than being sent away to special schools or staying home

2. For children without disabilities

  • They are able to develop more accurate views about children with disabilities
  • They develop positive attitudes to those different from them
  • They learn from others who succeed despite challenges
  • Other learners can develop at their own pace, whether they are faster or need more time

3. For families of children with disabilities

  • They feel less isolated from the rest of the community
  • They develop relationships with other families who can provide them with support
  • They can enjoy having their children at home during their school years, without needing to send them away for specialist care

4. For communities

  • Communities learn to appreciate diversity in their midst
  • People with disabilities who have developed their full potential through effective education contribute and are valuable, and are no longer considered a burden to society
  • Economic advantages to having one education system rather than separate systems

Common terms and approaches

Inclusive education cannot be understood well without defining the meaning of some commmon terms and approaches.


This term refers to the removal of barriers to high quality education for all children at risk of marginalisation. Inclusion focuses on fairness, equity and equal opportunities for all students, regardless of disability, gender, ethnicity or other disadvantage. An educationally-inclusive school is one in which the teaching, learning, achievements, attitudes and wellbeing of every student matters, where they are welcomed by teachers and other staff, and their contribution is valued.

For inclusive education to be implemented successfully, the following concepts need to be understood:

  • The right of all children including children with disabilities to education - it is a commitment to providing methods to help children who function in a different way and at different speeds of learning, to promoting and developing the child’s potential in a holistic way: physical, linguistic, social, cognitive and sensory.
  • Inclusion means changing the educational system to suit the children - people will often argue that children with severe disabilities cannot be taught in ordinary classrooms. This is an example of how education systems need to change to be more accommodating. Education in its true sense does not mean only reading and writing. For learners with severe multiple disabilities, it may mean being equipped with functional skills that enable them to be part of the family and community (Mariga, McConkey and Myezwa, 2014).


In the 1980s, the terms ‘integration’ and ‘mainstreaming’ arose, referring to the placement of children with special needs in mainstream schools. Mainstreaming focuses on the individual child fitting into the existing school system and doing little to adjust the system to suit the needs of the child. The child is prepared for integration, rather than the school being prepared to integrate the child. Often children are moved into schools, with little concern over whether the child is learning or not and often schools do not address the issue of whether the child is being really accepted and included. In many circumstances, these children drop out or repeat classes for many years.

Special Education

Special education is seen as an alternative to ordinary education and in many countries, it has evolved into a separate educational system. Special education assumes that there is a separate group of children who have special educational needs (SEN). The learner is defined solely on the basis of their impairment, and is segregated accordingly.  However it’s important to note that any child can experience difficult in learning and many children with severe intellectual impairments can learn at certain stages of their life or in certain areas, if their needs are given proper recognition and support. Many children with disabilities have no problem in learning, only in access to suitable teaching and learning opportunities. While they may have certain requirements, these can be dealt with in ordinary schools with the right kind of support.

Special Units

This term refers to a special room or building within a regular school, usually with a SEN-trained teacher who focuses solely on children with SEN and provides specialist support.
Because the unit is part of a regular school, these schools often prefer to use the term ‘inclusive education’, but in reality, these units actually segregate and single out SEN students from the school population. In many schools, children with all kinds of impairments are placed together in the unit based on arbitrary characteristics, rather than an actual need. Often there are few specific learning advantages in grouping students this way, and team-teaching is not fostered. A whole school approach is not applied. However, for students with more severe impairments, these units do provide a more inclusive education, but function best if children graduate from the unit and take their place in regular classes, or if they spend a only small percentage of their time with the unit, and spend most of their time with their general classroom peers.

In next week’s post, we will take a closer look at the issues surrounding inclusive education as well as the situation in Hong Kong.

To find out more, check out:

The Lamb Inquiry (2009) 
The ‘Green’ Paper (2011), Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special, Educational Needs and Disability
Education Bureau (2007) Teacher professional development framework on integrated education (13/2007). Hong Kong: Hong Kong Government.
Education Bureau. (2007). Whole school approach to cater for students’ diverse learning needs.
Equal Opportunities Commission. (2001). Disability discrimination ordinance: Code of practice on education.
Hong Kong: Equal Opportunities Commission.
Hong Kong Government. (1977). Integrating the disabled into the community: An united effort. Hong Kong: Government Printer.
Improving education: The Promise of Inclusive School
Labour & Welfare Bureau. (2009). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities: Applicable to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Education Bureau, 2017
Mariga, L., McConkey, R. & Myezwa, H. (2014), Inclusive Education in Low-Income Countries.
SCMP, (2015), Mainstream Hong Kong schools failing special-needs pupils

Sharon Maloney is Director of Studies for English for Asia and a teacher trainer on the Trinity CertTESOL course. She has over 14 years of teaching and teacher training experience in TESOL. Sharon specializes in teaching young learners and creating material for teachers and students, as well as running professional development workshops for local teachers of young learners in Hong Kong and Macau. Her qualifications include a BA, Trinity CertTESOL, Cambridge Post-Graduate DELTA, and MA TESOL.