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Inclusive education: what, why and how

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When people think of sustainable education, they often think of a school garden, warm sweater day and geography. The focus for many schools is therefore on the environment and making the least polluting choices. The social aspect of sustainability is more often forgotten.

Learning for Tomorrow considers sustainability from the broadness of the SDGs. All the SDGs are connected; the environmental and social goals together contribute to a more sustainable world. If people do not treat each other equally and well, how can you expect them to take the environment into account? To better put social sustainability on the map, I (Nine) conducted research on inclusive education. What is inclusive education (po, vo, mbo, ho), what is its importance, what obstacles are there and what inspiring examples are there? In this blog I share an abridged version of the results.


Both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid situation were already bringing inclusivity awareness to the forefront. BLM brought more attention to the inequality and prejudice experienced by bicultural students. And with Covid, students who did not have access to online education or with crowded or unsafe home situations disappeared from the radar. Many teachers do their best to engage all students, but not all students are able to keep up with lessons at home.

Autumn 2020 appeared on NPO the series KlassenIn this project, various eighth-graders are followed at schools in Amsterdam. What are their school recommendations, how do they experience school and what is their home situation? The focus is on the children as well as on teachers and management. It quickly became clear that under-advice is more the rule than the exception. If you do not have parents who stand up for you and see what your qualities are, there is a greater chance that you will not find a place that suits you.

What is inclusiveness?

It is important to first clarify the concepts of inclusiveness and diversity. Diversity is about all aspects in which people differ (including age, religion, physical health, gender, qualities). Inclusiveness is about an environment in which all these differences are valued. People feel welcome, are treated equally and are involved in decision-making. So just creating a diverse team is not enough, it is important that everyone is heard.

Definition of inclusive education

In short, education must be accessible to all. From norm thinking to diversity thinking. The VO Council gives a nice broad explanation of inclusive education: "In education, schools strive to provide an inclusive (learning) environment in which every student and employee can develop optimally, regardless of gender, age, employability, competencies, physical disability, job and cultural background or philosophy of life."

An integrated view of inclusive education includes:

  • Access to education, that everyone has a chance to participate
  • Space for learning modes and needs of all
  • Culture in an organization, that everyone feels welcome (both student and staff)
  • Diversity and inclusiveness in the curriculum as a theme and lens for all subjects

All students are given the same opportunities regardless of their appearance, behavioral characteristics, or background. However, treating all students equally sounds more obvious than it is.

Facts: making inequality concrete

Opportunity inequality has increased significantly since 2010. WomenInc. writes about this:
"Many children experience the disadvantages of negative or limiting stereotyping and unjustified underestimation at school. As a result, they receive lower school recommendations, consider themselves less smart or ambitious, and see fewer opportunities for themselves in their career choice or industry."

To give an idea of what inequality looks like today, I've gathered a list of some facts. In fact, a lot of inequality happens unconsciously; people are often unaware of their prejudices or stereotypes. Stereotypes are also more likely to become reality; if you're often told you're stupid, you're going to believe in them too.

Examples of inequality:

  • Textbooks: Examples and images in textbooks are often stereotypical, they mostly feature white males with status related positions. Women and people from immigrant backgrounds are underrepresented in textbooks (WomenInc.). When women are given a place it is often white women who are mothers or cleaners.
  • Underestimation: Children of practically educated parents are underestimated 2x more often than those of theoretically educated parents (WomenInc.). The latter are more often overestimated. It hurts more to underadvise someone than to overadvise. It's all about the right advice. Students often stay on the advice they were given and so it determines their future.
  • Racism: 1 in 10 school students encounters racism. In 59% of all cases the cause lies with a teacher (Social and Cultural Planning Office).
  • Discrimination: Students/scholars' experience of discrimination has increased since 2013, and relatively often takes serious forms: 7% mentioned that the last experience included sexually transgressive behavior, 8% had to deal with threats or violence. "Between 2 and 3 percent of all schoolchildren and students in the Netherlands indicate that they have stopped their education as a result of discrimination" (SCP).
  • Poverty: 251,000 children lived below the poverty line in 2019 (CBS)

Human resources and operations: importance of diversity

Inequality thus takes many forms, and is not always visible to the norm group. How can we actively ensure greater equality and inclusiveness? An important first step is for both management and teachers to become aware of their blind spots and the issues at hand. Having a diverse team contributes significantly to this. It provides more perspectives and experiences that can make for a more pleasant school climate and a more effective approach to various situations. A diverse team promotes the connection with students, you radiate that diversity is allowed which can contribute a lot to the self-confidence of students. A better representation and role models for students, makes them more motivated, loyal and can contribute to feeling safer.

Diversity Office in Higher Education

Diversity officers are increasingly being hired at colleges and universities. Aya Ezawa (diversity officer at Leiden University) shares in an interview her experience and the importance of a more diverse curriculum on the student population and their performance. "For example, how diverse are the authors and perspectives of the books being covered? Suppose they are all authors from the same background and of the same gender. Then you limit the perspective."

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