Better together: The inclusion agenda at international schools
By Seb Murray

Supporting students with special educational needs is a top priority, but is progress really being made?


With 93 million children around the world living with a disability, and the OECD forecasting that a further one-fifth of students may develop a special educational need or disability (SEND), inclusivity is now a top priority for many international schools. 


Several high-profile declarations in recent years allude to the growing recognition to provide access to education for all children, including those ‘with a disability, disorder, difficulty, impairment, exceptionality or any other condition that can affect their access to and ability to learn’, as SEND is typically defined. The international community and several national governments have pledged ‘education for all children’ and one of the goals from the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.


Nowhere is the inclusivity push more evident than in the UAE, where Dubai has developed an inclusive education policy framework, which seeks to promote greater inclusion for SEND students. The framework, part of Dubai’s Vision 2020 economic plan, is based on global best practice and research. It outlines ten standards that can ensure inclusion in education, including early identification, support systems, and cultural change. 


One size no longer fits all

According to Samantha Garner, a Special Educational Needs coordinator, teacher and mental health specialist, such measures are a response to three key factors: the increased awareness and understanding of the way SEND pupils learn, competition among international schools to enrol more students as the market for private education continues to flourish, and the increasingly inclusive approach of England’s education system  which is well respected and widely used by international schools, especially in the Middle East. “Schools are following the lead from those in England,” Samantha says. 


In practice, these inclusion initiatives take many forms. For Lucinda Willis, Principal for Wellbeing at the Nagoya International School in Japan, inclusion “is about knowing your students, and building learning to meet their needs, not trying to make them fit your definitions or structures,” she says. “As we understand more about how people learn, it becomes clear that education can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Students who were successful in traditional educational systems - compliant, rule-following, with strong memory - those people don’t have the skills needed for twenty-first-century employment. We need innovators and mavericks. This requires an inclusive approach to education,” she suggests. What have been her most effective inclusion strategies? “For one, creating an assessment policy which gives teachers the freedom to assess individuals for progress rather than attainment”, says Lucinda.


At ACS Athens, an international school in Greece, there is extended testing time for exams and weekly consultations with students who need extra support. According to Christiana Perakis, the school’s Director of Learning Enhancement programmes, there’s not a silver-bullet solution. She believes that communication across the school, and with parents, is vital. “One thing that we highly value is collaboration among teachers, counsellors, special education tutors and parents,” she says. “It helps the pupils get on board, as it normalises the whole support process.”


Adding Teaching or Learning Support Assistants are often well-used inclusion policies, yet Samantha Garner argues that their impact is limited. “We see TAs as the holy grail of SEND support, but that’s not the case. They can hinder progress if they aren’t trained correctly, as they can focus on task competition rather than the process of learning,” she says. “They can also hinder social interaction with the rest of the class,” she adds. “The most qualified staff member should be spending the most time with the child with the highest need. That’s the teacher.”


Willis argues that schools must go further than simply adding on siloed inclusion initiatives. “Putting inclusion at the heart of the school’s decision-making is the most effective policy,” she recommends. “It’s not an add-on, it’s the basis for good educational practice.”


The challenge of parent perceptions

While much is being done to be more inclusive, there is still stigma surrounding learning difficulties and disability in schools. According to Samantha Garner, administrators are often pressured to reject SEND students, by parents who fear that they could hold back the rest of the class, or impact the school’s overall test results or positions in league tables. Consequently, some parents feel hesitant to disclose their child’s learning difficulty, knowing that even if they are admitted to a school, they could face discrimination. “Independent schools have regularly reported that parents find the SEND label or mental health label shameful,” she adds. “The attitude of parents is often that, ‘my child is fine; it’s the teacher’s fault’, or ‘they just have to work harder’. Or there’s the other extreme: the parent who wants the label for their child and almost views that as an excuse for poor performance or bad behaviour,” she says.  Christiana Perakis’s recommendations for communication with all stakeholders could certainly benefit in these scenarios.


The long-term consequences of failure to diagnose a learning difficulty or to provide adequate support can be negative and sometimes severe. According to a report from UNESCO, disability often intersects with other disadvantages to exacerbate children’s disadvantage. An analysis of 15 lower-income countries found that, in a majority of the countries, disability was associated with lack of compulsory school completion and employment, and higher health expenditure. “SEND pupils are also more likely to have a mental health condition,” Samantha Garner points out.


Christiana Perakis believes that it’s the child’s self-esteem that suffers the most, especially if they are getting a negative message from their parents. “That can get in the way of learning and growth, and sometimes it creates behavioural issues,” she says.


Progress is underway

Yet leaders and teachers are mostly positive about the progress schools are making to become more inclusive.  Peggy Pelonis, Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at ACS Athens, believes that a shift in attitude and behaviour is already well underway. “We didn’t have buy-in from all stakeholders at the beginning; there was a fear of what we were developing,” she says. “The majority of people thought that SEND pupils would affect the standards of the school.” But now she sees a noticeable change. “We are addressing the issues, educating our community about it, and providing resources for students to level the playing field,” she adds. 


With 263 million children out of school globally, there is still a very long way to go. But many international schools are on the right path to inclusivity.


This article was adapted from a feature on the Pearson International Schools Community online platform which is specifically for international school educators. This community includes over 2,000 professionals working across all levels of curriculum who are keen to engage with other similar professionals to share knowledge, experience, and best practice. You can join at 


Seb Murray is a freelance journalist and regularly writes about education including features for the Pearson International School Community. You can connect with Seb on LinkedIn

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