Understanding inclusion in teacher education – a view from student teachers in England

October, 2021

Source: International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25:12, 1425-1442

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper the authors explore the ways in which student teachers understand and practice inclusion during the final stages of their training, and present findings from two studies with University teacher-education providers in England.
In particular their research looks at:
(i) the ways in which student teachers conceptualise inclusive practice and discuss its implications for their work;
(ii) the student teachers’ perceptions of the fundamental British values framework (FBV) and the wider Prevent Strategy in relation to inclusion; and
(iii) the opportunities and tensions student teachers identify in their practice, and how they address them.

The study
The research reported in this article draws from two connected research studies that took place in the period 2011–6.
Both studies were constructed as case studies of preparing science teacher education students for inclusive practice, in two University-based Initial Teacher Education providers in England.
The research is purely qualitative, draws on a social constructivist set of principles, and aims to access and understand the perspectives of research participants from within the context of their personal experiences and circumstances (Bryman 2016).
The authors’ purpose was to gain an in-depth understanding of the student teachers’ approach to and conceptualisation of inclusion in all its complexity and (often) contradictory positions, through posing appropriate questions of the student teachers.
Their studies included policy and course material, surveys and interviews with teacher educators and student teachers (see, also Alexiadou and Essex 2016).
In this article they draw on the empirical material from student teachers that consists of:
(a) interviews;
(b) focus groups; and,
(c) course assignments.
In the first study, they conducted in-depth individual interviews with 17 science students during their Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course in a university in the north of England (we refer to them as Group A).
These were students who did their teaching practice in schools serving mixed socio-economic population, with some schools in areas of high deprivation.
In the second study, they conducted focus groups and individual interviews with 14 science PGCE students in a different Initial Teacher Education (ITE) provider (Group B), with most of the school placements in areas of very high ethnic diversity, with pockets of socio-economic deprivation.
Some of the students in this study had also been able to undertake placements in Pupil Referral Units, special schools, and a young offender’s institution.
Their interviews and focus groups with the student teachers in both studies explored their views on the meaning of inclusion and its underpinning educational and social assumptions, the possibilities and constraints in practising inclusion within science teaching, and their own role and needs in developing inclusive teaching.
In the second study they also collected and analysed 32 ‘independent study tasks’ (Group C) that all of the PGCE science students completed prior to the training they received on the Prevent Strategy (provided by a ‘Prevent coordinator’ in the local council).
The independent study task asked students to describe and evaluate how the Prevent Strategy was implemented at their first placement school.

The analysis of the data
The authors’ methodology followed an interpretive critical approach.
They sought to understand how student teachers conceptualise inclusion in science teaching along with the conditions and contexts that shape their understanding and enactment of inclusion.
The data (individual interview and focus group transcripts, and written assignments) were analysed through a combination of a thematic and discourse analysis (Alexiadou 2001).

Findings and discussion
Policies relating to inclusion are known to, and implemented by, student teachers who are initially introduced to them during taught sessions in their teacher education courses. However, the practical implementation of these policies was largely moderated by the observed practice within their placement schools’ practices.
The influence of schools’ practice was observed in the finding that the majority of student teachers shared a deficit-based notion of inclusion, which incorporated strategies for the ‘remediation’ of individuals with particular characteristics.
Moreover, the targeting of such interventions relied upon the uncritically used notion of ‘ability’ and the use of assigned identities within special educational categories.
Inclusion was understood as the differentiation of academic input to diverse learners based on the pre-determination of expectations of educational outcomes.
A model of inclusion that aspires to optimising learning for all and in all contexts, was not articulated at all, despite the fact that it might provide the means to reconcile apparently contradictory policy pressures.
Different educational policies are inconsistent in focus and are perceived as contradictory by student teachers.
Policies that regulate the attainment of teacher qualifications and school inspection were dominant in steering the student teachers’ pedagogic decision making and often presented barriers to full inclusion.
These policy frameworks created conditions for student teachers to be strategic during the course of their training.
So, the requirement to achieve assessment success dominated both the student teachers’ priorities in their own training and in their teaching practice.
Inclusion was considered to be a positive concept, but despite the discursive recognition of its significance, student teachers opted for a more ‘surface’ application in order to fulfil the relevant Teachers’ Standards.
The need to ‘teach to the standards’ and ‘teach to the test’ dominated their thinking about inclusion.
Divergent individual responses and more critical approaches to what real inclusion would mean, were largely subordinated to performativity pressures.
This applied also to the responses of the student teachers in relation to the Prevent strategy.
It is not seen to be either of practical relevance or of relevance to the improvement of attainment.
As such, it was either marginal in the students’ thinking or merely ‘ticked off’ in a rather mechanistic way in various assignments.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that in principle the Prevent strategy was understood by the overwhelming majority of students to offer a unifying set of principles that can provide social coherence in school and wider society.
Finally, the apparently contradictory requirements of the various policies impacting upon inclusion leave student teachers unclear about what form inclusion should take in practice whilst they do not have a clear philosophical position from which to critique the different policies.
As a result, the authors observe that most student teachers resolve the conflicting pressures by following school practice unquestioningly.
The principled commitment to education inclusion requires a much more flexible and open pedagogic practice in schools, freer from policy parameters that limit the conditions for its development.
This is not the case in the current system of teacher education in England, and as a result, inclusion can easily become empty rhetoric instead of a critical concept that has the potential to transform children’s lives.
A process of creating a genuinely inclusive school relies on teachers who are prepared to examine the educational and social factors that affect their students’ learning, reflect on their own practice, and engage with their pupils in all their academic, social and cultural diversity (Allan 2010; Cochran-Smith 2004).
This requires both an understanding of how pupils learn but also the impact of social contexts on their daily experiences (Florian and Spratt 2013).
These are impeded when policy contexts contribute to the inadvertent perpetuation of disadvantage through limited and attainment-based definitions of inclusive practice.

Alexiadou, N. 2001. “Researching Policy Implementation: Interview Data Analysis in Institutional Contexts.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Theory and Practice, 4 (1): 51– 69.
Alexiadou, N., and J. Essex. 2016. “Teacher Education for Inclusive Practice – Responding to Policy.” European Journal of Teacher Education 39 (1): 5–19.
Allan, J. 2010. “Questions of Inclusion in Scotland and Europe.” European Journal of Special Needs Education 25 (2): 199–208.
Bryman, A. 2016. Social Research Methods. Fifth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cochran-Smith, M. 2004. Walking the Road: Race, Diversity and Social Justice in Teacher Education, Multicultural Education Series. Teachers’ College. New York, London: Columbia University.
Florian, L., and J. Spratt. 2013. “Enacting Inclusion: A Framework for Interrogating Inclusive Practice.” European Journal of Special Needs Education 28 (2): 119–35. 

Updated: Jun. 02, 2022