Achieving full inclusion in schools: Lessons from New Brunswick

In New Brunswick, the issue of inclusion in schools is most recently in the spotlight due to calls to review policy that safeguards students and allies of the 2SLGBTQI+ community.

The province’s education minister says the review of Policy 713 will consider issues related to providing gender-neutral washrooms in schools and parental rights.

Read more:
‘Parental rights’ lobby puts trans and queer kids at risk

New Brunswick claims to have achieved full inclusion “based on a system of values and beliefs centered on the best interest of the student.”

But these recent and other issues related to inclusion beg the question: Whose values and beliefs are determining actions in our school system, and who decides what is in the best interest of each student?

A pride flag seen flying near a school bus.
Who decides what is in the best interest of each student? A pride flag is waved as students go to school at East Wiltshire School in Cornwall, P.E.I., in June 2021.

Defining the intended results

We question whether striving for inclusion in schools will ever produce the intended results when, as is the case in New Brunswick, these intended results haven’t been clearly articulated.

This has been the case since 1986 when the province first rolled out an inclusion education model, more than 35 years ago. Initially, inclusion meant to bring the students with disabilities, who had previously been educated in segregated institutions, into mainstream school.

Since then, and through the development of subsequent school inclusion policies, our society has experienced rapid change, including technological change, and advocacy to recognize systemic inequities related to disability, racial injustice, colonialism as well as gender and sexuality.

Our recent research has highlighted the lack of agreement about what inclusion means today, or how to achieve it, leaving us with a “wicked problem” — one with no clear goal or solution.

We argue that if we have to intentionally include some people, it is because they are the imagined “other,” a retrofitted afterthought.

What is school inclusion?

In 2021, New Brunswick’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development released a report, which prompted a long-overdue review of the 2013 Inclusion Education policy (Policy 322).

This report acknowledged the many misinterpretations of the inclusion policy that were highlighted in earlier 2006 and 2012 reports.

It also expanded the definition of inclusive education beyond the scope of disability. It examined equity pertaining to “those that have been historically pushed to margins” including Indigenous students, students of colour, members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, newcomers and language learners.

Meeting children’s needs

The report was a significant step forward. However, in attempts to achieve inclusion, the notion of “us” who are part of the majority group versus “them,” whose values, beliefs and needs differ from entrenched system norms, is persistent.

Continually highlighting and pathologizing differences rather than celebrating distinctive qualities and strengths in unique experiences stagnates progress.

For example, many schools continue to apply the medical model of framing disability. This model equates difference from an imagined norm as being in need of a fixing.

A row of folders seen in a classroom
Students’ folders are seen in a classroom in Vancouver, B.C., in April 2023.

Some parents question how efforts towards inclusion are meeting their children’s needs in mainstream classrooms, or how physically, mentally and emotionally safe their children are in schools.

This may be more true post-COVID-19, as learning gaps, children’s refusal to go to school, anxiety, poor mental health and violence have increased in schools.

Not a simple fix

To understand why our inclusion efforts continue to leave educators, students and families in a perpetual loop of failed trials and frustrating attempts, we look at persistent and outdated misinterpretations of inclusion. These assume:

1. Inclusion is mostly about accessing a physical “place.”

The assumption that by containing all students within the same physical space as their same-age peer groups, inclusion is achieved — that it is in all learners’ best interest, that everyone benefits from being there at all times and that every student wants to be there — is inaccurate.

2. Inclusion is just about disability.

This perpetuates othering on the basis of normative notions of ability and development, negating the diversity of the student population including marginalized, racialized and equity-deserving groups. It also fails to acknowledge intersectionality, personality and the dynamic nature of the human condition.

3. Inclusion can be accomplished because people and their needs are fixed and don’t change.

This ignores the diversity in social, emotional, cognitive and cultural difference by interest, topic, activity and skill that each student and teacher has. It neglects consideration of individuals’ potential for growth through high expectations, rich experiences and evolving relationships.

4. Additional funding and resources will resolve challenges.

Some think adding more educators or resource workers will bolster inclusion, but this does not address roots of challenges. Additional resources not leveraged effectively can have the effect of isolating students.

5. Inclusion is the educators’ responsibility alone.

Inclusion is often perceived as something educators will achieve. While educators are key in modelling ways of relating with and respecting students and honouring their needs, the entire school community needs to be involved. This means not only teachers and school administrators, but also students themselves, their parents, support staff and policymakers.

Shifting focus

If we consider the barriers to authentic inclusive education, primarily located in the antiquated design of the education system, we see the complexity of this wicked problem.

A discussion of what inclusive education looks like in 2023 is required, starting with questions about sources of inequities.

Assessment practices, organizational structure, and age-old concepts of an imagined average for teaching and behaviour pose barriers to all learners, who are distinctive in their strengths, interests and educational abilities.

As a step forward, let’s explore system practices and environmental design. To begin imagining learners working together pursuing individual goals within the cohesive whole, we propose three questions:

  1. What are the impacts on learning, relationships and community of maintaining the idea that inclusion equals being in one place?

  2. In what ways do physical and virtual spaces and practices affirm and celebrate the distinct characteristics and contributions of every person? How are students’ voices heard, where can they see themselves represented and how are their contributions honoured?

  3. How can students, teachers, parents and administrators be involved in co-creating a new understanding of equity and inclusive practices, challenging systemic practices that pose barriers and examining sources of inequities to address them?

We have seen thriving inclusive cultures in schools that tackle these questions resulting in strong leadership grounded in shared community values, where teachers use a strength-based approach and universal design for learning effectively.

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