The GEM Report

Last week of June, saw the launch of the Global Education Monitoring Report 2020 by UNESCO. Another day, another global report with no relevance for education in Scotland, you might think.

Except the theme of this report was Inclusion and Education. No, no. Not another debate and set of policy promises about inclusive education.

Well potentially; except this time we face rebuilding education systems in light of COVID-19. Inclusive education as broadly defined in this report offers the road map to a more resilient and inclusive education system.

The foreword to the report talks in straightforward fashion about how we should view inclusive education. Their approach could not be more direct.  

The UNESCO Report opens with a bold statement  “the Report asks whether it really is necessary to seek justifications for inclusive education to be pursued. It notes that debating the benefits of inclusive education can be seen as tantamount to debating the benefits of the abolition of slavery, or indeed of apartheid.”

In Scotland we have had three debates in the Scottish Parliament over the past three years. The debate mainly features questions about presumption of mainstreaming, level of resources and access to segregated special schools. MSPs rarely spoke up for the benefits of inclusive education, and support for the presumption of mainstreaming lacked the ideas of injustice and inequality that UNESCO discusses.

The foreword views the broad definition of inclusive education not as an access to mainstream but recognition of wider barriers like mechanisms of exclusion.

“Discrimination, stereotypes and alienation do exclude many. These mechanisms of exclusion are essentially the same, regardless of gender, location, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, sexual orientation, incarceration, religion, and other beliefs and attitudes.”

The GEM report is published in a full document including charts and tables with boxed examples of good practice for 400 odd pages as well as a summary report and an easy read version. In addition there are a series of short videos and cartoons drawn from the report.

It is well worth a read. After reading the Report or skimming the summary or devouring the easy read you are asked to vote in a poll of the 10 key messages from the Report. You select your own top key message which should be reflected to policy makers in your country. Last we checked Number 1 was winning – Widen the understanding of inclusive education: it should include all learners, no matter their identity, background or ability.

Some other statements from the Report to be further considered within Scotland’s approach would be

“A key barrier to inclusion in education is the lack of belief that it is possible and desirable”

“Financing needs to target those most in need.”

“While some countries are transitioning towards inclusion, segregation is still prevalent.”

“Teachers, teaching materials and learning environments often ignore the benefits of embracing diversity”

The world seems to be taking steps forward and committing to progressing inclusive education while we, in Scotland, are still debating the merits of separate development.

There’s lots to consider in the GEM Report. What’s your opinion?

Lyla's story

My daughter Lyla is 7 and is in P2 at our local primary school. She’s that kid who loves school, she’s sad when it’s time to say goodbye to everyone at the end of term. She shrieks with joy when we pull into the street the school is on, it’s one of her happy places. Everyone knows Lyla. It’s fair to say that she stands out with her big open smile, her pink glasses, her posse of friends –  oh yeah and her pink sparkly wheelchair. 

Lyla was born with a rare brain disorder called polymicrogyria, as a result, she has quadriplegic athetoid cerebral palsy and dystonia. Basically she has a lot of cerebral palsy. She also has a lot of personality, determination, and love. None of Lyla’s friends really care about her diagnosis and what she can’t do. 

I’d be lying if I said educating Lyla in a mainstream school was easy. It takes constant planning, tweaking, and collaboration between her teacher, her two assistants, her therapists, and myself. Accessibility hasn’t been an issue given that her school was newly renovated complete with lifts and a hygiene room shortly before Lyla started nursery in the same building. 

Fostering all our expectations of how Lyla learns and how she demonstrates that learning has been harder than any physical adaptations. There are no magic tricks, no special equipment, no secret techniques that teachers in specialist schools know that would make Lyla’s school experience any different, better or more successful than the one she is having in the mainstream. She is learning, she is happy, she is where she is meant to be.

Lyla’s education is never going to look like anyone else’s. We don’t need everyone to be the same to be educated together. She doesn’t have to earn the right to be there. She has a right to be included in her local primary school for being herself.

Simply being alive is exhausting for Lyla so building up stamina to last the full school day is a work in progress. Lyla finishes school an hour earlier each day. It has taken 2 years for her to build up from 3 hours a day to 5 hours a day of school.

Entering school via the playground was hugely stressful for Lyla so we quickly adapted to entering by the foyer so she has a quieter start to her school day. She needs extra time for hoisted transfers from her wheelchair to her indoor chair and standing frame so she leaves class a little early for break and lunch so that she gets to play with her friends as well as having her snacks. Some days when her dystonia is particularly painful she might spend time in a quiet comfy room known as the Snug where she can take time and come back to class when she has had a rest. 

Every day is different and her days rarely look like anyone else’s but that’s ok. The specific things she needs might change as she gets older or they might stay the same. What we’ve learned is that it doesn’t mean she needs to be educated anywhere other than her local primary school.  

When we look at education for all we have to adjust our expectations of what a successful school day and school experience looks like. Once we accept that not everyone’s school day has to look the same to be successful it’s easier to imagine a truly inclusive education system. 

What makes the biggest impact for us is that the school wants Lyla to be there, that her assistants and educators believe she belongs in their school, that they don’t want to give up after every difficult day. They know that the good days far outweigh the bad and that the wider school community benefits greatly from Lyla’s presence as much as she benefits from being included in a mainstream setting. 

Inclusion and happiness

Friends are underrated. 

For my autistic son feeling included at school began with making friends. Some children need a little bit of support to do that for various reasons. It can be because they struggle with communication. 

But communication is a two-way process and the best communication occurs when there is empathy on both sides, so friendship has a chance to develop. If there is pressure on one child to fundamentally change who they are, and the other child doesn’t know how to adapt their communication style then it’s difficult to come to an understanding. However, if the children are supported to be able to understand each other better then empathy and friendship follows. 

But it seemed unlikely that after three years of being lonely and without friends the situation could be much improved. Would ANY of the other children even want to be in my son’s circle of friends? What about their parents? I can’t pretend I wasn’t worried about their reaction after all not everyone believes disabled or autistic children should be present in schools and my son had gained a reputation for trouble. The “trouble” really came from his strenuous but unsuccessful attempts to fit in and belong but it had become clear that children had been instructed to stay away from him in the playground and questions about his behaviour had been asked of his teacher. I was worried the situation was too far gone. 

However, it turns out ten minute, weekly meetings of a Circle of Friends (by Inclusive Solutions), facilitated by a teacher to discuss what has gone well and what could have gone better is rocket fuel for inclusive relationships! My son has never been happier. The other children who in the recent past were avoiding him seek him out for games in the playground. He has a group of regular friends for the first time and has started to dip in and out of other friendship groups as his confidence grows.I had hoped this would help my son make friends and be happy but I hadn’t realised the effect this inclusive approach would have on the other kids. They seem much happier too. Perhaps the lesson is that children want to be inclusive and sometimes just need a wee bit of help to find ways to make it real. I think all the children in his classroom are benefitting from learning about one another’s differences and similarities together now. As for the parents, they can see that their children are happy and really that’s all they want. 

An unexpected side effect is that my son’s learning has taken off too. It seems being included makes him more available for learning. I know his teacher is pleased about that! It’s important that all children get the opportunity to know each other through the shared experience of school. His school is just an average Scottish local primary school with the same social issues and funding problems as all the other schools in the country, but within it the mutual benefits of inclusion have been realised for my son and his classmates.

Jordan’s story

Jordan is an advocate, a valued member of the workforce who often speaks at events and conferences in support of other learning disabled adults. He has gone from being supported to doing the supporting. He has shared his expertise and his schooling experiences with A24. 

Jordan when he was at Primary School and Jordan now

Primary School

Jordan attended an average sized mainstream primary school along with around four hundred and fifty other pupils. There were thirty children in his class, most of whom he would call friends. His physiologist wanted him to go to an ASN school but his family fought for him to be at that mainstream school.

He had the same classroom assistant throughout his primary years. He liked all his teachers and found the work understandable. His classroom assistant helped him with reading. She also kept him focused and concentrating. He did all his own writing and maths work. The only other support he had was in the form of a footstool.

His assistant also worked in the school office which he found to be helpful because it meant she was not in the playground with him which allowed him free time with his classmates. He had lots of friends and has many happy memories of his primary years.

Secondary School

Secondary school was a slightly different story. He only had support during certain classes which helped him concentrate better. Some other children also had support such as a scribe and facilitator. He didn’t feel any different from the rest. He had numerous different support assistants over his time there which he struggled with a little. He had extra support during his tests and had an option to attend an afterschool homework club.

He lost touch with his friends from primary school and while he got on well with most people he didn’t feel that he made many friends. That said he did meet his best friend at secondary school. He wished he had more friends though.

He did well in his first lot of exams but his studies were disrupted in fifth and sixth year due to prolonged stays in hospital. Someone came to the hospital to support his studies there. On his return to school he used a wheelchair. He self propelled and although he found navigating the school was tricky he did think it was doable on his own.

World of Work

Due to being in hospital he missed valuable work experience but he got a lot of support from his guidance teacher about careers. He went on a college course where he learned interview skills, CV writing, money management and social skills before going on to do his NVQ in management which included a work placement.

After a short stint at Capability Scotland, Jordan is now a consultant for the charity Values into Action which supports people with learning disabilities or who are autistic to achieve their goals. He interviews people about the support they get in their own jobs and advises organisations on what they should be providing for their employees. 

His message is to ask people what support they would want.

Spirit of Inclusion

Well, the long wait is almost over. Half of the doors on the Advent calendar are hanging open and – for my three-year-old, at least – the sound of reindeer hooves on rooftops can’t come quickly enough; while I am still trying to find my back-of-an-envelope calculations from last year that tell me how long to cook the turkey, and scrabbling around the back of my brain for a gift idea for that tricky member of the family. Which means: it’s Nativity season!

Photo of three children taking part in a nativity play. Girl on the left in a sparkly dress wearing a blue head dress as Mary. Boy in the middle sitting in a wheel chair with a red checked scarf on his head as Joseph. And a another boy standing beside them as another character from the Nativity. A doll in a cot sits at the front

Having three children in two different school settings poses its problems, of course, but it certainly makes it difficult to escape the Christmas cheer as I attempt to remember two Christmas jumper days, two Christmas lunches, buy gifts for three sets of teachers/TAs/escorts and endure enjoy two Christmas fairs, a Christmas concert and a Nativity without cracking open the Aldi sherry I’d bought to go with Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot.

I’ll come clean here. My little boy, who is in every way a superstar but has some complicated additional support needs, does not attend our mainstream local school with his sisters. Mainly because when I was younger and more naïve I trustingly followed the well-trodden path paved with therapists, equipment, experience, and support. Fortunately for us, in our local authority that path does not lead to a fully-fledged special school but to a support base within a lovely small primary school in a similar town to ours, twenty miles across the county.

So, although my son spends most of his time in a class of seven children, all with their own support needs, he does have his name on the register of a mainstream P2 class. He is known and loved by children and teachers throughout the school; he takes some lessons with his mainstream class; he attends assembly with the whole school; and each year one lucky mainstream class – and they truly do feel they are lucky – gets to do a Nativity play with the children in the support base.

Close up of a little boy wearing a red checked head scarf dressed up as Joseph for his school nativity play.

Well, there’s nothing like starting at the top: last year, in his very first year, my little boy was chosen to play Joseph! Joseph, wearing an authentic Middle Eastern headdress on his head and a teatowel on his lap. Joseph, to a Mary with no additional support needs. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. Would he fall asleep as the baby Jesus was born? Would he vomit and need suctioning while the Angel Gabriel tried to deliver his message to Mary? And how would Mary and the rest of the mainstream cast react to him? Would they be patient while he fumbled to press the switch that delivered his lines? Would they ignore him? Would they let him in?

I needn’t have worried, of course. We see it time and time again – children who are allowed to become used to diversity just get on with it. They have an innate tendency to see past the wheelchair and the feeding-tube to just another child. Our Mary and Joseph formed a perfect tableau together with their roughly-handled baby Jesus exactly as in schools across the country at this time of year. They just played their parts, smiled for the cameras, and milked their well-earned applause.

We are so fortunate that my boy gets to experience inclusion in his school community – many children do not have this right met. But having seen how simple it is, I wish he were included in the same school community as his sisters, as is also his right; I wish he were part of the town where he will grow up, live, play and work through his school years and beyond. And that’s something I’m working towards, because if one mainstream Mary can accept my Joseph, then that can happen anywhere. Merry Christmas!

[Alex Davey is a mother, botanist, activist and writer living in sunny East Lothian. She blogs at]

Two Children, One School?

Both my children currently attend mainstream primary school where in theory they both access the same educational opportunities. My daughter is neurotypical with no additional support needs and my son is autistic and has benefitted from additional support. I value their equitable access to school, and I have worked with the school to ensure my son’s needs are met within the same school as his sister and his peers. Did I make it sound simple?

Scotland’s journey towards inclusion is a work in progress.

Well, there are funding choices being made that may make the presumption of mainstreaming impossible to achieve for many disabled children. Please be in no doubt a failure to provide adequate support in mainstream schools for children with additional support needs is to choose to discriminate against disabled children. Underfunding risks creating a situation where constructive exclusion can occur meaning children are confined to special schools or home education. There is a need for quality, mandatory training so head teachers, class teachers and teaching assistants are not overwhelmed, unsupported or lacking in confidence. This lack of knowledge can lead to a lack of empathy allowing discrimination to occur for example, I have been asked to understand “how busy they are” and to remember that “these children often get off to a slow start in school”. The lack of knowledge around autistic communication is also an issue leading to instances of unnecessary physical handling of my son. Communication between schools and families can be difficult, overwhelming and often family’s voices are not heard. These negative experiences can create an adversarial relationship between families and schools and leave families isolated in school communities. There is a real need for schools to find ways to communicate with families in an open and mutually respectful way that allows space for families to be able to share knowledge based on their own lived experience. There are difficulties in the present system but working towards inclusion is still achievable.

When it works it’s worth it!

OK so, friends don’t need funding or special training. A school can help promote inclusion by making sure all the children are involved with their peers which means happier and more confident children across the classroom. As soon as my son had support to help make friends, he was much happier. And some teachers just seem to get it. They simply teach to my son’s strengths and I’m glad to say his teacher this year is great. My son is confident with her and when children feel happy, they are learning. It’s particularly noticeable when a school staff member has personal experience of disability and then they seem to have a great relationship with him quite naturally. This highlights the importance of recruiting people with lived experience of disability into the school system and of forming relationships with families who have lived experience of disability. Good quality training is still necessary of course and the most progressive and insightful training comes from disabled or autistic people’s organisations who have first-hand knowledge and skills. I imagine that teachers were once the kids that loved school and thrived there, so maybe that’s why they sometimes struggle to relate to kids that don’t experience that environment in the same way. In fact, most teachers probably didn’t have the opportunity to attend a school where they knowingly shared a classroom with a disabled classmate; it’s so important schools now break that cycle and work towards inclusion. ​

A24 Scotland’s Future

I am a member of A24, a new organisation in Scotland which works to achieve inclusive education for all children and young people in Scotland’s schools. We are a group of parents of disabled children, disabled people, practitioners and researchers. I support the aims of A24 because I want both my children to continue to belong in our local school community and because all children do better in inclusive education systems. Children with disabilities who experience mainstream education are healthier, happier and will be more likely to participate in their communities. They have an improved outcome in terms of employment and independent living after school which ultimately saves money. They learn academics plus develop socially and emotionally. In fact, all the students in mainstream settings have daily opportunities to practice social skills like acceptance, patience and empathy when disabled children are present. All the children experience how to live, learn and play together. Growing up you learn who you are from the influences around you. School education systems can help set your expectations for life. I want to ensure that my son is as welcomed and valued as my daughter is in a mainstream setting and he is not regarded as a guest who can be uninvited at any time. He deserves equity in his experience of education. Most importantly he has the right to be in the same school as his sister and his friends and he wants to be included with them.

The start of a journey

Photo of a pair of child's purple Piedro boots on a children's car play mat placed as though choosing which road to go along.

I am often asked what school my son will attend when he starts next year. When my daughter was at the same stage he is now, there was no question that she would go to our local primary school.

This time around there is a question and it’s a loaded one. It relates to whether he will attend mainstream or special school. He is a very bright and capable boy who has cerebral palsy, which simply means he has very little control over his body. In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that he will go to the same local primary school that his big sister attends.

That sentiment is reinforced by his speech and language therapist. When he was about two years old, before I even knew the relevance, she told me that there’s a presumption of mainstream education in Scotland. 

Although that presumption has stuck with me and has been reiterated by other professionals working with us, I now realise that the system as it stands is more complicated. There are a number of exceptions to the presumption of mainstream. Those exceptions have the potential to affect a number of peers that we met through early intervention support groups. 

Even though we are in no doubt that mainstream is for our son those peers are now at the point of having to make a decision about placement. Should they choose mainstream? It has the convenience of the local primary school along with siblings and friends but may lack much needed resources and expertise. Or should they choose the area’s special school which has great facilities and specialist teachers but with the inconvenience of additional travel and segregation from peers and local community? The choice is not an easy one. 

Through A24 I now understand that not only is there a presumption to mainstream but also that there is a right to education as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Just last week the Scottish Government announced its intention to incorporate it fully and directly into law. That means my son has the same right as everyone else to an education. The same right as his sister. The same right as his friends and peers. 

Of course, his right to education can be fulfilled in either a mainstream or a special school. As the system stands we have a choice to make for our son that we didn’t need to make for his sister. It’s a choice where neither option is perfect. Each option only offers a compromise. 

However over and above that stands the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 recognises ‘the right of persons with disabilities to education…Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning…’

So not only does my son have a right to education he also has a right to education along with his friends. He’s not special, he’s just like everyone else except that he needs a bit more support than most. He has every right to be in the same classroom as everyone else his age. 

As he finishes the first term of his pre-school nursery year, preparations for his transition to primary one are about to begin. We are embarking on a journey, along with a full raft of supporting professionals, through an education system that doesn’t necessarily fit as well as it could. I feel sure that we’ve made the right choice but surely there must be a way to build an inclusive education system which enables full recognition of everyone’s rights and ensures that children with disabilities are included in their communities from the very beginning?

Harry’s story

Photo of a young man in a green t-shirt hiding behind a pile of books (only his arms are visible) that are sitting on a wooden table.

A child’s right to an inclusive, appropriate, efficient education is agreed in international and national policy. In practice, though, what does it mean to have all local children born within the same year in the same classroom? And why does this still not always happen?

My child, let’s call him Harry, does not attend any school at the moment. For him, school is a place not of belonging, but of feeling different. He is very able and bright, and finds learning ideas, concepts and facts very straightforward. He easily makes connections between aspects of his knowledge, bringing interesting observations and questions to family conversations daily. However, producing responses is very challenging for Harry. Written work is a bedrock of school activity, and as a result school quickly becomes a place of failure and stress when he attends. 

A focus on minute detail makes him very good at many aspects of academic work. The same focus creates huge discomfort when faced with eating at a desk with crumbs. Inflexible attention to rules makes his behaviour very reliable. The same inflexibility is affronted when teachers alter timetables or use reward systems without consistency. 

A diagnosis of autism explains these challenges, and others. It is not easy to create an environment in which these needs can be met in conjunction with so many other classroom demands: curricular, social, emotional. It’s also not easy to be the person who feels that they are receiving disproportionate attention and being singled out. It isn’t easy being the child who can’t finish writing a learning objective, let alone the task, in the time given. 

I do not have the answers to the perfect classroom. The right of all children to attend their local school is only realised when all aspects of school life are allowed to be scrutinised and adapted according to the needs of all the children. For some children this is an extremely time-consuming process. We didn’t know Harry’s fear of lunchtimes in P1 until P3. It took a while to understand how it felt to be placed in a small class with other autistic children, the only commonality being their diagnosis, to be taught ‘social skills’ in an environment of low academic expectations. We may never fully know how he felt in P7 when his self-esteem and mental health plummeted and we brainstormed other educational arrangements.

Now he is safe, well and learning. He is happy. He is involved in his community. I don’t know if he is as aware as I am of his peers having easy relationships with each other, borne through common experiences at school. The right to an education is being met, but the right to inclusion at a local school isn’t. Inclusion isn’t easy, but it is right.

Why A24?

A24 is a new organisation in Scotland. A24 or Article 24 is named after the section of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities that aims to secure inclusive education.

A24 wants to achieve inclusive education for all children and young people in Scotland’s schools. Inclusive education is a human rights issue. All children and young people learn better in inclusive schools; schools that take full account of difference.  

We are a group of parents of disabled children, disabled people, practitioners and researchers. We want Scottish education to keep moving forward on its journey with inclusive education.

Scotland generally does well in inclusive ways. However it can do better. Almost all disabled children and disabled young people attend their local school with their friends. We are concerned that in Scotland now there are plans to reduce that very high level by failing to plan for inclusive education and looking to increase the uptake in segregated special schooling.

We want to build on the successes of Scottish education, not turn back the clock and institutionalise our disabled children and young people. We think inclusive education should be the aim of our national policy and legislation framework. 

In Scotland seven authorities don’t have segregated special schools. Several only have one. We want every education authority to be inclusive and plan and resource inclusive education rather leave schools to struggle.

The resources are available right now to achieve these aims. For instance the Scottish Parliament have debated inclusion several times but never considered how to plan for inclusive education. They have never taken account of international conventions such as UNCRPD and the General Comment No.4.

As a result of this lack of political leadership from politicians Scotland is now being left behind by countries like Italy and Portugal. They placed human rights and planning and resourcing inclusive education at the centre of policy. We should do the same.

We want to see every education authority having a legal duty to provide inclusive education without exception. We want to have specialist support being available to all schools rather than segregated provision and hoarding of resources in special schools.

We want every school to plan and identify ways to improve their approach to including all children. We need teachers and support staff in every classroom confident and competent in the range of practice for inclusive education. We want all children to be supportive of each other in their school community.

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