Liz Done: Re-thinking inclusive education

Liz Done

Like Giroux (2010, p.715), I would welcome an educational culture that fosters imagination, supports experimentation, and promotes democratic participatory practices. The neo-liberalisation of England’s education sector is evidenced in processes of marketisation, commodification and privatisation, and in a distinctively neoliberal combination of
i) increased centralised control (through, for example, the academisation programme and concomitant contraction of local government oversight)
ii) discourses that promise greater professional autonomy at school level.
This combination is captured in Foucault’s (1982) concept of ‘responsibilisation’ which, in contrast to common-sense understandings of personal responsibility, implies an intensified political control that involves the fabrication of educational professionals as individually responsible for the fall out from decisions that they have made regardless of the context of that decision-making.

the government response advances a centralised programme of measures as a solution to the ‘problem’ of school exclusion in all of its disproportionality.

The recently published Timpson Review of school exclusion and the government response (Department for Education 2019a, 2019b) serve to illustrate this two-pronged neoliberal development. Both valorise the professional autonomy now allegedly afforded to head teachers but, nevertheless, the government response advances a centralised programme of measures as a solution to the ‘problem’ of school exclusion in all of its disproportionality. The training of teachers figures prominently. Meanwhile, the national school inspectorate, Ofsted (2019) has also individualised the ‘problem’ of both the scale of school exclusions, but also, that of illegal exclusions that contravene current statutory guidelines. Schools are suspected of dispensing with students who might dilute the academic performance data and league table positions that influence parents’ choice of school. Ironically, it is high performing schools that can become objects of suspicion, inviting inspections where they must work hard to be exonerated of suspected ‘off rolling’ (illegal exclusionary practices).  

Recognition of disproportionality (the statistical over-representation of specific student groups such as those classified as having ’special educational needs’, the disadvantaged and those of particular ethnicities) in exclusion data has injected a moral dimension into Ofsted and media campaigning around the ‘off rolling’ issue. The ironic nature of Ofsted’s recent proactivity in this area is clear once its historical role in supporting a political rhetoric around raising academic standards is acknowledged. Indeed, governmental and professional discourses continue to promote the imperatives of greater inclusivity and raised standards as if they were entirely compatible and easily effected through particular strategies (Done 2019). One such strategy which is now repeatedly encountered in practising teachers’ writing for assessment on the National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination (NASENCO) is ‘strong leadership’. Another strategic focus which is supported across numerous published studies is that of trainee teacher values, as if engineering the ‘right kind’ of teacher will, inevitably, deliver the ostensibly desired level of inclusivity in schools, regardless of the prevailing socio-political, economic and discursive context.

Whilst this recent attention to the issue of disproportionality is, in many ways, to be welcomed, it does raise some difficult questions. For example, it seems unlikely that schools will be granted a political reprieve around academic performance since the accountability procedures required to sustain marketisation persist. Equally, it has been widely known for some time that marketisation has resulted in higher proportions of children categorised as having ‘special educational needs’ in areas of high social deprivation. Yet, measures to address such longstanding issues as social equity and educational inequities have attracted relatively little attention (Parsons 2014). The recognition of intersectionality (as the overlapping of identities and multiple inequities related, for example, to socio-economic status, ethnicity, dis-ability, gender) within a neoliberal educational culture simply identifies a priority for piecemeal instrumentalist remediation, rather than addressing the matter of profound disparities in educational fortunes and social justice. Measures to ensure inclusive values in teachers serve to individualise a socio-political ‘problem’, and compound their experience of ‘cruel optimism’ as they are obliged to subscribe to governmental policies in the belief that the groundwork for longer-term change and more equitable outcomes is being laid.

Social justice in education, and on Giroux’s (2010) account, would demand a very different educational culture and, certainly, one that recognises slow learning.

Social justice in education, and on Giroux’s (2010) account, would demand a very different educational culture and, certainly, one that recognises slow learning. The compressed temporalities, normativities around productivity, and pervasive metrics which characterise neoliberal educational systems can render such aspirations problematic. So much emphasis is placed on measuring improvement that learners are rarely afforded time to process (to pause and ponder) content, and teachers cannot afford to lose time in curricula delivery lest their own performance data deteriorates. From a Deleuzo-Guattarian (2013) perspective, this situation of monstrous regimentation of learning inevitably generates casualties as not all children learn at the same pace. Hence the growing body of literature which documents the fallout of neoliberalising processes in education and, specifically, the exclusionary practices that sustain such processes, and the school cultures thereby generated. The time or space for thinking and experimentation can be hard to find amidst the ever-codified constitution of learning that is associated with educational neoliberalisation and its corollary of ritualised demonstrations of improved performance (Ball 2003).

Across the education sector, at institutional and centralised levels, inclusion is measured through the participation rates of those with additional needs or ascribed identities. Yet, presence is a poor indicator of meaningful inclusion, and participation rates are likely to conceal exclusionary practices that are designed to preserve the dominant ethos of competitive individualism and maintain or enhance market position. Participation entails the subjection of learners to an intensified codification of learning through curricula design that is then presented as ahistorical and non-ideological (Gough 2010) and linked to improvement in policy and policy rhetoric even though the rigidity of such design can, ironically, work to exclude the very students that policy requires us to include.

In schools and the higher education sector, time to think must be ‘made’ and the capacity to translate thought into tangible outputs and mandated performance data functions as an indicator of professionalism in all of its efficiency. This image is far removed from the ‘research laboratory’ that Deleuze (1995) wanted education to be and his Spinozan ontology of speeds through which it becomes possible to think about learning outside of the compressed timeframes of linearised and reified models of neoliberalised education. A highly regimented neoliberal education system intended to optimise contributors to the politically-defined ‘knowledge economy’ does not permit learners to become masters of the rhythms of the speeds of their own learning (Deleuze and Guattari 2013). It does not recognise the relational dimension of learning, the learning with not from others. It bypasses or displaces the matter of caring in educational practice (Ball 2003; Cook & Thompson 2014).

To be clear, teachers and schools cannot be blamed or deemed accountable for injustices that derive from decades of educational policy making.

There is a longstanding strand within educational sociology that has sought to expose inequities in the education system and the structures through which these are perpetuated. It predates neoliberalisation and, for that very reason, has been well-placed to chart the highly politicised discursive move away from education as a public good towards a contemporary political discourse in which the market is taken to be the panacea of preference – despite evidence that inequities persist (Exley & Ball 2013) and have, under recent Covid-19 lockdown conditions, been exacerbated (Montecute 2020). The Covid-19-induced lockdown has highlighted pre-existent imbalances in the distribution of resources amongst schools and the lack of resources available to those who need them most. To be clear, teachers and schools cannot be blamed or deemed accountable for injustices that derive from decades of educational policy making. The concept of ‘regular schooling’ remains politically inviolate and refinements of existing educational policy and practice are just that, a tinkering that cannot ensure fundamental change, only rhetorical distractions.

The government’s response to the Timpson Review of school exclusion (Department of Education 2019b, 2019a) is a case in point. Disproportionality is addressed in the former through familiar claims of additional funding and the outlining or reiteration of numerous initiatives intended to train and police the school workforce, whilst school students themselves are to be assisted to improve their capacity for the self-regulation that ‘regular schooling’ demands. Predictably, the discourse around school exclusion evidences the individualising tendencies that are so characteristic of neoliberal discursive practices: Ofsted will identify individual schools suspected of illegal exclusion through the interrogation of school data; the school will identify individual staff members with particular training needs; and individual students will be subjected to instrumentalist ameliorative ‘interventions’ that permit, allegedly, the quantification of their normalisation.


Ball, S. J. (2003) The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. Journal of Education Policy 18 (3), 215–228.

Deleuze, G. (1995) Negotiations: 1975-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury. [First published 1972].

DfE (2019a) The Timpson Review of School Exclusion: Government Response. /file/800676/Timpson_review_of_school_exclusion__government_response.pdf

DfE (2019b) Timpson Review of School Exclusion (London, DfE). /file/799979/Timpson_review_of_school_exclusion.pdf

Done, E.J. (2019) Education Governance and the Responsibility to Include: Teachers as a Site of Discursive Tension. In J. Allan, V. Harwood, & C. Jørgensen (Eds.) World Yearbook of Education 2020. London: Routledge.

Exley, S. & Ball, S.J. (2013) Something old, something new . . . understanding conservative education policy. In H. Bochel (Ed.), The conservative party and social policy (pp. 97–118). Policy Press.

Foucault, M. (1982) The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8 (summer 1982), 777-795.

Giroux, H.A. (2010) Re-thinking education as the practice of freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy. Policy Futures in Education 8(6), 715-721.  

Gough, N. (2010) Structuralism. In Kridel, C. (Ed.) SAGE Encyclopedia of Curriculum Studies. New York: Sage.

Montecute, R. (2020) Social mobility and Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality. London: Sutton Trust.

Ofsted (2019) The annual report of her majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills 2017/18.

Parsons, C. (2014) Social justice, race and class in education in England: competing perspectives, Cambridge Journal of Education, 49.3, pp.309-327

Thompson, G., & Cook, I. (2014). Manipulating the data: Teaching and NAPLAN in the control society. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 35(1), 129–142.

Dr Elizabeth J. Done is a Lecturer in Inclusion at the Institute of Education (University of Plymouth) and Visiting Research Fellow at Exeter University’s Graduate School of Education, specialising in inclusion, critical perspectives and teacher CPD. Liz supervises PhD students and leads PG modules related to inclusive education. A key interest is senior leaders’ and educational professionals’ negotiation of conflicting governmental imperatives.

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