Leading for inclusion 1: Challenging discourse

Leadership sustains inclusive education

One essential and commonly agreed on characteristic of inclusive education is
the need for leadership that begins, continues and sustains it. The theories of leadership
have been debated, analysed, and constructed over many years and is, “…a highly
contested phenomenon” (Cranston & Ehrich, 2009, p. 1). The academic literature
about leadership proffers many models, typologies and frameworks. I would like to
add to the discussion by encouraging a change in the tangent from sometimes
simplistic rhetoric, such as ‘develop learning communities’ by school leaders, to one
of how, why, and when power is used in the social setting to influence inclusive
education. I don’t believe there is such thing as an ‘inclusive leader’. As Mulford in Cranston and Ehrich (2009) warn us there is an:

…enormous risk in us becoming too enamoured with the plethora of singular, simplistic, ‘adjectival’ leaderships now on offer (such as charismatic, heroic, instructional, transactional, transformational, sustainable etc.). While one leadership style or approach may work well for some leaders…Successful leaders adapt and adopt their leadership practice to meet the changing needs of circumstances they find themselves in (Mulford et al, 2009, p. 422).

There is much literature about the effect of school leadership and its
influence on school reform and student achievement (Fullan, 2006; Leithwood, &
Riehl, 2004). It is acknowledged widely that effective leadership contributes positively
to the development and achievement of inclusive education (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010;
Aleman, 2009; Armstrong, Armstrong, & Spandagou, 2010). A multitude of styles and
types of leadership have been determined, including leading with a moral purpose
(Fullan, 2006), having change management skills (Burnett, 2005), and, developing
learning communities (Senge, 2000).

The leadership practices that encourage, develop and sustain inclusive education assists us understand how schools enact inclusive practices for all learners rather than resorting to exclusive and specialised practices; e.g. programs where students are withdrawn to another classroom for specialised therapy or intervention. This is important as these exclusive and specialised practices have been blamed for maintaining lowered teacher expectations for students with a disability that eventually result in lower student aspirations and achievement.


Powering change

My experience in the area of curriculum policy implementation in schools
was that the school leaders hold, withhold, and wield power as practices that influence
inclusive education. For example, when a leader sees inclusive education as purely a
professional learning priority, it may become an activity simply to be ticked off. As one
principal said to me in reference to professional learning for inclusive education,
“We’ve done inclusion”. This dialogue does not reflect great leadership in the eyes of
many commentators; however, it does indicate practices of power. The principal used
power by withholding any further access to or resources for professional learning because it had been done. The principal did not consider inclusion as an ongoing
educational reform that required multiple long-term professional learning.
Though I acknowledge that power is not exclusively exerted by the person
in a leadership role or position, there are many members of a social group who have
agency to create or limit change through practices of power (Giddens, 1990). Within
the team, anyone can take on a leadership or linking role including teachers, teacher
aides, parents, and students (Margerison & McCann, 1985). Development or
enactment of inclusive education cannot be left in the hands of one or two people in a
school community, as the “…causes of exclusion run deep in the architecture of
schooling” (Slee, 2006 p. 102). However, an individual leader may purposefully or
inadvertently maintain this architecture of exclusion.

School leaders ultimately apply practices of power that aim to encourage, develop, and maintain leadership of teachers. Grenier (2010) discusses the concepts of power and inclusive education by highlighting the importance of school leaders to apply strategies that ensure collaborative practices, challenge “teacher autonomy in order to enhance the teaching and learning process” (p. 398), and support student ability and strengths and influence teachers to do same.Effective teachers who enact inclusive practices are aware of relevant legislation and policy, and the implications of their daily work (Shaddock, et al, 2007). These teachers are led by school principals who play a “pivotal role in
supporting inclusive practice” (Shaddock et al. 2007, p. 10) and who disrupt discourse of difficulty.

Discourse of difficulty sustains specialisation and exclusion

People acquire discourses, “…certain ways of thinking, talking, and acting
that are infused with power” (Gee, 1990, p. 425). Discourse used by staff therefore
can influence practices that result in exclusion or inclusion of students. The careful
choice of positive discourse related to students with disability in school, system, and
social documentation can become part of teacher’s daily language. If it is made
explicit by leaders and used consistently in schools, this language may positively
influence change when teachers speak about their work. “Language carries within
itself the seeds for a transformative politics – once spoken into existence we exist
and can, with care and strategy, cultivate an ethical self of which we ourselves are
the author” (Graham, 2010, p. 62). We need to speak about our work in a more positive manner if inclusion is to gain traction.

The discourses around inclusive education sometimes focuses on
how hard inclusive education is to achieve (Allan, 2008). Teachers are bombarded
with the implicit and explicit messages by peers, community, and leaders that inclusiveWords such as ‘challenge’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘pressure’ and ‘struggle’
have become synonymous with the inclusive education agenda, and represent a
discourse that confirms the feeling of incompetence and lack of confidence of
teachers enacting it (Allan, 2008). I recognise the premise that specialisation and exclusive practices in some schools, continue to validate and fuel the concerns of classroom teachers who they arenot competent, prepared, or resourced to teach the diverse range of learners in their classes (Allan, 2008). The language and practice of specialty about learners and programs compound the confusion felt by teachers regarding the responsibility for the education of students with disability, and whether they have the required specialised skills to meet the needs of students with disability.

Conflicting discourse as a “leadable moment”

Conflict can occur between staff especially those who identify with different
educational practices e.g. Special education and inclusive education. This could be
seen as “sabotaging change strategies” or the school leader can see them as “leadable
moments” that can “leverage conflict for social justice aims” (Aleman, 2009, p.
1).These “leadable moments” may include the school leader “testing” teacher attitude
and practice (Aleman, 2009, p. 2) with an emphasis on accountability to student
learning and how staff use power to achieve the goals of inclusion. The
“interrogation of power structures in schools that reproduce injustices” (Gillies &
Carrington, 2004, p. 8) is one important practice for school staff to develop an
inclusive culture. When leaders collaboratively develop an inclusive ideology it
“…will permeate all thought and practice” (Rice, 2005, p. 406). The school leader
may test teacher attitude, discourse and practice by wielding power within the political context of the school to achieve their goals. Accordingly, when a school leader drives these high expectations and equitable practice, improved performance of all students will result.


School leaders need to persuade staff that the accountability for achievement
lies with the teacher and the teacher’s ability to align behaviour, practice and curriculum
planning, rather than blame lowered achievement for some cohorts of students on
student ‘deficits’. School leaders need to challenge school practices and name staff
behaviour, including the use of deficit language commonly used to describe students.
Focused professional development (Thompson, 2004) that allows staff to identify
and reject inequitable practices and low expectations can be useful. Fulcher (1989)
contends that teaching is not just a technical process, and that teaching involves
political, moral and technical dimensions. In fact, moral and political dimensions
precede a teacher’s decision about how or what to teach and can reflect low
expectations. Fulcher (1989) reminds us that, “Teachers, like everyone else, are
equally members of an unequal society and may contribute to, or undermine, this
inequality” (p. 259). Leaders need to take a moral stance and challenge practices that
undermine the journey towards inclusion in their schools; e.g., confusion about
policy and existence of low expectations of learners. These challenges or conflicts
may previously be deemed as “controversial or inflammable” (Aleman, 2009, p. 2)
but can ultimately lead change in practice for social justice.


If leaders do not create explicit opportunities to explore and challenge vocabulary and
practices of exclusion, these may continue unopposed. School leaders need to create and maintain a dynamic learning community that provides a safe environment for investigation in their school context. Without this leadership, there will continue to be issues with misalignment of teacher beliefs, curriculum planning and delivery, and ultimately continued underachievement of all students with diverse learning requirements, not just those with disabilities.

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