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SEN Policy Research Forum Exeter

‘Inclusion is not a place you commute to’. Why accountability measures must reflect inclusion’s relative dimension.

‘Inclusion is not a place you commute to’. Why accountability measures must reflect inclusion’s relative dimension.

Rob Webster
Reader in Education & Director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit, University of Portsmouth

There is a seemingly contradictory model of inclusion that seems prevalent in English mainstream schools. A longitudinal study I led with Peter Blatchford (UCL Institute of Education) between 2011 and 2017 found that the educational experiences of pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) was characterised by a high degree of marginalisation.

We found that in primary settings, these pupils were separated from the classroom, their teacher and their peers. And in secondary schools, they were segregated through a form of ‘streaming’, whereby lower-attaining pupils and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) were taught alongside one another, away from their peers.

While this structural approach to inclusion was justified by schools as a pragmatic response to creating what they believed was an effective, differentiated environment for learning, the findings challenge even the most broad-based conceptualisations of inclusion. Our study of 48 primary-aged and 49 secondary-aged pupils with an EHCP (née Statement) found that, compared with their typically-developing peers, factors of classroom composition and organisation (class size, grouping, withdrawal, and the deployment of additional adults) worked together in such a way as to produce a quantitatively and qualitatively different experience of school. In additional to the marginalisation, we found they received a lower quality pedagogical diet.

Revisiting and reflecting on the study for my new book, The Inclusion Illusion (Webster, 2022), I was struck by how easy it might be for people to interpret these summary findings as an unflattering indictment of schools’ attitudes and approach to inclusion. But this would be a mistake.

We saw how schools in the study were doing their best for pupils with additional needs under challenging circumstances. What seemed to curtail their efforts was dwindling funding and the (unintended) effects of high-stakes accountability. The implementation of numerous, sometimes competing, policy initiatives affected SEND provision in ways that became starkly visible at the pupil level.

A criticism of the Dept. for Education’s (DfE) SEND Green Paper is that while it’s high on aspiration for inclusion, the detail on how improvements might be operationalisation are thin. One gets the sense that the DfE plans to invigorate change by increasing accountability metrics, collated into a ‘inclusion data dashboard’.

The book offers practical ideas about how we might bring about a more authentically inclusive experience for pupils with SEND, but it also recognises that accountability isn’t going away anytime soon. It concludes that policymakers should ditch accountability processes and the meaning attached to them (league table positions and favourable inspection ratings) that lead to self-serving – even rewardable (Children’s Commissioner, 2017) – practices, which uphold the excessive marginalisation we found in our study, and perverse practices to which pupils with SEND are particularly vulnerable, like off-rolling. Instead, pivot to processes and positions that incentivise inclusion.

One idea builds on an interesting recommendation in a 2018 House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry on exclusions that calls for the government to ‘introduce an inclusion measure or criteria that sits within schools to incentivise schools to be more inclusive’ [emphasis added] (HoC, 2018). But the ‘within schools’ element makes this proposal potentially limiting.

The inclusion of pupils with SEND is not just about maximising their participation in school life. It means being accepted wherever that child or young person is. Inclusion is not a place across town to which you commute. It has a relative dimension. To form a rounded assessment of the inclusiveness of any one school, one would need to know whether it is admitting its fair share of children with SEND from its local community. And for that, comparable data are needed on the inclusivity of its nearest schools. To make sense of a school’s ‘inclusion score’, one would need to see how it matches up against its physical neighbours. A ‘between school’ measure would therefore offer more than a ‘within school’ measure alone.

Of course, reliably capturing values-based behaviour is tricky (Booth and Ainscow, 2002). And schools and parents will want to know that any such as measure can tell them something meaningful about inclusion, and doesn’t rely on poor proxies, such as a school’s annual spend on SEND.

If inclusion is about what headteacher Vic Goddard (2016) calls ‘botheredness’, then bringing about a more balanced and fairer education for pupils with SEND will require inclusively-minded people acting in a coordinated way at every level of the school system. Principally, this means school leaders and teachers, but it is naïve to think that this will be achieved without decision-makers at the very top finding much-needed and creative ways for the accountability system to recognise, celebrate and incentivise inclusion, and to stop making forms of marginalisation and exclusion the easier option.


The Inclusion Illusion: How children with special educational needs experience mainstream schools  is an open access publication from UCL Press and will be able to download for free from 4 July 2022 at



Booth, T. and Ainscow, M. (2002) ‘Index for Inclusion: Developing learning and participation in schools’. Bristol: Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education

Children’s Commissioner (2017) ‘Briefing. Falling Through the Gaps in Education’. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England

Goddard, V. (2016) ‘The Problem with Inclusion’.

House of Commons Education Committee (HoC) (2018) ‘Forgotten Children: Alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions. Fifth report of session 2017–19’.

Webster, R. (2022) ‘The Inclusion Illusion: How children with special educational needs experience mainstream schools’. London: UCL Press



Rob Webster is a Reader in Education at the University of Portsmouth, UK, where he is also the Director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit. Between 2011 and 2017, Rob led a landmark research study of the everyday educational experiences of pupils with SEN. Prior to this, he was a researcher on the world’s largest study of TA deployment and impact: the ground-breaking Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project. Based on this work, Rob developed the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants programme, which won a BERA Public Engagement and Impact Award in 2019. He is a member of the SENPRF lead group.

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