• Sue Yian Quek

Is an Inclusive Education the Right School Choice?

Every child is different, and every child excels in different environments.


We know this and The Surin Academy was not founded to mimic larger mainstream schools or to compete with them academically. We created this school to have inclusivity as an ethos and NOT as a marketing claim. And yet in our sincerity, we’ve come across the same comment many times, that,


“Typical children, in an inclusive environment, will not excel.” Or

“Too much of their time will be taken up by atypical children.” Or

“Typical children won’t be challenged.”

To begin to address these comments, we need to ask, what does an education mean to you? Knowing this is important when measuring success.

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The Surin Academy is an inclusive school. This means that more than just physical access to school, all children are socially and academically included in the classrooms and school community. So if success means to you that children flourish, thrive and progress and children grow in character, life-skills, global and digital competency, and academics – then The Surin Academy, with its diverse student population, is the right place for you.


But, if education means attainment, competition, targets, high – grade achieving students, then traditional learning institutions that focus on traditional metrics of success will serve you better.


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Our aim is for children to flourish, thrive, and progress. To us, this means equal importance is placed on character, life-skills, global and digital competency, and academics.


An education system that is based on competition with a strong emphasis on individual performances where everyone needs to excel over others undermines fellowship. It can be hard to have true camaraderie when the push to be better than your peers is the undercurrent. Furthermore, on a macro level, this push for grades and attainment for results, whether PISA or just school ranking excludes atypical children as teachers are measured on exam results. Children who need special education support will be seen as unnecessarily time-consuming, and tolerated rather than included. This is why many schools say in their marketing materials that they accept atypicals, but often at levels of only 1 per classroom. Children absorb so much in this environment. They’ll pick up the difference between tolerating and assimilation. When that child is told to be gracious to students who are different, they will likely do so. But beyond being polite, would that same child invite that (different) child into their world? Would they become friends?


An inclusive school is not based on competition. An inclusive school does not stream or set students apart according to attainment. This avoids students perceiving themselves negatively, based narrowly on attainment.


Most inclusive schools are non-labelling and the children in these schools do not think that others are “unable” or “stupid”. They know that some children and this includes atypical children, could naturally excel at one subject, and others might not. Unfortunately in many mainstream schools, children are separated based on attainment. And this often hits at the inner core of a child, that they’re not good enough, found wanting and this has a knock-on effect on confidence.

In an inclusive school, that no one is good at everything is the accepted norm. And that’s a universal truism after all. Keep going and try to be better at the subject, but why beat yourself up if you’re not good at that subject? Students learn together and develop compassion and understanding of one another and more importantly, they play together naturally in the playground cognisant of differences.


Academics are important but success is not measured solely on results. There’s also social capital – the connections between individuals, family, teachers, community, and between themselves. How successful are they as people?


A sense of belonging is strong and to coin a phrase, “A small school and a mighty community” is how we like to look at ourselves. The teachers are not the enemy pushing the children with the proverbial whip, but counsellors who can red – flag mental wellbeing, bullying, and relationships between students. Mental well being is the 5th pillar of our school’s ethos. When children lose connectedness and are out of touch with peers, that’s when danger arises. They’re open to internet grooming, to joining gangs, become disproportionately dependent on peer approval – anything that creates a connection of belonging. We need to make sure that we catch this. The benefit of being a small, highly personalised school, is that we can augment these school bonds. Relationships are our pivot. If we’re not vigilant, it’s too easy for a “perfect child” to slip through the system.

When teachers are taught to differentiate, to be flexible in how they teach, how can typicals not also benefit? To be successful, teachers can no longer just deliver content, they have to create a lively classroom, and be aware that different children respond to different methods and ways of teaching. This, of course, includes typical children. Then there’s peer-to-peer learning – a good way for children to learn for both the peer mentor and the peer mentee. In the process of teaching others, peer mentors gain insights and a deep understanding of the subject.


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There’s a school in Sweden in Essunga made up of 148 pupils that lay right at the bottom of their league tables. The government put this school through a major school improvement activity by introducing inclusivity. Students taught previously in special classes were relocated to mainstream classrooms – with in-class support. Inclusive became the norm and individual differences were explicitly used as a resource, e.g. highly competent autistic students with maths. The teachers believed that all students will succeed. In three years, average grades rose from 62% to 96% and the school went from the bottom to the top place in the national league.

The students in the Essunga school were found to be confident, articulate, and able to express any troubles worrying them. With a sense of self, a connection to the community, children are less likely to take their worries and fears out on students that are weaker or more vulnerable. They are also more naturally embracing. As they live within differences, they accept diversity as the norm. They all had a positive regard for the benefits of association with students from diverse backgrounds. At the same time, the atypical students have an enhanced performance – as more is expected of them. And the school created the self-belief that they did not have a learning handicap – they only had a learning difference. Most had a greater clarity about themselves.


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We’re not saying inclusion is the best way. There’s a lot to say for competition, to growing that capitalism confidence in enterprise and personal attainment and glory. I’m a sports fan myself.


However, there are some parents who not only want their child to excel, but to also do it in an environment that is cognisant of differences, a place that does not see diversity as a weakness and where we can grow children who are careful with the world. A place that values social capital as much as academic, and whole person performance. If you’re this parent, then an inclusive education might just be suited for your family.


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References:

  1. (Jorgensen, Allan 2020) Education, Schooling and Inclusive Practice in Secondary Free School in England, British Journal of Sociology and Education (Accepted for publication on 29 January 2020)

  2. Julie Allan and Elisabeth Persson (2015) Student’s Perspectives on Raising Achievement Through Inclusion in Essunga, Sweden, Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1058752

  3. Julie Allan and Elisabeth Persson (2018), Social Capital and Trust for Inclusion in School and Society, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1- 11, DOI: 10.1177/1746197918801001

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