ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

about the conference

Inclusion in the Early Years: Public policies and personal definitions

Cathy Nutbrown and Peter Clough


This paper reports a study of the personal practices, beliefs and values around inclusive issues held by early childhood educators working in a range of policy contexts in the UK. The paper briefly outlines the policy contexts in which educators practice in the four countries of the UK as they relate to inclusive early education. Differing policies in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are borne out of cultural, historical and political identities and, at the same time, influenced (to varying degrees) by early childhood developments in parts of mainland Europe. Particular and distinctive beliefs about childhood and about the aims and purposes for early education can be identified in various policies.  

In these policy contexts 452 early childhood educators from around the UK participated in a study which aimed to understand something of the ways in which policies impacted on personal practices. Building on earlier work (Clough and Nutbrown 2003, 2004; Nutbrown and Clough, 2004), the study had two aims: firstly to identify practitioners’ definitions of ‘inclusion’ and secondly to uncover practitioners’ beliefs about inclusion through their own personal accounts and stories.   Three themes are addressed: constructions of childhood, including children with learning difficulties and including parents. A variety of methods was used to generate a rich range of responses from practitioners. Data were analysed using computer assisted analysis package (NVivo ) according to the three main themes. Key outcomes of the study were ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion and some powerful stories of personal experiences which practitioners told in conversation with each other.   In conclusion, the paper makes three points on: the ‘rightness’ of inclusion; the importance of finding ways to talk about difficult issues, and the personal willingness of practitioners to seek inclusion as a first option.

Policy contexts in the UK  

Two broad aspects of policy are considered together here: generic early years policy and specific policy related to inclusive societies and schooling. Policy developments across the UK have, in recent years, changed the landscape of early childhood education and care in terms of i) curriculum and pedagogy and ii) systems and services.   Early childhood education and care policies across the UK of the 1990s and early 2000s brought radical change to curriculum and pedagogy, and to state-funded systems and services. Strides in policy development have been made in all four countries in the UK, for example:

This nation-wide interest in early childhood provision is paralleled with similar far reaching changes in inclusive policies. The success of Sure Start, an inclusive policy realised in practice nation-wide, can be attributed to three embedded principles: i) its locally and community defined projects (within national targets); ii) the multi-agency focus on marginalised and disadvantaged communities where educational achievement is low and young children and their families experience multiple difficulties; and iii) provision of   funding to support this ambitious policy development.

Nationally and (perhaps more) importantly within local communities, Sure Start has brought together existing initiatives and developed new projects to address a range of issues such as: poverty; housing; ill-health; smoking, drug and alcohol addiction; teenage pregnancy and parenting skills (Weinberger et al. 2005). Social factors such as these dominate the lives of many families in marginalized communities and make for exclusion – and increasing concentration – of such families in the communities in which they live.

The Children Act (2004) sought to create: ‘A legislative framework for: improving outcomes for all children; to protect them; to promote their well being; to support all children to develop their full potential.’ (Every Child Matters – Green Paper 2003). With the emphasis on all children, the Children Act 2004 could be seen as an attempt towards inclusive responses to protection of and provision for children.  The Act seeks to address ‘causes’ and to reduce the number of  young children ‘in need’. Initiatives promoted in Every Child Matters included: Sure Start Children’s Centres (‘one stop’ nursery education, family support, employment advice, childcare, health services); full-service extended schools (pre- and post-  school care); speech and language therapy; homelessness support and housing advice; support for parents and carers; early intervention and effective provision; accountability and integration (locally, regionally, nationally); workforce reform to bring about flexibility in working and appropriate qualification and remuneration.

The early years of the 2000s saw early childhood education across the whole of the UK as the focus of increased, perhaps intensive, recognition. Policy makers in all four countries of the UK were speaking with increasing frequency and verve of young children and their needs, of the importance of multi-agency, ‘joined-up’ services, parenting support and the importance of early education and care provision. Heightened political recognition and con-substantial increase in funding was responsible for the expansion of provision, development of services and a reshaping of the activities in early childhood settings. The aim was to provide targeted services which met, without stigmatising, the needs of a diverse range of families and assisted in encouraging women into the workforce (and out of poverty) by providing education and care for their young children.

The Study: origins, aims and methodology

In varied and pro-inclusive UK policy contexts 452 early childhood educators participated in a UK wide study,  giving their personal responses to policies and identifying the ways in which such policies impacted on their practice. The study built on earlier work (Clough and Nutbrown 2004; Nutbrown and Clough, 2004), which surveyed  practitioners’ beliefs and practices around inclusion.   Early childhood educators working in a range of (non-specialist) settings and services participated in the study reported here. These included: voluntary preschool groups, independent day nurseries, independent schools, Steiner-Waldorf kindergartens, Montessori nursery schools, Foundation Stage nursery and reception classes. All participants had regular, daily contact with children and worked in settings which served families from a range of cultural, religious and social groups. They were first asked to generate and then discuss definitions of the term ‘inclusion’,  and secondly to   respond to statements made by other practitioners from an earlier survey (Clough and Nutbrown 2004) around three themes: i) constructions of childhood;  ii) including young children with learning difficulties, and iii) including parents. This part of the study was designed to probe practitioners’ personal beliefs around inclusion.

A variety of methods of data collection was used including: e.mail dialogue; questionnaire; face-to-face interviews; telephone interviews, taped focus group discussions, open ended written reactions to statements read to them (or presented on power point). The variety of methods generated a rich range of responses from practitioners. Data were analysed using computer assisted analysis package (NVivo) in three clusters: i) constructions of childhood, ii) including young children with learning difficulties iii) including parents.

Findings and discussion

In this section first we present and discuss examples of the participants’ definitions of inclusion and second we summarise and discuss their responses to each of the three main themes.

We asked 182 practitioners from a range of settings and services to develop and agree (in groups of five or six), a definition of inclusion which they felt could be applied to their own early childhood setting. In all, 34 group definitions were generated which fell into an almost even split between two main categories; 15 could be classified as ‘narrow’ definitions and the remaining 19 were classified as ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion.   Fifteen groups (a total of 96 participants) created ‘narrow’ definitions which defined ‘inclusion’ as an issue relating to children with special educational needs or learning difficulties. Typical examples of such definitions included:

Inclusion is treating every child as an individual (regardless of their difficulty) and seeking knowledge and understanding from outside organizations, e.g. courses that are available, and we need guidance on an individual basis. Ideally, we could use continued support so that we can continue to meet the needs of each child with learning difficulties .


Inclusion is right for most children but not all. Some children’s needs are so specific that catering for them in a mainstream setting would be difficult. Inclusion is ideal when both parents and practitioners are fully aware of the disabled child’s needs and are able to provide the support and resources to meet these needs. The needs of the child are paramount – whatever the policy.

Nineteen groups (a total of 86 practitioners) developed ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion which identified the importance of including many more potentially excluded or marginalized groups. Typical examples in this ‘broad’ inclusion category were:

Successful inclusion promotes positive relationships with all children and parents, within an environment where children’s individuality is celebrated – whatever children’s backgrounds or learning needs. Staff expertise, sensitivity and professional attitude develops children’s learning, ensuring that all children are happy, empowered and are given the opportunity to reach their full potential and be proud of themselves.


Inclusion is striving to include all children within a setting which celebrates the differences in all children - with the help, support and guidance of the child, parents and other professionals. We should meet the needs of each individual child and enable then to fulfill their potential in all areas of learning. Inclusion takes account of children’s family heritage as well as specific difficulties.


For us inclusion is accepting each child as an individual -   this applies to travelling children, refugees, families in poverty, families from minority religious and cultural groups as well as children with learning difficulties. Inclusion means ensuring everyone works together in the child’s best interests to enable them to reach their full potential – EVERYONE!

These ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion are reflected in much of the literature, some of which continues to portray inclusion as treating fairly exclusively of disability and learning difficulties, whilst others seek to open out the definition of ‘inclusion’ to incorporate all potentially excluded groups and individuals. Early Years curriculum policies, however, make specific mention of children with learning difficulties, for example:

Practitioners will need to plan for each child’s individual learning requirements, including those children who need additional support or have particular needs or disabilities. The focus should be on removing barriers for children where these already exist and on preventing learning difficulties from developing. Early years practitioners have a key role to play in working with parents to identify learning needs and respond quickly to any area of particular difficulty, and to develop an effective strategy to meet these needs, making  which good use of individual educational plans, so that later difficulties can be avoided. (QCA 2000 p. 18)

At the same time, though, they strongly promote ‘broadly’ inclusive practices, thus:

… no child should be excluded or disadvantaged because of ethnicity, culture or religion, home language, family background, special educational needs, disability, gender or ability. (QCA 2000 p. 11)

This latter, ‘broad view’ of inclusion is promoted by the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education which argues that:

Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building on an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.

(CSIE 1995 p. 8)

Indeed, some seek to emphasise the merely contingent association of ‘special educational needs’ and impairment with inclusive education; as Booth has it:

Some continue to want to make inclusion primarily about ‘special needs education’ or the inclusion in education of children and young people with impairments but that position seems absurd… If inclusion is about the development of comprehensive community education and about prioritising community over individualism beyond education, then the history of inclusion is the history of these struggles for an education system which serves the interests of communities and which does not exclude anyone within those communities.

(Booth 2000 p.64)

As provision for education and care for children of all ages considers ways of meeting education targets together with wider social challenges the ‘broad’ view of inclusion seems to be gaining currency. Lingard (2000) similarly emphasizes the larger structures of inclusion in diversity:

What I want to do is to hold to a broader definition which links across the whole social justice, equity and citizenship issues. The concept of inclusion might also encourage an across-government approach to social and economic disadvantage (p. 101)

The practitioners in this study who developed and discussed ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion reflect a spectrum of understanding about what inclusion means. Their understandings vary from the view that it is the latest ‘politically correct’ term for ‘Special Educational Needs’ to the view that it is an all-embracing, anti-discriminatory practice which makes all users and participants in any provision equally valued members of a community where all ‘belong’.

2.             Participants’ views on constructions of childhood; including young children with learning difficulties and including parents.

i             Constructions of childhood

First we asked participants to consider two views of childhood:


They discussed and responded to the following statements:

All young children need to be nurtured, childhood is such a vulnerable time, whatever children’s needs, we must protect them from threats to their bodies, and souls

(Steiner Kindergarten teacher, England)

I think it’s part of my job to get each one of them to have a go- be bold! So I push them a bit to try things - even if they struggle and they might have SEN or something - but I want them to take a risk, they don’t need mollycoddling!

(Nursery teacher - Wales)

In their responses, participants in the study fell again into two broad groups: those who saw children as vulnerable, and those who felt they were ‘discoverers’ who needed challenge and risk to encourage their learning in the early years. The following discussion helps to illuminate the complexity of thinking behind these two, apparently opposite, positions:

Clare:                I agree with the first one. I think… Well…I think they need love and looking after, and – well – protecting… yeah – protection from all the horrid stuff that goes on… I mean, well, yeah, they need to try things out but…

Siobhan: You have to let them free though… It’s tough out there and you…

Clare:                There’s time enough to get tough later… I want them to have a sense of nurture and protection.

Mia:                  Isn’t that for the parents though?

Clare:                Yes, but I think…

Mia:                  We need to help them widen their horizons…

Astrid:               Yes – take risks…

Siobhan: It’s a tough world – they need to develop a thick skin and …

Clare:                Not when you’re only four!

The conversation perhaps predictably concluded with a general view that a balance need to be struck   - yet there was an interesting blend of pedagogies and personal life histories here, which were variously generative of the different views held. For example,  Siobhan spoke of how her father had died when she was very young and how she learned quickly that “there was no Father Christmas” and “food did not magically appear on the table”. Clare told how she – an only child – had lived an ‘idyllic’ childhood in a tiny Scottish village with – as she said – ‘No fear, no worries, and surrounded by loving interested adults’.

As Boyden (1997) argues, childhood is (for some children) ‘a very unhappy time’ paralleled by ‘adult nostalgia for youthful innocence’. Whilst we should not want to suggest a necessary and simple correspondence between early personal experience and later ideologies, it is generally clear that beliefs about what children ‘need’ and how they should be educated in the early years are inevitably influenced by the life experiences of professionals. The diverse range of views about childhood described by participants in this study demonstrates quite clearly that childhood is not a singular concept but that complex social constructions of ‘childhood’ (Anderson, 1980) inform practitioners beliefs about childhood and practices with children.

ii.             Including young children with learning difficulties

We asked participants to respond to the following three statements about inclusion and exclusion:

There’s too much segregation in society young children should learn about differences and -before prejudices are formed - they can experience living together with others who are different.

(Teacher - Northern Ireland)


No, some children cannot tolerate the presence of their peers and become very distressed

(Playleader, Scotland)


Some children should not be included because they could create an uncomfortable environment


These statements triggered important and passionate moral arguments about ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’ and ‘rights’ - on the one hand - and practicalities, ‘survival’ of practitioners, and funding on the other. Often practitioners stood effectively in both camps – expressing what was ‘right’ along with the caveat of what was ‘possible’ in their present contexts. Elsewhere we have noted the reservations which practitioners   often build into their constructions of inclusion as a sort of ‘Yes..but…’ factor (Clough and Nutbrown 2004; Nutbrown and Clough 2004). The following discussion is an example of this:

Mary:    I think the first teacher is right. Letting children mix together before they understand about differences and develop prejudices – that’s right. But it’s not so easy as that – there are barriers to overcome – in the community. Not everyone…

Aisha:    Some parents wouldn’t like to think that their children might miss out – I mean – especially if a child with disruptive behaviour was in the group. It’s…

Mary:    Exactly – and it’s not fair to the others.

Jo:         But you can’t just say ‘we can’t have you you’re too difficult to cope with!’ It’s, it’s – well – immoral!

Aisha:    It’s being realistic thought – you get too many being disruptive and the quiet ones miss out. Especially quiet little girls.

Mary:    I believe in equality – I believe…

Jo:         Equality means giving everyone – all of them – an equal chance!

Aisha:    Not necessarily in the same provision though. Equality – yeah – but… but not at any price, not at any cost to the whole group.

Mary:    It should be a first option – we should always try to include…

Jo:         Easier said than done – but yes – I think Mary’s right.

Aisha:    You wouldn’t say that if you worked where I work!

As others have shown  (Algelides 2000; Croll and Moses’ 2000, Clough, 2004), such qualified commitment to inclusion is arguably most apparent in the case of children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, which presents educators with more difficulties than does the inclusion of children with physical impairment. Visser et al. (2003) remind us that children with EBD are no less to be considered as part of our community and that:

‘ schools need to be communities which are open, positive, and diverse, not selective, exclusive or rejecting. They need to be ‘barrier free’ for pupils with EBD. The development of a collaborative ethos is a key feature… Schools need to develop a sense of equity in promoting every pupil’s rights and responsibilities in all aspects of school life. These lessons are easy to state but we know… just how difficult it is for schools to achieve the challenges they pose. (p. 45)

iii.             Including  parents

Finally, participants in the study gave their reactions to the following statements about parents’ involvement:

As much involvement as possible as this gives parents a greater understanding of what is being achieved and then parents can reinforce these values in the home.

(Montessori teacher, England)

Oh! Sometimes they just make it worse, I know that’s a horrid thing to say, but if I could just get on with it sometimes, but some parents make me feel it’s my fault their children behave so badly! I s’pose they don’t mean to, and, well, one particular mother, she, well, she just has to get at somebody - so it seems that it’s me. Wears you out though…

(Nursery teacher Wales)

Parents are their children’s primary educators. I really believe that - they’re not with us that long. Of course parents must be involved.

(Playgroup worker, Northern Ireland)

Focus group conversations on this theme were occupied with the dilemma of involving parents as a given ‘good’ and the realities of there always being some parents who apparently seek not to involve themselves   - but who are, nevertheless, involved by virtue of being parents.   Inclusion here was not primarily about the involvement of parents of children with learning difficulties or impairment, but about the inclusion of parents who were perceived as outsiders for other reasons – they smelled, drank, were aggressive and so on. Some such parents fuelled a kind of resentment or  dread in the hearts of some practitioners, as the following extract shows.

Mandy:              There’s this young woman, right, she’s got a front tooth missing – probably her latest bloke knocked it out. I know I shouldn’t say this but…Well, …she smells of sweat and stale lager, looks 35 but I think she’s probably around 23.  Two children  - one just turned four – she’s with us, and an 18 month-old. She doesn’t want to ‘get involved’ – she just wants to hive off the older one all the time – thin little waif she is. And then she’s in the pub every lunchtime say’s she’s no money – never has any money but manages to find her beer money. So, well… you can’t really talk about parent involvement in their learning – not really not when they’re like that! And she’s not only one – there are others.

Sue:                   Oh! But you can’t say… you can’t say they’re all like that

Mandy              A lot are though!

[Others are variously agreeing and disagreeing – Mandy’s comment has allowed some difficult issues to surface..]

Sue                   Well – it’s a case of accepting that she’s… she’s …she’s that little girls mum – and she might have other difficulties but you can’t ignore her…

Mandy              Easier said than done…I lose patience… When I see her coming I think – ‘Oh my God – what’s it going to be today’ …Find it really difficult – so hard to make an effort to involve her – because.. well… I just don’t feel  - I don’t feel, y’know - comfortable around her.. If I’m honest – I guess I’m saying … well… I just don’t like her. I feel really sorry for the kids, and I think ‘why can’t you make an effort’ and I see other mums really struggling – but they do their hair and put on a bit of make up and they wash their kids, now those, I’ll do anything I can for them – y’know? Yeh? They’ve got to make an effort too haven’t they? [The group is silent and slightly awkward – no-one speaks]

Mandy:              You all think this is a terrible thing to say   - I can see…

It was clear to us that Mandy had put into words the feelings of some other participants in the group; later – when the tape had stopped – others said to her that they understood what she was saying. They too sometimes resented those parents who seemed neglectful and they thought (not without guilt) that they treated such parents differently – perhaps making less effort to include them or have conversations with them about their children. Such frank discussions between participants were rare and highly sensitive, only occurring where a high degree of trust was established in the group. It is not possible to quantify the extent to which such views were held, but what emerged for some was the real feeling that it was indeed hard to include some parents whose lifestyles were at odds with generally accepted social norms within the community (or at least, not so importantly with the school’s basic expectations but the norms of the community of which they were physically a part). Including parents did not seem to be an issue where their children had learning difficulties, or if the parents themselves were disabled, or where parents were of a different ‘race’, religion, or cultural heritage or where their first language was different from that of the practitioners in the setting. ‘Neglectful’ parents, is seemed were the hardest to include. It was particularly striking that, on the whole, practitioners held positive attitudes towards families and talked about making particular efforts involve parents, but that occasionally some practitioners ‘felt’ they less  positive towards parents who behaved in ways which might, ultimately, put their children ‘at risk’, socially, emotionally or physically.

Participants who expressed such views talked of their ‘guilt’ at holding and expressing such views and talked of their awareness of the importance of making significant personal effort not to discriminate against what they termed ‘neglectful’ parents who seemed to regard their children as a ‘nuisance’.



This study has presented and discussed practitioners’ ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ definitions of inclusion in the early years and has identified, through their many personal accounts and discussions, their personal and specific beliefs about inclusion. In conclusion we wish to draw attention to three points: the ‘rightness’ of inclusion; finding ways to talk about difficult things and the personal willingness of practitioners to be broadly inclusive.

The ‘rightness’ of inclusion

All practitioners who participated in the study confirmed that the various policies which underpin their work were moving them, at different rates, in the direction of inclusion and diversity and there was a sense in the overall tone of the various responses that this was a ‘good thing’, indeed one conversation focused specifically on the rightness of inclusive policies, concluding that inclusion of all was not about ‘political correctness’ but about social justice.   This view was tempered by issues of practicality which were encaptured in the ‘Yes – but’ factor.

Finding ways to talk about difficult things

We were struck by the openness of participants and by their willingness to discuss some difficult and complex issues.  Reflecting on the process, one interview participant said:

Hearing what other people felt made it possible for me to admit how I really felt about things. Sometimes, you’re afraid to say… well, you’re reluctant to admit that, well… that it’s not easy to involve all parents – or include all children. It’s important that people can talk  about the difficult things and sometimes say difficult things because it is really only if we can really admit how we feel that we can begin to address those bits of our thinking that hold prejudice and make us discriminatory in our practices.

All practitioners seemed to want to address their expressed prejudices and all felt that they could only do so in ‘safe’ circumstances, where it was clearly understood that practitioners were sharing personal responses and experiences in the spirit of seeking to be more inclusive in their practices.

Personal willingness to be broadly inclusive

A personal willingness to include children and their families seemed, for some, to be matched with despair and lack of support or knowledge or confidence in their own abilities and, in some cases, in systems and structures which were not supporting inclusive policies. Whilst many practitioners began their discussions by identifying with a relatively narrow view of inclusion, many – in conversation with others and with us – moved their positions to consider a broader view of inclusion.   The general consensus seemed to be that inclusion was the ‘right’ thing for young children and that the challenge was to create environments and systems where all had a place. As one participant put it:

‘Talking like this has really made me think – I’m so much more aware of my own position on inclusion now and – I think – more conscious of my own inclusive and exclusionary practices – so, even though some of it has been quite uncomfortable,  talking like this is a really positive thing.


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