Many factors feed into the design of a truly inclusive education system. Some factors shape the way education systems are set up, such as laws and policies or governance and finance mechanisms. Others operate inside the school walls, in the shape of curricula and learning materials, but also teachers, school leaders and education support personnel. The right community spirit and parental engagement are vital for enabling an inclusive education system to function correctly.

The 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education will cover each of these factors in turn, identifying factors contributing to full inclusion, or exclusion, of learners, and helping balance the books for all. But the central role of teachers for accommodating students of all abilities and backgrounds is clear – and had also emerged in the context of our 2019 report, Building Bridges, not Walls, which focused on migration and displacement.

We learnt in our research last year that socio-economic, ethnic, cultural diversity is on the rise along with the diversity of needs of potential learners.  The 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) has recently  showed us that the percentage of teachers teaching in classes with more than 10% of students whose first language is different from the language of instruction ranged from 2% in Japan and Hungary to 50% in the United Arab Emirates, 58% in Singapore and 62% in South Africa. 

But not many teachers are trained to deal with such diversity. In OECD countries, on average, a little more than one-third of teachers (35%) reported that their formal teacher education or training covered teaching in multicultural and multilingual settings.  This varies from over 70% of more teachers receiving such training in the United States, Singapore and New Zealand for example to less than 25% receiving such training in France, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Even when they are trained, only just over one-fourth felt well or very well prepared to teach in such settings.

A review of initial and continuing teacher education for diversity content across 49 countries found that just over 30% of the programmes were government-supervised, offered or funded. The other programmes were provided by universities, teachers’ unions, and non-government and private organizations. About 63% of the government programmes, but hardly any of the others, were mandatory. Moreover, programmes emphasized general knowledge over practical pedagogy. Only one out of five programmes prepared teachers to anticipate and resolve intercultural conflicts or be familiar with psychological treatment and referral options for students in need, which our recent paper showed was so urgently needed by many.  

If teachers do not have training, they will not have the skills needed to re-orientate their pedagogy from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches. This requires programmes to be flexible; the intensity, content and timetables should suit individual needs and contexts. For example, among the skills identified as necessary for teachers of migrants is the ability to use materials that capture the daily challenges migrants encounter and the ability to teach oral language skills to low-literate adults. Teachers also need to be aware of how first-language competence affects literacy development in a second language. 

Alongside the skills that teachers may or may not have, the tone of teaching is almost as important. This is why school leaders’ and teachers’ motivation for and commitment to inclusive education are essential and should not be taken for granted, even in systems where teacher training for inclusion exists. There is no way that inclusionin education can be realized without teachers with inclusive attitudes, values and practices; without teachers committed to be the fuel for change and the advocates for a paradigm shift.

Ensuring the most vulnerable attend and complete school is only the first step towards inclusion. The main challenge in fully including them is to offer an education of high quality that ensures the prevention of prejudices, stereotypes and discrimination. However, a shift to an inclusive education system has considerable implications. It requires a strategy that covers a large range of interventions from curricula and pedagogic approaches to textbooks and, especially, teacher preparation and support. We look forward to exploring this in more depth over the course of the coming year in the development of the 2020 GEM Report, and count on teachers and their representative organisations’ support to relay its messages at its launch in March next year.

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Anna Cristina D'Addio is a Senior Policy Analyst in the GEM Report team at UNESCO since March 2017. Prior to this position, Anna worked at the OECD on a comprehensive list of issues ranging from financial education and literacy, inequality, poverty, the intergenerational transmission of education, ageing, social protection, the life course approach to social policy. Before joining the OECD Anna was a research professor in micro-econometrics applied to labour market/education issues.