Assessing the Merits of the Theory of Inclusive Special Education







As a general principle, educators strive to create inclusive learning environments to accommodate learners from different abilities (Florian, 2008). The current ethic assumption is the right to inclusive education for persons with disabilities: inclusive education meaning that students, regardless of ability can become part of the school community (Ainscow, 2007). Additionally, students with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), who do not respond well to “mainstream” education, also have the right to specialized educational programs, termed special education. Both special and inclusive approaches to education are committed to supporting students with SEND; however, with their contrasting approaches, the relative merits of these approaches have been debated for decades. Hornby (2015) attempts to reconcile these two theories of education with a new theory called: inclusive special education, comprising a synthesis of both special and inclusive education approaches. The aim of this essay is assess the benefits of adopting an inclusive special education approach and to address some of the concerns associated with this approach. First, this essay will provide an overview of the controversy surrounding special versus inclusive education approaches and demonstrate the need for a new approach: special inclusive education. This essay will then evaluate the merit of this theory based on three criteria: 1. Does the theory adequately prepare children for adult life after school? 2.  Do the goals of this program align with desires from parents and special educators? 3. Are there adequate financial and human resources to support this program? Based on these criteria, a final section will argue that the theory of special inclusive education warrants more research, as it has great potential to foster more opportunities for social and academic development in students with SEND than in any of the other approaches.

Literature Review – Clarifying the Difference Between Inclusive and Special Education

One of the most hotly debated issues regarding the education of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) is that of inclusion (Hornby, 2015). The concept of inclusive education has come to mean many things to educators (Hornby, 2015). It can be used specifically to reference for example the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools, but could also apply to a broad notion of social inclusion as used by governments to discuss strategies for accommodating student diversity (Ainscow, 2007). Although many programs state that they teach philosophies of inclusion, they separate education programs into distinct categories of general and special (Wysocki, 2016). Linton (2010) notes that, “These are justified as: ‘special education’, by its structure and definition, places disability as the major defining variable of learners” (p. 9). Despite the fact that both mainstream and special education programs share the goal of improving instruction for all students, many scholars note that there is a separate culture existing between special education and general education students (Florian, 2008; Reynolds, Wang & Walberg, 1984). In fact, special needs education can allow students with learning difficulties to be both included in and excluded from school activities and learning experiences available to other children of similar ages (Florian, 2008). Due to this somewhat paradoxical nature of special education, many educators have taken an interest in “inclusive education” programs as a way of integrating students from both classrooms (Florian, 2008).

Inclusion (sometimes referred to as “mainstreaming”) refers to intentional placement of students with SEND in regular education classrooms (Hornby, 2015). It is based on the principle that local schools should be able to provide for all children, regardless of ability. Proponents of full inclusion suggest that children should be included in their mainstream schools throughout their schooling to maximize integration into the community as adults (Hornby, 2015). Some inclusion advocates go as far as to say that special education systems should be rejected entirely (Booth, 1998). In contrast to this view, Fuchs and Fuchs (1994) argue that including students with high levels of SEND means that teachers are required to direct inordinate attention to a few individuals, thereby decreasing the amount of time and energy directed toward the rest of the class. Therefore, the range of abilities may be too great for one teacher to adequately teach, and the learning development for other students may be impacted. Fuchs and Fuchs (1994) note that those that believe in full inclusion are urged to put their specific needs of individual first and to compromise education for students in the mainstream program. Cooper and Jacobs (2011) in fact argue that inclusive education is misplaced ideology that is actually harmful for learning, noting that, “Ironically, the promotion of the delusion that being present in a school equates with being socially and educationally included is one of the most dishonest and insidious forms of exclusion” (p. 6). Furthermore Florian (2008) notes the danger of narrow conceptualizations of the term “inclusion”, where it could be interchanged with “special”, thus rendering the term meaningless.


The debate continues over which of these two educational approaches for students with SEND provides them the most benefits. Clearly both approaches share a common goal of supporting students. On the one hand, special education allows for modified learning environments customized to the student, but potentially at the expense of students integration into their social environment (Salend, 2011). On the other hand, inclusive education may succeed in involving a student in a mainstream-learning environment, but potentially at the expense of their development or the learning for the rest of the children in the classroom (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994). Hornby (2015) argues that a new approach is needed, and proposes a movement towards inclusive special education. This theory aims to synthesize philosophies, policies and practices from both approaches into a new more effective approach.

The term inclusive special education was first coined in Finland, describing their education system, which provided part time special education to about 22% of children, and full time special education to 8% of children (Takala et al., 2009). With the goal of marrying special education with inclusive education, this approach provides students with SEND with customized learning environments according to their needs, with the goal of incorporating as many students as possible into mainstream schooling (Hornby, 2015). The ultimate aim of this program is for students with SEND to be included in their community after leaving school (Hornby, 2015). The primary advantage of such a program is the ability to allow a student to remain in the regular classroom setting at all times. Students with IEP’s are provided with accommodations within the regular classroom setting, theoretically minimizing disruption of the students’ participation in school activities (Hornby, 2015).

There is a continuum of placement options for students with SEND according to this theory. This is important so that there can be movement between different placements in order to allow the child appropriate accommodations throughout all stages of their schooling (Hornby, 2015). Hornby (2015) highlights a non-exhaustive continuum of placements for students with special needs, and includes:

  • Mainstream class with differentiation of work by the class teacher;
  • Mainstream class with guidance for the teacher provided by a specialist a teacher;
  • Mainstream class with support for the pupil from a teaching assistant;
  • Mainstream class with some time spent in a resource room;
  • Special class within a mainstream school;
  • Special class that is part of a special school but is attached to a mainstream school
  • Special school which is on same campus as a mainstream school;
  • Special school on a separate campus;
  • Residential special school on its own campus (p. 15)

Through an inclusive special education program, a child may start in an early intervention program along with other children with high levels of special needs, and then later transfer to a mainstream primary school class, where a dedicated staff member supports them (Hornby, 2015). Conversely, a student may start in a special school and later be transferred to a resource room or a mainstream classroom with specialist support (Florian, 2015). Thus, Hornby (2015) states that at certain points in a child’s school career, they may participate in full inclusion or full segregation, but are not destined to stay in that environment until they graduate; rather they may be reassessed and potentially reassigned depending on their needs.


In some ways inclusive special education seems ideal, as it appears to merge best practices from two other well-researched approaches. The merit of this theory will be evaluated in the next few paragraphs, with the aim to show that it has the potential to provide huge benefits to students with SEND, but that the practical implications for this concept may require further research to ensure that appropriate and adequate interventions are delivered without inadvertently harming other students learning.

Criteria 1 – Does the Theory Adequately Prepare Children for Adult Life After School?

The major goal of education for children with SEND (as with all other children) is for students to become productive citizens with the social and practical skills to participate in their communities throughout their adult life (Hornby, 2015). Those in favor of full inclusion resist the notion of out-of-community SEND placement because it can remove the child from the community they live (Salend, 2011). Consequently, they are concerned that the child won’t be fully included within their community during school and once they graduate. They advocate that children should thus be included in their local mainstream school for the entirety of their school career. However, Warnock (2010) notes that for some children with SEND, their local school may not have the capacity to provide appropriate interventions. Thus, certain placements that remove them from their school or community are intentionally done to facilitate the best interventions for the student, such that they better integrate into their community as adults (Warnock, 2010).

The success of segregated placements was demonstrated in a study by Panerai et al. (2009), who assessed effectiveness of three different educational approaches for students with autism. The first approach was a treatment and education of autistic and related communication handicapped children (TEACCH) program applied in a special school; the second was an inclusive education in a mainstream school (not specifically designed for children with autism); the third was a TEACCH program that occurred partly at home and partly in a mainstream school program. The study assessed students’ cognitive performance, perception and hand-eye coordination and communication skills over a three-year period. Their results confirmed previous findings (Panerai et al., 2002) that implementing a TEACCH program, whether they were in special education or in the integrated mainstream and homeschooling program, was more effective than programs that were inclusive, but not specifically designed for children with autism. This is one example of how environmental organization of school programs can be used to tailor learning objectives to the students needs. In particular, the natural home-school setting from the third program allowed for many normal day events, and opportunities for students to practice communication, social and daily living skills (Benson et al., 2008).

Hornby (2015) notes that inclusive special education has the flexibility to incorporate best practices from both special and inclusive education approaches. The focus is on effectively including as many students with SEND as possible in mainstream schools, with the goal of maximizing learning opportunities for academic and especially social development. These include using strategies such as assistive technologies, peer tutoring co-operative learning and home schooling (Hornby, 2011). Another example is the Miller Method, which is an intervention that addresses children’s body organization, social interaction and communication issues in both clinical and classroom settings (Miller & Miller, 2002). This involves interventions in both the child’s home (e.g. signed language) and the classroom (use of instructional equipment) to help children with ASD to assess and respond to the outside world. This critical skill could develop under a flexible system such as inclusive special education, allowing learners to a focus on their strengths and develop weakness in safe and structure settings. Clearly, students with SEND could benefit from placements in multiple environments more so than if they were forced to remain just in a classroom setting or just in a special school.

Criteria 2: Do the Goals of this Program Align with Desires from Parents and Special Educators?

Ideologically, this theory works very well as it pays special attention to the changing academic and social needs of the SEND student (Hornby, 2015). Yet, it is unclear whether parents of children with SEND would be supportive of this new approach. Hornby (2011) notes that to provide the best education for children with SEND, schools must optimize parental involvement so as to develop the best interventions for the child. However, Fuchs and Fuchs (1994) argue that inclusion of students within special needs students actually hinders student development. They note that parents may be opposed to general education for their child with special needs, and may actually be interested in specific out of classroom options. For example, an autism advocate, Bernard Rimland (1993) writes:

“I have no quarrel with [full] inclusionists if they are content to insist upon inclusion for   their children. But when they try to force me and other unwilling parents to dance to their         tune, I find it highly objectionable and quite intolerable” (p. 3). According to Warnock et           al. (2010), “What is manifest good in society, and what it is my right to have… may not            be what is best for me as a schoolchild.” (p. 36)

Lieberman and McLaughlin (1992) notes that many advocates of children with disabilities (primarily parents) have spent significant time advocating for resources and appropriate services for their children.  Therefore, they are not interest in new programs as they have already worked hard to find something that works for their child. Although this does not mean that inclusive special education cannot be effective for many students with SEND, it does mean that educators and policy makers need to be sensitive to the needs and wishes of family members when designing education programs for children with SEND. This complication ties into Criteria 3 in that often times it is difficult to access adequate resources to support children with SEND.

Criteria 3: Are there Adequate Financial and Human Resources to Support this Program?

A final challenge that arises with a movement towards Inclusive Special Education is securing trained staff and adequate resources. Terzi (2010) notes that there is no agreement on a satisfactory funding model to support students with disabilities. At first glance, special education classrooms may appear more expensive, and thus inclusive education programs potentially merge funding. Yet, factoring in the cost of support staff such as occupational or speech therapy into mainstream schools rather than one special school may result in little actual difference (Terzi, 2010). Hornby (2015) notes that developing and facilitating special schools and integrated programs for SEND students may be costly in the short term; however, he argues that there is a greater coast to society if these children do not acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes to achieve independence after they leave school. Therefore, the burden to society in the long term may be less (Hornby, 2015).

Another large challenge to overcome is effectively integrating these special and general education systems. Hornby (2015) notes that there are two roles of special schools for inclusive special education. The first is that they provide special education for children with severe levels of SEND, and whose needs cannot be met in mainstream schools. Additionally, they may assist mainstream schools to support children with more moderate levels of SEND (Elkins, 2012). This theory requires good communication between special and general educators in order to merge programs and develop a variety of placements that suit the individual needs of the students. However, Wysocki (2016) notes that many teachers feel they are ill prepared to teach students with disabilities. This is concerning for special education professionals and parents as moving students around to different programs or placements may also result in transfer between quality of service and deliver.

Moreover, Fuchs and Fuchs (2000) note that there are major problems with the special education system as it is currently practiced, as there is little documentation of the effectiveness of interventions for students with SEND. There is consequently not enough evidence that special education teachers move students along the continuum of special education placements (e.g. resource room to regular classroom) (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2000). The issues with lack of adequate teacher training and accountability clearly needs to be addressed if inclusive special education is to be effective.


            There are clear benefits to moving towards inclusive special education approaches. If implemented correctly the theory has the potential to meet Criteria 1 as it focuses on providing the learning environment for the child that optimizes opportunities for social and academic interventions. Clearly, shifting to this approach will require enhanced communication among school facilitators in order to address the logistical challenges of students in multiple placements (Wysocki, 2016). Additionally, as mentioned in the discussion of Criteria 3, there are likely to be challenges with ensuring quality interventions are delivered and that students are properly assessed for the placement and interventions needed (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2000). Furthermore Hornby (2015) does not fully address how funding could be acquired to support the development and implementation of extra classrooms, schools, home support, technologies and staff needed to support students in various placements. Consequently, this theory requires more development from other researchers as well as support from policy makers in order to be implemented effectively.



Hornby’s 2015 paper is a good first step towards fleshing out a theory of special inclusive education. This is certainly a mechanism through which more children with SEND can be accommodated and set up for success in adult life. This paper succeeds in generating a new vision for special education; yet more research is desperately needed in order to address concerns such as the lack of adequate funding as well as the reality of the state of special education accountability. Future research should focus on approaches that combine strategies from inclusive and special education methods.










Ainscow, M. (2007). From special education to effective schools for all: A review of        progress so far. The Sage handbook of special education (pp. 146-159). Sage Publishing.

Benson, P., Karlof, K. L., & Siperstein, G. N. (2008). Maternal involvement in the education of   young children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 12(1), 47-63.

Booth, T. (1998). From “special education” to “inclusion and exclusion in education.” In P.Huang & J. Tøssebro (Eds.) Theoretical perspectives on special education (pp43-60). Kristiansand Høyskole Forlaget: Norwegian Academic Press.

Cooper, P., & Jacobs, B. (2011). From inclusion to engagement: Helping students engage with    schooling through policy and practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Florian, L. (2008). Inclusion: Special or inclusive education: Future trends. British

            Journal of Special Education, 35(4), 202-208.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (1994). Inclusive schools movement and the radicalization of special    education reform. Exceptional Children, 60(4), 294-309.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2000). Inclusion versus full inclusion. In W.L. Heward (Ed.), Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (6th ed.) (pp. 72-74). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Hornby, G. (2011). Inclusive education for children with special educational needs: A      critique. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 58(3), 321-         329.

Hornby, G. (2015). Inclusive special education: Evidence-based practices for children with         special needs and disabilities. Springer.

Lieberman, A., & McLaughlin, M. W. (1992). Networks for educational change: Powerful and    problematic. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(9), 673.

Linton, S. (2010). Reshaping disability in teacher education and beyond. Teaching Education,     6(2), 9-20.

Miller, A. & Miller, E.E.-M. (2002). The Miller method®: A cognitive-developmental systems     approach for children on the autism spectrum. The Miller Method. Retrieved from

Panerai, S., Ferrante, L., & Zingale, M. (2002). Benefits of the treatment and education of            autistic and communication handicapped children (TEACCH) programme as     compared with a non‐specific approach. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research,          46(4), 318-327.

Panerai, S., Zingale, M., Trubia, G., Finocchiaro, M., Zuccarello, R., Ferri, R., & Elia, M.            (2009). Special education versus inclusive education: The role of the TEACCH program. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(6), 874-882.

Reynolds, M. C., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (1987). The necessary restructuring of special   and regular education. Exceptional Children, 53(5), 391-398.

Rimland, B. (1993). Inclusive education: Right for some. Autism Research Review            International, 7(1), 3.

Salend, S. J., & Garrick Duhaney, L. M. (2011). Chapter 1 Historical and philosophical    changes in the education of students with exceptionalities. In History of special     education (pp. 1-20). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Warnock, M., & Norwich, B. (2010). Special educational needs: A new look. Bloomsbury            Publishing. Retrieved         from

Takala, M., Pirttimaa, R., & Törmänen, M. (2009). RESEARCH SECTION: Inclusive special      education: The role of special education teachers in Finland. British Journal of Special           Education, 36(3), 162-173.

Terzi, L. (2010). Afterword: Differences, equality and the ideal of inclusion in education. In         L. Terzi (Hrsg.), Special educational needs. A New Look (pp. 143-164). London: Continuum.

Wysocki, C. D. (2016). The collaboration of general and special education in a teacher   preparation program design: A case study. Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State           University.


One thought on “Assessing the Merits of the Theory of Inclusive Special Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s