A Practice of Inclusion as the Transcendence of Models of Assimilation and Integration

Bernie Sullivan

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A paper presented at the Educational Studies Association of Ireland Conference at University College, Cork, March 10-12, 2005 as part of the symposium

The transformative potentials of our self-studies for a new epistemology of scholarship in our university


In this paper, I demonstrate how I hold myself accountable for my work as I generate my own living educational theory of practice, which takes as a core criterion the ideas of inclusionality with justice. My research centres on my work with Traveller children, in particular around the issue of the quality of educational provision for these children. My experience in this area has indicated to me that Traveller children, in common with other minority groups, often suffer the effects of marginalisation and alienation in their attempts to participate in the educational system (O Boyle, 1990; Connell, 1993; Kenny, 1997). Such a situation is a denial of my values of social justice and equality for all pupils. I am experiencing myself as a living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989) when my values of justice and inclusion are denied in my practice. This situation has led me to seek a new form of framework for educational provision that values all participants equally. In agreement with Dewey, I believe that the ultimate aim of society is ‘the production (sic) of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality’ (in Chomsky, 1994: 1). Among the conceptual frameworks that I adopted for my research is the concept of inclusion, which appears, in the present climate of political correctness, to have gained currency in relation to the treatment of minority, disabled or disadvantaged groups within the educational system (Government of Ireland, 1999). The concept, therefore, seems to have gained acceptance at the level of rhetoric, but my concern is about how the rhetoric translates into practice and how it is manifested as the lived reality for my pupils.

A policy of inclusion is often promoted as the panacea that will ensure an end to marginalisation and alienation, and to the unjust treatment of some segments of society. It is envisaged that inclusion will grant to all a sense of sharing and of belonging. However, I feel that, while the concept of inclusion promises much in the way of justice and equality, very often the practice does not always reflect these high ideals, rendering the realisation of the concept somewhat problematic. For example, some schools claim to be inclusive, though the practice of inclusion is often limited to simply accepting children from marginalised groups into the school. I believe, therefore, that the idea of inclusion needs some explication and discussion, to ensure that there is some agreement as to what exactly this idea is meant to convey, and to determine whether the concept is actually realised in practice. A criterion that could help to clarify whether a practice exemplifies the idea of genuine inclusion might be, are all treated equally in accordance with democratic principles, or does the dominant group determine the conditions that the minority groups have no option but to accept?

I wish first of all to discuss some of the models of inclusion that currently inform practice. I believe that inclusion needs to be grounded in principles of social justice and equality if it is to be democratic, emancipatory and life affirming for all. I propose, therefore, to endeavour to discover which, if any, of these propositional theories of inclusion have the transformative potential to be realised in real-life practice. I will also refer to my own educational practice as a Resource Teacher for Travellers (RTT) and demonstrate how I succeeded in transforming that practice into a democratic and emancipatory space for the Traveller children with whom I work. In the process, I was also engaged in generating my own theory of practice. I will refer to the practices within an after school club, in the organisation of which I cooperated with Winnie McDonagh from Traveller Education Support Options (TESO). Finally, I will outline the manner in which the after school club, that came into existence as a specific space for encouraging Traveller children to transfer to second level schooling, expanded its boundaries to include settled children in a spirit of mutual integration and cooperation, becoming in the process a model of what I understand to be genuine inclusion. In offering accounts of my practice in this manner, I am putting forward my theory of practice for critical review.

Models of inclusion

At one level, the idea of inclusion appears to refer to the practice of accepting diverse groups into the mainstream, though without making any specific efforts to allow for differences in cultural beliefs and practices. In this way, a minority group can become absorbed into the majority group, losing the sense of a separate identity in the process. The norms and customs of the dominant majority group become the accepted rules of practice or regulatory principles for governing the expanded group (Noddings, 1992; Young, 2000; Conaty, 2002). In reality, this is a form of assimilation, masquerading as inclusion, and can result in the annihilation of the minority group’s sense of self (Gur-Ze’ev, 2003). There is little recognition of the minority group’s right to a separate existence, or its right to self-determination. The aim of such assimilationist policies seems to be to achieve homogeneity through the suppression of diversity. This situation denies to the minority group the right to equality of participation. It is not, therefore, grounded in principles of social justice and so it does not fulfil the criteria that I have identified for genuine inclusion. In relation to conflict resolution, McNiff (2003) makes a similar critique of approaches that are based on consensus rather than on an acceptance of diversity.

This model of inclusion is frequently used by Irish educational institutions that accept minorities, such as children from the Traveller community, into their establishments. Traveller children are expected to fit in to the existing system of cultural norms, beliefs and practices framed by the majority group, and to suppress or deny their own traditional cultural habits and customs. They are thus left in a state of relative powerlessness, since they do not possess what Bourdieu (1977) calls the ‘cultural capital’ of the majority group that would empower them to participate, on equal terms with the majority group, in the educational system. Conaty (2002) recognises the inequality and exclusionary nature of a model that attempts to assimilate minority groups when she states that there is an urgent need for a change in the educational system ‘so that schools may adapt to the needs of the marginalised as opposed to the expectation that the marginalised must always adapt to the needs of the school’ (2002: 25).

Another form of inclusion is based on the idea of integration. According to this model, efforts are made to create a feeling of unity through establishing a sense of sameness between the majority and minority groupings. There is less emphasis on maintaining the dominant position of the majority group and more of a focus on promoting the idea that both groups are of equal value and importance (Apple, 1996; Lynch, 1999). This model goes further than the assimilationist one in trying to achieve genuine inclusion, but it still falls short of this ideal in some respects. For example, in attempting to create a situation of equality, it pursues a policy of eliminating difference. The result is a state of sameness that remains problematic from the perspective of the minority group, since it continues to deny them recognition of a separate cultural identity. In the process, members of the minority group can be deprived of benefits such as community affiliation and cohesion that could result from their status as a distinct group. Young (2000) identifies some of the difficulties associated with integrationist policies when she says, ‘The policies promoting integration amount to removing individuals from their sources of solidarity and isolating them, further disempowering them’ (2000: 218).

The policy in some educational institutions, of attempting to treat all pupils the same, is manifested in the manner in which teachers choose to communicate with parents. This is usually accomplished through writing letters to all parents, taking no cognisance of the fact that some parents, such as Traveller parents, may be unable to read these letters. Educational institutions may argue that they are fulfilling the criteria for treating all pupils the same, but I would argue that they are not treating them equally. To treat all families equally would mean communicating with each family in a manner appropriate for that family, certainly sending letters to those who have no problems with literacy, but also communicating orally with those for whom written communication is not the most appropriate method. Noddings (1992) critiques the tendency in schools to treat all pupils the same when she says, ‘We may also mistakenly suppose that they want to live exactly as we do – that they want the same knowledge, the same kinds of work, the same forms of worship, the same daily customs’ (1992:116). I do not think, therefore, that a policy of inclusion, based on an interpretation as sameness, can ever achieve social justice or equality.

My practice of inclusion

As a result of what I perceived to be the failure of the two models of inclusion that I have outlined here, I turned to my own practice as a Resource Teacher for Travellers (RTT) in search of a more appropriate method of achieving a greater level of equality and mutuality of recognition between majority and minority cultures. The role of RTT is interpreted by many within the teaching profession as involving merely the provision of learning support for Traveller children. I have chosen to reject such a narrow definition of the role and instead to construe it as a two-dimensional one. It is two-dimensional in the sense that as well as providing supplementary learning for those who need it, I have also opted to reserve a space for the Traveller children to explore aspects of their culture and to discuss issues, such as discrimination and prejudice, that impinge negatively on their educational opportunities. In this way, I am claiming that I have provided Traveller children with the opportunity of experiencing their culture as a valued and valid one, within the schooling system, as well as enabling their voices to occupy, however briefly, the spaces usually reserved for the dominant voices. I can point to the evidence to support my claim in my written explanations for my practice (McDonagh and Sullivan, 2003; Sullivan, 2003; 2004a; 2004b; 2004c). My practice, therefore, reflected the fulfilment of my aim of living out my value of working within a framework of democratic principles. However, the element of inclusion was lacking, since these experiences occurred in a space that involved Traveller children only, and so I turn now to another area of my practice, which I regard as a transformation of the first one, to demonstrate the achievement of the practice of inclusion. I show how I have transformed my own thinking, in order to realise the potentials within my own practice for new forms of inclusional practices. I do this by presenting a short story of how this happened.

In 2003, I cooperated with Winnie McDonagh from Traveller Education Support Options (TESO) in setting up an after school club for Traveller children. As the initial aim of the club was to encourage Traveller children to transfer to second level schooling, something that many of them were reluctant to do, its membership at first consisted solely of Traveller children. My involvement in this initiative presented me with the opportunity of continuing my commitment to the value of lifelong education (Sullivan, 2000). The programme that we devised for the after school club focused on enabling the development of critical thinking skills and problem solving strategies on the part of the Traveller children. In this way, we hoped to encourage them to raise their own self-esteem, which could result in greater levels of participation in second level schooling. We also aimed to encourage them to develop self-confidence, so that they might persevere with their second level schooling, rather than drop out of the system, should they encounter difficulties, such as experiencing discrimination.

Once the club had been established on a firm footing, Winnie and I began to explore the possibility of opening up the club to some settled children who might also be at risk of dropping out of the educational system. This venture would provide the opportunity for Traveller and settled children to work together for a common purpose. However, when we put our proposal to the Traveller children, they were initially quite resistant to the idea. They perceived the club as their private space, where they could explore issues of concern to them in a safe and non-threatening environment. When I enquired as to what it was that caused them such anxiety, in relation to opening up the club to settled children, they replied, ‘They would laugh at us. They would make fun of the way we speak.’ I reassured them that the rules they had drawn up at the inception of the club, which included ‘Listen to what others have to say’ and ‘Have respect for other people’, would also apply to any new members of the club. They then agreed to try out our idea of inviting settled children into the club. Subsequently, two settled children accepted the invitation to join the club, and the process of integration that followed was smooth and non-problematic. From the beginning, both groups worked together as a unit, in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, and I do not recall a single incident where the relationship developed, or had the potential to develop, into a hostile them-and-us situation.

My theory of inclusion

My reflections on the opening up of the club to settled children led me to examine the processes and practices involved in this new situation, and to query whether the manner of setting up the new integrated club was influential for its success. My interpretation of the process that occurred is that the impetus for inclusion originated in the marginalised space, with the Traveller group inviting settled children to participate in what was originally their specific group. This process is the reverse of what usually occurs in the practice of inclusion in Irish educational institutions, where the minority group is integrated into the space already occupied by the majority group, and where, as I have already explained, the minority group is more or less absorbed into the majority group. By reversing the usual process, therefore, through locating the starting point of inclusion in the domain of the minority group, and by initially taking just two settled children into the group of six Traveller children, I believe that Winnie and I succeeded in avoiding the possibility of absorption of the minority group, who were now temporarily in the majority in the integrated club. The following quotation from a poem by Markham (1936) describes briefly but aptly the process of inclusion that occurred in opening up the club to settled children:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Outwitted Edward Markham (1936) in Billington and Pomerantz (2004)

Further reflection led to some other interesting insights into the concept of inclusion as defined in my practice in the after school club. Prior to the process of integration, the Traveller children had already developed a sense of solidarity and community through membership of the club. They had experienced feelings of self-confidence and empowerment through having their voices heard in their contributions to the dialogue that took place within the confines of the club. For example, C had the confidence to continue to hold her view that friendship and relationship were different concepts, when others in the group claimed they were the same, by stating, ‘You can be friendly with someone, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be in a relationship with that person. And you can be in a relationship with someone but you might not be good friends with the person’. They did not, therefore, feel disempowered or silenced when the two new members joined. In fact, they were more than willing to explain some of their cultural norms to the settled children, as when J explained the concept of ‘double cousins’ to R by saying, ‘If your father was married to your mother, and his brother was married to her sister, and if they had children, you’d be double cousins with them.’ On the other hand, the two new members, who belonged to the majority group within the normal school situation, did not feel threatened or marginalised by their temporary positionality as the minority group while participating in the activities of the club. R described her experience of joining the club as follows: ‘I did not feel a bit shy when I joined the club. Anyway, I used to talk to K (a Traveller child), so I knew her when I joined.’ The fact that the attendance of the two newcomers was excellent is also evidence of their successful integration into the club, and of the sense of belonging that they experienced within it. It would appear, then, that the two groups were approaching the fact of their participation in the club on an equal basis, in that neither could be considered powerless or in a position of inferiority. I suggest that this sense of equality that both groups experienced may have contributed to their successful integration in the reconstituted club. My theory of integration and inclusionality is grounded in my own capacity to develop such groups.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the role of the leadership in the process of integration in the club. Both Winnie and I were involved from the beginning, as equal partners, sharing responsibility and working together on devising programmes. It was a relationship based on cooperation and collaboration, with no issues around power or control, and we each represented one of the groups in our integrated club. Our relationship could be described in terms of the ‘I-Thou’ model of encounter proposed by Buber (1958). This, then, was the example of a working relationship that we presented to the children in the club, and I believe that it influenced them to adopt a similar model for the harmonious integration that occurred in the club. The experience of the children in this instance has the potential to influence the quality of their social interactions in the wider world. In this manner, I believe that we were contributing to what Whitehead (2004) refers to as the education of social formations.

I submit, therefore, that the model of inclusion, as exemplified in the after school group described here, is a more socially just model than either the model of assimilation, which denies difference, or the model of integration, which seeks to eliminate difference. The model that I have proposed, on the contrary, is based on the premise of acknowledging the differences of both groups within a framework of equality and social justice. This means that each group recognises and accepts the difference in culture, language, beliefs and practices of the other group, and so the existence of elements of difference is less likely to become an issue or a cause of friction between the groups.


The concept of inclusion, then, has little chance of achieving fulfilment when it begins in the majority space and expands to embrace the minority group. From this standpoint, it appears to accomplish either assimilation or, at best, the semblance of integration. The epistemologies underpinning such an approach suggest that the majority group is thus best placed to absorb the minority group into its structures and practices. In contrast, I am arguing that for genuine inclusion to occur, the process of integration must begin from the marginalised space and move gradually towards including members of the majority group. In this way, issues of power and domination have less chance of becoming factors that interfere with the process of inclusion. I believe, therefore, that the practice of inclusion is more likely to achieve success if it is based on principles of social justice and equality of respect for all participants.

In documenting the processes involved in developing my theory of inclusion, I have traced the narrative of my own learning. Through reflecting on my practice with the aim of improving it, I began to interrogate the assumptions underpinning that practice. The learning that resulted from my reflection enabled me to propose new forms of practice and to theorise the emergent practice. I believe that this development was possible because of the methodology that I adopted in my research. I opted to employ an action research approach, and to engage in self-study practitioner enquiry, as proposed by McNiff, with Whitehead (2002). Through this methodology, I was able to engage in cycles of self-reflection and action that led to the critique of my own thinking, as well as of current models of inclusion, and to the development of a new theory of inclusionary practice. In this manner, theory and practice were integrated in my research, in accordance with the new scholarship of educational enquiry proposed by Schön (1995), which posits the idea of the teacher as researcher. I believe that the significance of my research lies in understanding that the process of my learning enabled me to reconceptualise my practice as a space of genuine inclusion, based on principles of social justice and equality. Furthermore, I would suggest that my research could influence other educational practitioners towards interrogating and critiquing their practices as a means of improving them, and that it might inspire them to hold themselves accountable, as I do, for ensuring that their practices become sites for their own learning and development.


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