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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

News: Inclusive learning and teaching: Lessons from the last two decades


On 28th June 2017, the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, held its one day conference on 'Inclusive Learning and Teaching: Lessons from the last two decades'.

The event brought together more than 100 researchers, policymakers and practitioners from around the world concerned with supporting teachers in raising learning outcomes for children from diverse backgrounds, particularly for children from poor households, girls, and children with disabilities.

Set against the backdrop of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in which inclusive learning has been given a global focus for the first time, the conference sought to recognise the central role of teachers in achieving education goals, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

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Inclusive learning & teaching illustration

The event explored key highlights from two decades of research and provided an opportunity for both qualitative and quantitative researchers to come together to try and address the issue of teacher effectiveness within the context of the challenges of the Global South.

Common themes discussed at the conference covered:

  • Understanding ‘inclusivity’: Participants noted shifts in how inclusivity is understood, ranging from a particular focus on disability specifically, to broadening to including all groups who are in danger of being excluded, taking account for example that those from poor backgrounds face particular challenges. Recognition is increasing that different forms of exclusion are often inter-linked and need to be tackled simultaneously.
  • Teacher preparation and practices in the early years: There was much discussion on the need for quality teaching systems and a requirement to focus on teaching from the early years. The role of parents was highlighted with some asking: have we designed an education system for first generation learners? And a clear agreement that early childhood education is vital but under-funded.
  • Supporting teachers: Discussions centred on the need to move away from a deficit discourse on teachers but rather to identify their achievements often in very challenging circumstances. 
  • Learning assessments: Assessments are not fit for purpose, and it is not always clear what is being measured. Assessments continue to show that learning levels are low. There is greater acknowledgement that assessment data - and research processes associated with them - needs to be demystified and made more inclusive.  At the same time, simply identifying whether a child answers a question correctly does not provide information on their understanding of the question.


Ziauddin Yousafzai

Ziauddin Yousafzai
Ziauddin Yousafzai
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Ziauddin Yousafzai
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Ziauddin Yousafzai

A highlight of the event was a moving address by Ziauddin Yousafzai,  Advisor to UN Special Envoy for Global Education and father of Nobel Laureate Malala, who spoke passionately on the inspiration of teachers. He stressed how teaching can – and should - be made more inclusive, particularly in challenging contexts. Drawing from his own personal experiences in Pakistan, he urged delegates to continue on in the fight for inclusivity and be workers for education: the role of the Great Teacher is to make you believe in yourself so you can ignite passion in others.” 

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the REAL Centre said:The event was a great opportunity for researchers, policymakers and practitioners to come together to identify ways to support teachers facing increasing diversity in the classroom. Too often we focus on the teaching deficit but we should be supporting teachers rather reinforcing negativity.” 

"The event was a great opportunity both to learn about the latest evidence on inclusive learning and teaching, as well as to connect with key thinkers to ensure the connection of this evidence with policymaking. The overall messages of the conference were really inspiring, but also underlined scale of the challenge to reach the goals we have set ourselves, particularly given the huge numbers of first generation learners entering school for the first time," said Laura Savage, Education Advisor, DFID. 

REAL Centre conference delegates

REAL Centre conference delegates

A number of ESRC-DFID grant holders spoke at the event including Elena Schmidt of Sightsavers whose work, in partnership with the University of Birmingham, focuses on early childhood development and education, special educational needs and disability in Malawi.

REAL Centre members were joined by project partners CORD in India and IDEAS in Pakistan to present initial findings of the DFID-ESRC funded TEACH Teaching Effectively All Children (TEACh) project which seeks to identify strategies to raise learning outcomes for all children including those facing multiple disadvantages related to disability, poverty and gender. Nidhi Singal, of the REAL Centre, said:“It was fantastic to present some of our initial findings and a great opportunity for us to have some first reflections on our data. It was important to bring tgether both qualitative classroom explorations with more quantitative measures of teacher effectiveness and to connect and network with others who are also using a mixed-method approach.”

Rabea Malik, of IDEAS Pakistan said: “The processes of teaching and learning, what goes on in classrooms in contexts are still very opaque, particularly for contexts such as Pakistan. This event gathered organisations and individuals who've been working in this area in a variety of contexts and for a number of years. Not only that, the issue of pedagogical practice in the most challenging classrooms was approached from a number of different perspectives. Hearing evidence, but also experiences of generating that evidence, was tremendously helpful.” 

The event was sponsored by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE).

You can view a recording of the event here.