PublicationsSystematic reviewsPromoting participationPromoting participation - summary
A systematic review of the effectiveness of school-level actions for promoting participation by all students. Summary


Inclusive education has become a major issue in both international and national education debates. It is also a central concern for local education authorities, school leaders and teachers. Despite - or perhaps because of - this interest, however, there is currently some confusion around the issue. There are, for instance, many competing definitions of inclusive education. There is also a difficulty in much of the literature in disentangling the advocacy of more inclusive approaches from the evidence as to how such approaches can be sustained and what their consequences are for students.

Aims of review and review question

This review aims to clarify some of these issues by identifying and evaluating the empirical evidence around the question of what schools can do to become more inclusive, in the particular sense of maximising the participation of all students in their cultures, curricula and communities. Our concern in undertaking the review was therefore with responses, not to one or other group of students, but to student diversity per se. Likewise, we were concerned with what schools can do, not merely to maintain the presence of students in school but to maximise their participation in school life. Finally, we were interested in the wide-ranging actions which schools can take to make themselves more inclusive in this sense and not merely with minor adjustments which they can make to one or another aspect of their practice.

Our review question was therefore :

What evidence is there that mainstream schools can act in ways which enable them to respond to student diversity so as to facilitate participation by all students in the cultures, curricula and communities of those schools?

Answers to this question would, we believed, be of primary importance to those in leadership positions in schools. They would also be important to a wide range of other stakeholders both in this country and elsewhere: to parents and school students, to members of governing bodies, to those who support and challenge schools in local education authorities (LEAs), universities and elsewhere, to those who train teachers and contribute to the professional development of school leaders and to policy-makers who are responsible for setting the framework within which schools operate. With this in mind, we engaged a broad-based advisory group in the formulation of our question and the development of our review. This group included academics, head teachers, teachers, parents, LEA officers and a representative of a voluntary organisation.


Identifying and describing studies

Literature searches were undertaken to identify empirical research which might help to answer the review question. We sought in particular to locate studies which examined the effectiveness of school action in promoting participation and/or shed light on the process of implementing effective change efforts in this direction. We searched for relevant research published in English from the UK and internationally through bibliographic databases, handsearching of key journals, websites, personal contacts, and scanning the reference lists of already-identified relevant reports. Searches were conducted as far back as the dates available within each source. We decided against setting a specific cut-off date, given the different rates and directions of policy development in different countries and the inevitably arbitrary nature of any such date. We screened all the research papers identified by the searches against a set of inclusion/exclusion criteria to identify those papers which were focused on our concerns with participation, diversity and wide-ranging school action. Using standardised coding strategies, we described the research meeting our inclusion criteria according to its substantive focus (e.g. type of school, range of diversity in the student populations to which schools were responding, the aspects of participation they sought to promote and the range of school action being taken towards this end) and its methodology (e.g. type of study, methods of data collection).

Assessing methodological quality and synthesising findings

Data on the focus, methods and findings of each study were also extracted and coded using standard and review-specific tools. We synthesised these extracted data by searching for common themes and key differences which were relevant to our review question. In order to increase the trustworthiness of the review's findings, we derived the themes in the first instance from a smaller group of 'key' studies, selected for their centrality to the review's concerns and their methodological quality as judged against standard criteria. Data extraction, coding and assessment of methodological quality for each study were carried out by at least two of the reviewers independently, who then agreed a final version.


Description of research activity

The searches of databases, websites, key journals and other sources detailed in the search strategy produced a substantial quantity of potentially relevant literature - some 14,692 citations. Of these, 325 reports were deemed likely to meet our inclusion criteria on the basis of their title or abstract and were available within the relevant timeframe. Subsequent re-screening of full texts of these reports resulted in the identification of 49 reports that met our inclusion criteria. These reports went forward to the next stage in the review. At this stage, a further eight reports were excluded as they were judged on more detailed examination not to meet our inclusion criteria.

Of the 41 remaining reports, those relating to the same research study were linked to create a total of 27 'entities'. All studies focused on schools which were in the process of, or had undergone, change through their adoption of policies and/or their engagement with specific school improvement initiatives designed to enhance their responses to student diversity. The large majority (25) of studies investigated the structures and practices of schools through single or small number case studies involving field work in the schools themselves. The two other studies conducted an investigation of the impact of national policy 'at a distance' through a survey of teachers' views and understandings and consideration of how these might impact on practice in schools.

When examining the range of diversity, school action, and aspects of participation that studies focused on, it became clear that many studies simply reported on some aspect of diversity, action or participation while a smaller number presented what we judged to be detailed data. The latter group were, of course, more useful from our point of view.

Using the EPPI-Centre coding scheme for study types, we identified three outcome-and-process evaluations, five process evaluations and nineteen descriptive studies. Given our inclusion criteria, studies tended to focus on wide-ranging processes of school development. For this review, studies were only coded as 'interventions' (and therefore as process or outcome evaluations) where there was a clear, bounded and purposeful change, such as the implementation of a specific policy or practice. This, however, still resulted in some variation in categorisation between different reviewers and there was some overlap between the 'descriptive' and 'process evaluation' categories.

We identified studies which focused on all phases of schooling - primary/elementary, middle and secondary/high - and on combinations of these. The majority of studies (18) were conducted exclusively in either elementary/primary schools or secondary/high schools and were located in the UK or USA.

Methodological quality and synthesised findings

From the 27 included studies, we identified six which were judged to be 'key' in terms of their methodological quality and centrality to the review question. These went on to form the basis of findings and recommendations in this report. Although the key studies (and some others which were less central to the review question) represented high-quality research, we found many studies that were small-scale, non-cumulative, poorly designed or poorly reported. Even where methodological quality was acceptable, there might be assumptions built into the design which were not adequately challenged through the research process itself.

Given the diversity of studies in terms of setting, focus and conceptual framework, the findings of studies proved not to be complementary or cumulative in any obvious way. It was therefore necessary to synthesise findings from individual studies around inductively-derived themes. These were identified in the first instance from the key studies whose findings were considered both trustworthy and relevant. These themes were then used to interrogate the findings of the remaining studies.

Our review indicates that there is a limited, but by no means negligible, body of empirical evidence about the relationship between school action and the participation of all students in the cultures, curricula and communities of those schools. That evidence suggests the following:

  • Some schools are characterised by an 'inclusive culture'. Within such schools, there is some degree of consensus among adults around values of respect for difference and a commitment to offering all students access to learning opportunities. This consensus may not be total and may not necessarily remove all tensions or contradictions in practice. On the other hand, there is likely to be a high level of staff collaboration and joint problem solving, and similar values and commitments may extend into the student body and into parent and other community stakeholders in the school.
  • The extent to which such 'inclusive cultures' lead directly and unproblematically to enhanced student participation is not entirely clear from the research evidence. Some aspects of these cultures, however, can be seen as participatory by definition. For instance, respect from teachers towards diverse students may itself be understood as a form of participation by students in the school community. Moreover, schools characterised by such cultures are also likely to be characterised by forms of organisation (such as specialist provision being made in the ordinary classroom rather than by withdrawal) and practice (such as constructivist approaches to teaching and learning) which could be regarded as participatory by definition.
  • Schools with 'inclusive cultures' are also likely to be characterised by the presence of leaders who are committed to inclusive values and to a leadership style which encourages a range of individuals to participate in leadership functions.
  • Such schools are also likely to have good links with parents and with their communities.
  • The local and national policy environment can act to support or to undermine the realisation of schools' inclusive values.

Conclusions and recommendations

Implications for policy and practice

On the basis of this evidence, a number of recommendations for policy and practice can be made as follows:

  • Attempts to develop inclusive schools should pay attention to the development of 'inclusive' cultures and particularly, to the building of some degree of consensus around inclusive values in the school community.
  • Head teachers and other school leaders should be selected and trained in the light of their commitment to inclusive values and their capacity to lead in a participatory manner.
  • The external policy environment should be compatible with inclusive developments if it is to support rather than to undermine schools' efforts.
  • There are general principles of school organisation and classroom practice which should be followed: notably, the removal of structural barriers between different groups of students and staff, the dismantling of separate programmes, services and specialisms and the development of pedagogical approaches (such as constructivist approaches) which enable students to learn together rather than separately.
  • Schools should build close relations with parents and communities based on developing a shared commitment to inclusive values.

Recommendations for research

  • Given the problems with methodological quality noted above, there is a need for studies which are methodologically sound but which also test the extent of schools' inclusivity, draw on a wide range of evidence, focus on outcomes for students, trace links between actions and participation in detail, and make comparison between more- and less-inclusive schools. Such studies would also help to evaluate the recommendations for policy and practice outlined above.
  • There is a need for a more programmatic approach to research to overcome the limitations of a multiplicity of unrelated small-scale studies.
  • The lack of detail about methodology in much of the literature suggests that practices of research reporting need to change.
  • The systematic review process has proved powerful in enabling us to identify trustworthy empirical evidence in a field where such evidence tends to be embedded in conceptual development, advocacy and illustration. It should therefore become more firmly established in the research methodologies in education. However, it should not, in its current form, be seen as the only way to engage legitimately with research literature. In particular, narrative reviews and non-empirical forms of inquiry (such as theoretical development and conceptual analysis), which are not readily accessed through the sorts of systematic review processes in which we engaged, are important in a developing field such as inclusive education. Moreover, the development of policy and practice cannot always wait for evidence from systematic reviews.

Recommendations for the field

  • Inclusive education emerges from the review as a relatively young field which needs to develop a well-established empirical research base through a more co-ordinated approach than has hitherto been adopted.
  • Although empirical work has not always been a priority in the field, the literature on inclusive education is filled with claims which can and should be tested empirically.
  • Critical perspectives have played a powerful role in the development of the field, but are much less evident in attempts to reconstruct an inclusive alternative to special education and other segregating practices. We therefore recommend that these attempts too be subjected to critical scrutiny.
  • The inability, in many cases, of the research process to bring into question the assumptions that are built into the research design implies a need for researchers to be more willing to engage in such problematising work.

This report should be cited as: Dyson A, Howes A, Roberts B, (2002). A systematic review of the effectiveness of school-level actions for promoting participation by all students In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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