Inclusive school, the key to successful education


This paper addresses the topic of inclusive school as the key to successful education for everybody.  Today’s multifarious forms of problems related to diversity and manifesting themselves in classroom impose a change on the school: to outgrow uniform and straight organizational and teaching models in favor of a flexible approach that responds to the special learning needs of individual pupils. Quality of school is measured by its ability to develop inclusive learning processes, that is to say to provide adequate and effective answers to each and everyone. Through the analysis of the experience made in the school Oliver Twist in Como, this paper highlights the distinctive features of inclusive good practices which ultimately lead to deliver successful education for everyone, starting from the integration of disabled students. Acknowledging the value of diversity and differences as a resource is a challenge to the traditional role of the special education teacher, whose role in this school has evolved into the innovative profile of a co-teacher, thus extending the inclusive perspective to a competent special education framework.

  1. Background

Inclusion of differences is the school life topic that most animates the community of teachers, still today. The structure of classes reflects  today’s complex society and it is certainly more multifarious and pluralist than in the past. The presence of pupils with certified disabilities in the classes is a reality per se, classes also include pupils with Specific Learning Disorders (SLD), with critical psychosocial and/or family-related situations, or kids with disruptive behavior, or children of foreigners. Yet, faced with this difficult landscape, it almost looks like inclusion is the only catalyst for all the efforts to change, to turn teaching, school work, the emotional aspects of a relationship and learning into something more meaningful. Diversity is still today the focus of an evolutionary process for quality which is certainly difficult, problem-prone, hurting, and yet real. Ongoing and relentless search for quality in inclusion is, in fact, the search for quality in daily school practice for every pupil. A pupil with a “diversity” is a challenge every day and every day he/she demands quality.  The focus of this paper’s research is the experience made by the school Oliver Twist which represents a possible model for good inclusive school practices where pupils’ differences got transformed into a resource and are gradually driving change and innovation processes of teaching methodology and structure with the aim to deliver quality and successful education for everyone.

  1. Literature Review 

a. Inclusive school: the regulatory process

The history of inclusive school cannot be disjointed from that of the Italian school.  It was a long process: in the beginning, disabled pupils were segregated to private religious organizations (Casati Law 1859). Art. 3 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic (1947) reads: “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions” and outlines formal equality supported by substantial equality; this envisages the right to the dignity of the “person” who is entitled to enjoy conditions allowing him/her to fully perform his/her personal aptitudes.

In the second  comma, the Constitution emphasizes the fact that a statement of principles is not enough and everyone should enjoy the same opportunities  (…to remove those obstacles of social or economic nature impeding the full development of the human person).  

Art. 34 (schools are open to everyone…) introduced the principle of  equal  educational opportunities, but this only translated in separated educational paths, special education schools and differential classes (Ministerial Memorandum ’53) for a long time, which basically led to the age of segregation.

The decision to offer separated school courses was set under accusation in the Seventies, characterized by global protest against society; that’s when the school started to take its first steps and gradually open up  to acceptance.

A document issued by a committee chaired by Senator Falcucci in 1975 states the key principles behind what is now known as the inclusive school: collegiality, the key role of family, integrated service management, training of the teachers. Receiving pupils is not enough, in fact they should be integrated and take on the leading role.

Law nr. 517 dated 4 August 1977 stands out as a milestone in the history of Italian school as it abolished special education schools and made the determination to integrate pupils with disabilities in ordinary classes.

School attendance by disabled pupils in common schools was extended to second level secondary school in 1987.

Still, it is Law no. 104 dated 5 June, 1992, “Framework Law for assistance, social integration and rights of the disabled” that declares principles such as collegiality and interinstitutional cooperation as legal requirements.

The “educational care” of a disabled pupil is fulfilled through a personalized educational path participated by multiple institutional players, whereby enhancement of learning and autonomy are given priority over simple delivery of “education”.

Law no. 104/92 represents an important landmark on the way to inclusion, a time for consolidation and stimulus.

Ultimately, the Regulations on School Autonomy (Presidential Decree no. 275/99) establishes the right to a successful education for everyone, the School Reform Law no. 53/03 goes beyond that and enhances the right for all pupils to enjoy individualized learning paths.

Guidelines on integration of pupils with disabilities dated 2009 represent the document featuring Italy’s decision to adopt inclusion as an irreversible process, following the “daring” choice to open up “normal” classes so they could actually become “common” classes for everyone.

One of the most relevant steps in the regulatory area is undoubtedly the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, ratified by the Italian Parliament through Law no. 18/2009, which obliges  signatory states to provide for models of integration in ordinary classes, a requirement that is indeed specific to Italy.

The current orientation to the concept of disability is also presented; it is related to a “social model”, according to which the condition of a disabled person is the output between the person’s level of functioning and the social context he/she lives in, as per ICF definition (International Classification of Functioning). The ICF model goes by a biological-psychological-social classification, more functionally oriented than merely a clinical definition.

Therefore, Italy’s choice relating to inclusion of disabilities in common schools paved the road for all other forms of inclusion.

Guidelines on the right to education for pupils and students with Specific Learning Disability were published in July 2011, as enclosures to Minist. Decree no. 5669, enforcing Law no. 170/2010. The document abounds with methodology and teaching indications, aimed at delivering an effective intervention for pupils affected with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dysorthography, dyscalculia at various degrees of development.

It is worth noting that the methodology renewal intended to meet the “special” needs of pupils with SLD also successfully applies to all pupils in the class. In this respect, the transformation of didactics and methodology to ensure successful education for specific “categories” of pupils can turn into an opportunity for general quality improvement of school practice.

Directive dated 27 December 2012, “Active measures for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and community organizations for inclusion” underlines the fact that pupils needing special attention are present in every class for reasons that are not limited to the evident presence of an impairment certified as per Law 104/92.

The area of the disadvantaged includes situations with specific learning disorders, specific developmental disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, difficulties caused by belonging to different cultural or language circles… 

This intricate landscape involves all schools and also identifies the so-called school disadvantaged conditionsor Special Educational Needs, according to the internationally-acknowledged definition.

The Directive by MIUR (Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research) dated 27 December 2012 vividly appeals to the strong responsibility of the school for the “educational care” of pupils who are permanently or temporarily in a disadvantaged condition, thus pointing out a number of stringent measures aimed at delivering adequate and effective educational paths that promote everyone’s success in education.

The Directive does show some criticalities that have been largely addressed through memorandums and enforcement notes:

  • enforcement Ministerial memorandum dated 6 March 2013, no. 8;
  • Note of 27 June 2013, no.1551;
  • Note of 22 November 2013, no. 2563;
  • “Learning tools and measures for pupils with SENs, a.s. 2013/2014_ clarifications”.

The above-featured regulatory process shows how the Italian school has set itself the goal of becoming an inclusive school, where the right to education is intended as a right everyone is entitled to enjoy, founded on pedagogic and social values with an approach that can and has to be “individualized”.

b. Settling in, integration, inclusion: a pedagogic (teaching) perspective

In literature, different meanings are associated with the terms settling in, integration and inclusion. The term inclusion outperforms all of this and covers them all.

Initially, we spoke of the disabled “settling in” in common school. The terms refers to the process of adding something to something else; according to it, one individual is “added” to a group, with the underlying purpose to ensure that this new addition will somehow adjust to the “functioning” of the rest of the group.

Addition is just one more number/item on the class attendance list and is driven by the following dynamic:

The arrow indicates a one-way relationship.
The arrow indicates a one-way relationship.

Addition is substantiated through co-existence in the same physical space, without attaching any relevance to the quality of the relational exchange amongst co-existing individuals. For a long time, this concept has led to identify “socialization” as the main, if not exclusive, goal of having persons with “diversity” in a class, so much so that socialization was seen as a backup goal, instrumental to justify inclusion itself: “The pupil did not learn, but was indeed able to socialize” and …this much is enough.

Instead, when it turns to “integration”, we refer to a two-way relationship between the integrated individual and the integrating group, thus highlighting the value of an exchange.

The arrow indicates a two-way relationship 
The arrow indicates a two-way relationship

The “integrated” individual receives something from the group and delivers something in turn himself/herself. Integration is based on the fact that a pupil with “diversity” gains something in the context of “normal” pupils, but his/her school mates may have something to receive too. And, indeed the contact with a school mate characterized by a different way of functioning demands a highly stimulating and certainly enriching cognitive and empathic effort.

Over the past few years the conventional word for “integration” was progressively replaced in international documents as well as informal and formal speeches by the term “inclusion”. It’s not a simple variation but a referral to educational scenarios that are very different from one another.

Inclusion may be represented like this. The arrows point to a multi-way and mutual relationship whereby all elements differ from one another and still are engaged in a relationship. 
Inclusion may be represented like this. The arrows point to a multi-way and mutual relationship whereby all elements differ from one another and still are engaged in a relationship.

These multifarious elements are present in school classes, imply different needs and hence require special/specific approaches for each of them. As a matter of fact, we speak of Special Educational Needs. 

The idea of integration stems from the premise that “room must be made for diversity” within the school context.

It would be easy to draw the equation leading to identify a physical space within the school and then rely on the special education teacher and to more or less frequent contacts with the schoolmates for the “livibility” of a person with diversity in the school. This is an “assimilation-driven” paradigm, based on the “person with diversity” adjusting to a school organization that is fundamentally geared to the functioning of so-called “normal” pupils, where planning for pupils with “diversity” still plays a marginal role. In light of this, the pupil with diversity is led to normalize as much as possible, although this is a denial of the diversity in the name of an ideal uniformity that is not always achievable.  The impact is strong also in the educational sphere: expecting diversity to get normalized leads to believe that the pupil fails to accomplish the school program rather than questioning whether such curriculum is fit or adjustable to the pupil! The idea of inclusion, in fact, does not revolve around measuring the gap between the pupil with diversity and an alleged standard of adequacy, but rather on acknowledging relevance to full participation in the school life by all individuals.  Whilst  integration is a statusinclusion is a process, a framework within which all kinds of conditions can be valued, respected and provided with opportunities to succeed in school. 

“The notion of inclusion asserts the importance of involving all pupils in the implementation of a truly accepting school, also through the transformation of curricula and organizational strategies that have to become responsive across the entire spectrum of diversities” (Dovigo, 2007).

The current international teaching perspective puts forward the vision of full inclusion which starts from the acknowledgment of disabled pupils in school, opens up to inclusivity for all special educational needs and fully welcomes all kinds of pupils accordingly, thus providing an adequate response to all represented difficulties.

This is a school that is able to adequately respond to all individual diversities and not only those of the disabled or those with SENs, a school that sets no barriers, in fact values individual differences and facilitates social participation and learning; a school operating as a player of social promotion, truly paying attention to individual characteristics, both in terms of difficulties and in terms of “normal” and extraordinary variance. This optimal level embeds both inclusion and integration. Ianes proposes the following comprehensive vision of the three dimensions of pedagogic practice and beyond, closely connected: integration, inclusion and full inclusion. They have to coexist, as this picture shows, to strengthen themselves mutually and avoid opposition in the name of an alleged superiority.

Ciociola-fig4 copy

3Experimentation: methodology, actions, results, future developments

The focus of this research is the vocational training center Oliver Twist- Cometa Formazione, namely grade I, II, III of the area  “Woodworking Operator- Building MaintenanceWorker”.

The real picture taken every day as you step into a typical class with 25 pupils (according to the conducted analysis hereto enclosed)  includes on average 2 pupils with disability, 10 pupils with SED, 2 pupils with SEN, 1 foreign pupil and 10 pupils that are not certified, that is, commonly, “normal”. This landscape is further complicated by aggressive-challenging-disruptive-hyperactive behaviors as well as by anxious, euphoric, unmotivated, happy, grateful, bored moods which overlap and intertwine with the surroundings, thus making reality even more intricate. Faced with such a scenario, it is necessary to identify an adequate response to the multifarious educational needs in the class.

This is where the research focus originates from:

  • the complexity of differences should turn from a problem into a resource delivering quality elements to the school.

Two research questions emerge:

  • can inclusion be a resource, that is the focus of an evolutionary shift towards Quality in daily school practice for all pupils?
  • how can the special education teacher be a true resource for inclusion?

A clarification of what resource means for the purpose of this survey is necessary.

The value of resource can be discussed at least on two levels, as a tool  and as an inner value. 

A resource carries a value as a tool when it is helpful and instrumental to accomplish a desirable goal, or aim. In this respect, for example, time or the schooling level are to be considered instrumental resources. They are needed to achieve new goals or to improve the current ones.

However, a resource also has an inner value when it is valuable per se, and hence it is enriching just for the sake of its presence and not because of its instrumentality to accomplish something else. Sometimes we feel rich in friendship, good relationships, beauty, culture, values… etc. These are truly intangible “assets” which make us feel immensely rich. For the purpose of this research, though, the focus is on the instrumental value of inclusion, that is to say the active presence of a pupil with diversity in class. This presence, though uncomfortable sometimes but always demanding, is an instrumental asset as it favors accomplishment of major goals: successful education and improvement of daily school practice.

a. Methodology

A qualitative research methodology was applied to this exercise that is based on observation and analysis of the experience currently in place at the vocational training center Oliver Twist.

Goal: to highlight how the organization of this school is indeed implementing fruitful changes by overcoming cultural and structural restraints through the development of  “Good Practices” (teaching, planning and networking), that ultimately lead to educational success: school inclusion.

Inclusion proves to be a resource exactly because it drives to change how school practice is delivered.  As Father Milani said: “School is faced with one problem: kids dropping out. If the most challenging kids drop out, then a school stops being a school. Those who lacked basic notions, who were slow-paced, lazybones, used  to feel like the favorites. They would be accepted as you would receive no. 1. It looked like the whole school was there for him/her. Until he/she had understood, the others would not move forward.” The core value of Cometa’s mission lies in this statement: “not to lose anyone as all pupils are educationable”.

Professor Luigi D’Alonzo offers some Key Steps so as to develop school inclusion according to different personal needs of the pupils:

  • to believe in inclusion;
  • a dynamic and planning role of the School Principal;
  • the role of the special education teacher as complementary in lesson planning and leading the teaching process;
  • team work of the teachers who co-plan, schedule, document teaching activity and also evaluate pupils with shared evaluation tools;
  • preparation of the teachers’ curricula in order to address topics relating to special pedagogic and inclusive teaching.

b. Actions

We observed that actions theorized by the pedagogist are translated into practice. As a matter of fact, believing in the value of inclusion of differences has led each teacher to give some deep thought to the learning processes of each pupil: “how does the other learn?”

Clearly, if the starting point is the self-evident diversity of each pupil, traditional didactics can no longer be used. “It is not the most powerful method, but rather the easiest and most appealing” (Cutrera). Teaching necessarily turns into a personalized teaching process which adapts itself to everyone’s needs. Therefore traditional lessons with the teacher up front imparting notions to be learned are no longer held; teaching, in fact, is adaptive to the cognitive patterns of each pupil; endless exercises as well as  mnemonics are no longer proposed, but lessons are exemplified by realizing the teachings and not through automation of concepts. Standardized tests are no longer applied, in favor of a personalized observation that evaluates the process and not the result.

As pedagogist Giuseppe Bertagna says, “if evaluation, in all its forms, intends to be educational, it is to be conceived as a process, not a state; a path, not an accomplishment; a step on the way, not a place; in this respect, it is not a stand-alone moment, separated from the educational process, as if it were to take place upon completion of the process, possibly to condemn or observe it, it is rather an ongoing mode of (its) deployment”.

Renewing didactics in order to meet the Special Educational Needs of the pupils is also a great opportunity for the professional growth of teachers.

Giacomo Cutrera, vice-president of AID-Associazione Italiana Dislessia (Italian Association of Dyslexia) makes use of an effective metaphor to explain how inescapable it is to use flexible didactics. “Let’s imagine the classroom is like a box full of nails and some screws accidentally fall into it. If the teacher picks up a screw from the box and tries to hammer it into a wooden plank, he/she will think that the nail is faulty because it doesn’t get into the wood. However, if, at a closer look, the teacher does realize that it is indeed a screw, he/she will resort to the most appropriate tool, i.e. a screwdriver , to get it into the wood. The teacher will immediately notice that the screw works perfectly fine!”  Diversity requires appropriate tools and flexible methodologies. “If I am not learning in the way you teach, then teach me in the way I learn”. 

Cometa is implementing individualized learning paths because the cognitive patterns of each pupil differ from one another.  So, inclusion as a resource leads to individualized didactics  and the pupil takes on the leading co-role of his/her becoming of age and of his/her growth. The educational offer plan is calibrated to the uniqueness of each pupil’s needs. Enhancement of strengths as well as development of individual talents are taken care of, just like frailty is supported through the search for adequate teaching methodologies and strategies  and appropriate compensatory or dispensive measures. Interventions are modulated based on the accomplished learning levels, in the spirit of an evaluation that is truly instrumental to learning and not of learning.

Lesson planning is characterized by intentionality as it stems from observation and is aimed at delivering education of the individual; contextualized, as it is referred to that specific pupil and his/her story;  systemati, as it proceeds day after day with consistent small steps, and flexible, as it is adaptive to changes.

It is therefore about planning and designing  rather than a schedule; a schedule implies a preset vertical teaching vision, a sort of a drill, with goals to be achieved, timelines to be met, regardless of the  class.  The teacher has knowledge and the pupil has to learn what the teacher says. Organization is a preliminary step and  prevails over enactment.

What Cometa does, through personalized intervention, is indeed to plan and design around its focus, that is the pupil. Aims, methods, tools and aides are selected and oriented flexibly, the teacher and the pupil share a co-responsibility and they co-learn jointly.

Inclusion as a resource has pointed out the need to get to know the pupils better and better. Therefore, it has led to look for a new cognitive tool. A classification model derived from the International Classification Functioning (ICF) was introduced on an experimental basis; it brings about a new vision of the concept of  health, intended as global biological, psychological and social wellbeing of the person.

The ICF system proposes an anthropologic perspective of mankind which goes beyond a nosologic definition of disability: it is indeed a classification system that describes how a human being functions, thus highlighting problems in relation to the surrounding context.  In the ICF perspective, participation in social activities by an individual with disability (whatever the latter is) is determined by how his/her health condition interacts (in terms of body structure and functions) with environmental, cultural, social and personal conditions (contextual factors) of the place he/she lives in.  The biological-psychological-social model takes into consideration the various facets of a person, thus connecting health condition with its context, and defining a disability as a “certain health condition in an unfavorable surrounding”. Health is overall assessed according to three dimensions: biological, individual and social, thus outgrowing the merely medical and medicalizing concept of disability. It is indeed the transition from an individual approach to a  social-relational approach in the study of disability, impairment and disorders. Disability is therefore intended as the consequence or the result of an intricate relationship between an individual’s health condition, personal factors and environmental factors represented by the circumstances he/she lives in. Consequently, each individual, given one’s own specific health conditions, may be in an environment whose characteristics may limit or retrain his/her ability to function and to participate in society, any time in life.

By establishing a correlation between health conditions and the surroundings, IFC proposes a method to  measure health, the ability and difficulty to perform activities of daily living that allows to identify obstacles to be removed or interventions to make in order for the individual to achieve his/her best self-fulfillment.

Against this meaning, the ICF model allows to read the pupils’  special educational needs through a common anthropologic reference framework that is able to deliver a precious inclusive basis.

This positively and effectively addresses the first research question; inclusion is the pivotal element of an evolutionary process towards quality in daily school practice for all kinds of pupils.

The focus of the second research question is on the role of the special education teacher who has become the key to change at Oliver Twist school, thus evolving into the role of a co-teacher. The ideal organization of special education takes shape in the co-ownership and co-responsibility for the teaching process, in a collegial setup that builds a team; ultimately, a cooperation based on common vision and mutual help.

At Cometa, inclusive action, is felt as a task of all the players in the school system.

The role of the  special educator does not only belong with the specifically designated teacher, but it evolves into special education including the entire educating community, thus becoming a supportive network, that is an inclusive context. 

Inclusion as a resource has brought about this positive change  headed to normality. The special education teacher is no longer a separated entity, but the actual owner of the educational and teaching tasks for all the pupils.  He/she is a co-teacher/system envisaged profile as set forth by Law 107 dated 2015 “La Buona Scuola”(“The Good School”) as he/she performs the function of a facilitator of inclusive processes in his/her quality of specialist.

The co-teacher shares role, responsibilities, decisions concerning the disabled but also pupils with SLDs and SENs, with the entire school faculty.

Complexity  of the classes demands more resources, the special education co-teacher being one of those.

As such, a co-teacher has developed enhancement actions both for the pupils and the teachers.

With regard to the pupils, he/she systematically observes lines of development in the awareness that data collection is continuously prone to quick changes, as “studying development means to study ongoing transformation of individuals in their global aspects and development”.

He/she extends the cognitive process by introducing the innovative model of  ICF. Through observation, accurate information is collected to identify strengths and weaknesses of the pupils so as to design an individualized learning path that responds to the actual needs of everyone and of the class. An apparently marginalized position of the co-teacher represents a privileged standpoint to observe class dynamics, effectiveness of the different approaches and strategies, thus helping to consistently modulate interventions. The care of the affectionate relationship with the pupils favors increased empathy and self-confidence. Maternage and scaffolding actions, while leading pupils through the various stages of the educational path, contribute to developing everyone’s autonomy. Loving care and empathy, at times, can be the only way to trigger learning conditions and dynamics that would otherwise remain stuck or frozen and so it sparks renewed motivation.

With regard to colleagues,  the additional resource of a co-teacher contributes to deliver more flexible and inclusive teaching methodologies, such as cooperative learning, tutoring, laboratory-driven teaching, adaptation and diversification of teaching materials, participated and inclusive use of technology, promotion of an authentic evaluation which examines the learning process and not the results. Through the impact of a positive motivatormediation and instructive-relational coordination developed jointly with the colleagues,     co-teaching allows for all roles to be differentiated and exchanged. With two teachers, the class could be easily be split into groups and subgroups, it is no longer a massive monolith; teachers would be didactically and psychologically closer to pupils, barriers in the class were pulled down, thus  creating facilitating conditions, a better intervention on behavior-related problems was possible to the extent of a better or earlier prevention, the class as a group was less scary and better manageable.

c. Results

Results show how inclusion is truly a resource, it delivered changes that improved the quality of the school:

  • the educating community showed higher sensitivity  in acknowledging differences;
  • observation of cognitive patterns and learning processes of each pupil is the starting point for an educational action;
  • lifelong education is felt as a requirement to gain wider knowledge about differences and needs of the individuals;
  • faculty became more cohesively prone to share goals, methods, didactics, more flexible and willing to adjust their teaching approach to the special needs of each and everyone, improved communication skills;
  • pupils accomplished excellence, especially in the technical-vocational area.

4) Future developments

The agenda is still rich in many working items. Inclusion is a complicated topic which requires ongoing reflection, application and research.

I believe work needs to be completed to:

  • improve the educational-relational skills as well as the negotiation skills, a key point to favor growth and wellbeing in the class;
  • develop firm belief in flexibility and compliance with the rules;
  • make use of laboratory teaching opportunities more systematically with regard to acquiring basic theory skills;
  • look for pockets of time to plan and schedule work collegially;
  • make use of an educational evaluation and not a result-oriented one (a sum of scores)

“true evaluation is the one that puts you to be confronted with yourself” (Canevaro A.)

  • analyze the overall school organization with the help of the Inclusion index in order to identify and measure quality factors and self-improvement processes.


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Giacomo Cutrera, Vicepresidente dell’AID-Associazione Italiana Dislessia

Published by Cristina Ciociola

PhD at Università di Bergamo in Human Capital Formation and Labour Relations, I got my degree at Università Cattolica in Pedagogy for disability and marginality; I am Case Manager (master at Università Cattolica). Since 2011 I have been teacher in Oliver Twist VET school of Cometa Formazione, in charge of supporting students with disabilities and learning disabilities. My tasks include: adapting texts, simplifying comprehension, producing documents PDF, PEI, PDP (ICF classification), mediation and assisting teachers as co-teacher. My aim, both in practice and research, is to create an inclusive and personalized approach in learning activities; to support students in gaining basic skills and in their placement.

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