pink, blue and yellow flowersIntroduction

The term inclusion is used in a wide variety of contexts. For some it focuses on social inclusion, or on equal opportunities in all areas of life, whilst for others it underpins the need to overcome inequities such as the digital divide. In the context of physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities, it is closely connected with issues of equal access, while for minority ethnic groups, inclusion is interconnected with concepts of diversity. In all these contexts ICT can support both individuals and groups, and break down some of the barriers that lead to educational exclusion, disaffection and under-achievement. ICT can be both a medium and a powerful tool in supporting inclusive practice.

Inclusive learning

Inclusive learning can be understood as a process of increasing the presence, participation and achievement of all learners in educational settings in their local community. In this sense inclusive learning can be seen as a form of personalising learning, and ICT can play a key role in supporting this process.

Towards an inclusive society

Since 1997 a number of government policies have addressed different aspects of inclusion and demonstrated the impact exclusion has on the learning opportunities and life chances of children, young people and adults. They recognise that educational under-achievement and the risk of social and educational exclusion are complex areas with links to social deprivation and poverty. At the same time, legislation such as the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (2001), has placed a duty on schools, local authorities and post-16 providers to ensure they do not discriminate against disabled pupils for a reason relating to their disability. They are required to improve access to education not only for current pupils and students with disabilities, but also in anticipation of pupils and students who might wish to attend. The Government also launched a long-term strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement (2004), to address how best the needs of pupils with special educational needs can be met.

Harnessing Technology: Transforming Learning and Children's Services

Harnessing Technology (2005) provides a coherent strategy for the use of ICT in the effective delivery of education in all sectors. One of the four aims of the strategy is to 'Engage 'hard to reach' learners, with special needs support, more motivating ways of learning, and more choice about how and where to learn'. The strategy has a strong emphasis on harnessing technology to meet the needs of all learners by providing innovation and consistently reliable services for all, but also by recognizing that some learners may need extra support or resource. Personalised learning to meet individuals' needs is emphasized with developments such as personal learning spaces and e-portfolios.

A number of milestones in the strategy identify specific actions to address issues of social exclusion, such as MyGuide, being developed by UfI to provide access to relevant information on the internet for disadvantaged groups.

The strategy has the potential to deliver a high-quality robust and secure ICT infrastructure, easily located innovative digital learning content, information and advice to teachers and learners in a coherent and easily assessable form and support all those providing for children's education and welfare.

Connecting the UK: the Digital Strategy

This strategy aspires to make the UK a world leader in digital excellence and the first nation to close the digital divide. Included are details of a national scheme to give more secondary school pupils the opportunity to use ICT at home and a range of measures to improve accessibility to technology for the digitally excluded and ease of use for the disabled. It has powerful aspirations and its scope goes beyond education and children's services to the whole community.

Technology has an important role and huge potential as an enabler to help bridge the existing barriers to inclusion - either by improving access to information, connecting disparate communities together or by empowering service providers to deliver joined up services to those with multiple problems. There is considerable evidence of the benefits of access to a PC and the Internet at home or in the community for the excluded.

ICT and education

ICT has the power to transform the educational opportunities and life chances of people with disabilities and special educational needs. Evidence supports the view that ICT can provide access to learning and interaction for those whose learning needs or disabilities would otherwise marginalise them. The Communication Aids Project (CAP) has demonstrated that where teachers integrate the use of assistive technologies in programmes of teaching and learning, they can transform the quality of the learning experience not just for the individual concerned but for others in the class whose learning styles may be more appropriately catered for through using that technology.

There is wide-ranging evidence of technology supporting inclusion at a system and institutional level. The process of assessing needs, providing personalised learning programmes and recording progress and achievement are some of the essential tools for the creation of the inclusive learning institution. ICT makes the regular formative and summative assessment of learners manageable to the teacher and accessible across the institution and beyond. The e-confident school will provide each learner with a profile to let them safely access their personal learning space which is set up to recognise their particular requirements, including their access needs. The Becta publication Extending the boundaries of learning provides good examples of such practice, of schools providing secure access for pupils to also learn at home and of initiatives to supporting the education of mobile learners such as Gypsies and Travellers.

However, the provision of technology alone will never fully capitalise on the opportunity ICT offers without the understanding and skill of the teachers in planning its implementation. There is a need for a clear understanding of the pedagogy of ICT and inclusive education by all those supporting children's welfare and education and those working in lifelong learning, at all levels. All initiatives seeking to extend the use of ICT in education now recognise that the teacher needs to be competent and confident in the use of technology, that the technology needs to be robust and sufficiently powerful to do the job, and that high-quality content should be available. All these areas have particular issues when it comes to technology that supports inclusion in its broadest sense.