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Creating and sustaining an inclusive culture in the primary classroom

Written by: Tony Eaude
7 min read

This article explores what an inclusive culture in the primary classroom entails, and how it can be created and sustained. Drawing on my recent work (Eaude, 2018a, 2018b), it challenges several assumptions, especially about the standards agenda. In advocating a holistic approach, I argue that inclusiveness should be seen more broadly than is often the case, and highlight distinctive aspects of teaching young children and the challenges and opportunities that these present.

Inclusion is often considered in relation to children with disabilities being educated alongside other children, and to raising the aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It may usually be appropriate to educate all children together, but not always, particularly if specific individual needs cannot be met, and aspirations must be broad and realistic, as well as high.

As Graham and Slee (2008, p. 278) indicate, ‘to include is not necessarily to be inclusive’. To be inclusive involves creating and sustaining learning environments that meet the needs of all children; recognising – and minimising – the barriers that many children face as a result of their background and prior experience. These barriers can be categorised as:

  • societal, such as discrimination based on factors like gender, race, socio-economic background and disability
  • situational, such as the lack or cost of opportunities
  • attitudinal and motivational, such as a low level of confidence and negative feelings about formal education.

Societal barriers are often invisible to those who do not face them. While teachers can help to address attitudinal and motivational barriers, and to some extent situational ones, for individuals, it is harder to do so for societal ones, except in the long term, by challenging stereotyping and discrimination. 

Inclusive learning environments involve many interlinked elements, which can usefully be considered in terms of:

  • the curriculum
  • aspirations and expectations
  • relationships.

Alexander (2010, pp. 241-243) distinguishes between Curriculum 1 – ‘the basics’ and what can be easily measured – which dominates the formal curriculum, and Curriculum 2 – ‘the rest’, including the arts and the humanities – often seen as desirable but inessential.

Young children especially benefit from a balanced and broadly-based curriculum, as required by law. As Reed (2001, p. 122) argues: ‘even the youngest children should be exposed to a broad and ambitious curriculum in the hopes of identifying one or more areas at which each child excels or is motivated to learn’. In Alexander’s words (1992, p. 141), ‘curriculum breadth and balance are less about time allocation than the diversity of challenge of what the child encounters’.

Reading, writing and numeracy are important, but they are not all that matters, and the balance of the primary curriculum needs to be redressed. The arts and the humanities are essential if children are to understand themselves and other people – as well as the complex issues they face. The education of the whole child (see Eaude, 2018b) implies greater emphasis on these, not as desirable extras but as fundamental to how young children learn, especially in terms of their identities and the interpersonal qualities needed to flourish in times of change and uncertainty.

Young children learn a great deal by example. Therefore, the qualities that teachers manifest in how they interact matter more than what they know. Often, the exclusion that many children face results from the hidden curriculum – attitudes and beliefs implicit in the school system, a paucity of images and examples of people from different backgrounds succeeding, and the unconscious bias that many teachers manifest. For instance, as Gonzalez et al. (2005) argue, the ‘funds of knowledge’ that children from disadvantaged groups have are not valued much in schools, especially in a target-driven policy climate. Examples include experience and knowledge of cooking, sacred texts, and varied types of dance and music. This reflects Gardner’s (1993) view that there are multiple types of intelligence, rather than intelligence being seen only in terms of cognition and academic attainment. It is vital that children have a sense of agency – the belief that how they act matters and that they can influence how things turn out.

Eaude (2014) discusses the idea of ‘hospitable space’, where all are made welcome regardless of background, and where children feel safe enough to be creative and take on unfamiliar activities. Young children need to be nurtured, but also equipped to cope with the difficulties that they are bound to face. Frequently, this does not happen in a culture where children are often over-protected and there is a narrow focus on decontextualised skills. Hospitable spaces provide challenges and chances to cooperate, but are not hyper-competitive, as this results in many children experiencing a sense of failure – and such children come disproportionately from backgrounds of poverty, discrimination and other difficulties.

An inclusive approach does not necessitate teachers being gender-, race- or class-blind, in order to support the status quo. Rather, it entails teachers:

  • being sensitive to cultural beliefs and practices that may matter to the child and his or her family, such as those relating to language, dress, diet and religion
  • challenging and trying to change children’s stereotypes, many of which are deeply rooted in children’s cultures, the media and society.

Inclusiveness involves raising and broadening all children’s aspirations. Teachers must provide a wide range of opportunities, and set expectations that are broad as well as high, in terms of not just academic attainment but also other types of achievement. Differentiation must not be based solely on grouping by perceived ability. Too often, such grouping becomes self-fulfilling. Children from working-class backgrounds and those in the early stages of learning English as an additional language, are placed disproportionately in lower groups (Francis and Taylor, 2018). This easily leads to low expectations and to children becoming disengaged from school learning.

At the heart of an inclusive environment are reciprocal relationships built on mutual trust and respect. To cultivate such relationships and influence deep-seated attitudes requires space and time. Primary classroom teachers usually have the advantage of being with a group of children over most of the week and for at least a year. However, teachers can tend to trust and respect some children – particularly those who are articulate and well-behaved – more than others.

Classrooms, especially with young children, are unpredictable (see Fransson and Grannäs, 2013). This is part of the joy of teaching, but means that teachers have constantly to improvise and make quick decisions. As a result, planning must incorporate enough flexibility to respond to events, particularly to follow up children’s questions and interests. Assessment should also be holistic and consider a wide range of children’s experiences, abilities and achievements, not just whether they have covered the formal curriculum or scored well in tests.

Creating and sustaining inclusive learning environments is difficult, particularly in a system dominated by curriculum coverage, compliance, performativity and measurable outcomes. It entails challenging children’s behaviours and attitudes, but also many of the teacher’s own assumptions. Inclusiveness involves altering who does most of the talking, how children are expected to respond, and how children view knowledge – such as whether the teacher’s view should always be seen as correct (see Eaude, 2018a, especially Chapter 2).

To summarise, inclusive classrooms for young children require a holistic approach, with a curriculum that is balanced and learning environments where all children are encouraged to achieve in a broad range of activities, whatever their background or prior experience. Teachers should set high but realistic expectations. They should be sensitive to cultural differences and challenge stereotypes, in order to create relationships of mutual trust and respect.

Five key points:
  • Inclusiveness relates more to what children experience than who is in the group
  • Relationships of trust and respect, high but broad expectations and a broad and balanced curriculum, are key to an inclusive environment for young children
  • Teachers must take account of children’s backgrounds, without this being an excuse for low expectations
  • Teachers must observe and listen more and talk less if they are to be attuned to children’s needs
  • An inclusive environment involves challenging some behaviours and attitudes in children, but also some in teachers.


Alexander, R., ed. (2010), Children, their World, their Education – final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review, Abingdon: Routledge.

Eaude T (2014) Creating hospitable space to nurture children’s spirituality – possibilities and dilemmas associated with power. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 19(3/4): 236–48.

Eaude T (2018a) Developing the Expertise of Primary and Elementary Classroom Teachers: Professional Learning for a Changing World. London: Bloomsbury.

Eaude T (2018b) Addressing the needs of the whole child: Implications for young children and adults who care for them. In: Miller JP, Nigh K, Binder MJ et al. (eds) International Handbook of Holistic Education. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 61–69.

Francis B and Taylor B (2018) The problematic interface between research, policy and practice: The case of attainment grouping. Impact 2: 47–50.

Fransson G and Grannäs J (2013) Dilemmatic spaces in educational contexts – towards a conceptual framework for dilemmas in teachers’ work. Teachers and Teaching 19(1): 4–17.

Gardner H (1993) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. London: Fontana.

Gonzalez N, Moll L and Amanti C (2005) Funds of Knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Graham LJ and Slee R (2008) An illusory interiority: Interrogating the discourse/s of inclusion. Educational Philosophy and Theory 40(2): 277–293.

Putnam RD (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Reed ES (2001) Towards a cultural ecology of instruction. In: Bakhurst D and Shanker SG (eds) Jerome Bruner: Language, Culture, Self. London: SAGE, pp. 116–126.

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