Barriers to Learning Created by Adult Perceptions of Students at School

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2011)

for the University of the West of Scotland

School teachers and staff are increasingly encouraged to incorporate inclusive education policies into their everyday practice and change their approach to students in accordance with its assumptions.  However, teachers’ pre-existing perceptions about students classifying them according to able/deficit terminology can be an additional barrier to all students’ education. Therefore, are teachers’ beliefs contradictory to the underpinnings of the inclusive education theory?

Ainscow (2007) claims that the success of inclusive education is dependent first and foremost on the behaviour of adults, i.e. teachers and staff. According to both the Centre of Studies on Inclusive Education (2008) and Evans (2007), inclusive education strives to remove barriers to learning and participation for all students. In accordance with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a move away from segregation of students into groups based on race, religion, gender or ability (the list is not exhaustive). Some argue that education needs to avoid its exclusionary practices by discarding the idea of normalization, a concept based on the idea that those not fitting set standards ought to conform. Rather, those with differences should be valued and respected for who they are as opposed to despite who they are (Tilstone, Florian and Rose, 1998, cited in Topping and Maloney, 2005).

Since the success and implementation of inclusive education can only be properly observed in specific, local contexts (Ainscow, Booth and Dyson, 2006; Sebba and Sachdev, 1997, cited in Corbett, 2001), it is vital that teachers’ perceptions and approaches comply with inclusive education ideology and policies. Sapon-Shevin (2007) maintains that teachers should not fear or be distressed by the differences between students, but embrace them and see them as necessary. Reflective turn, a term coined by Ainscow (2007), is therefore required of teachers and staff: challenging deeply held views of deficit and difference, welcoming students’ diversity and tackling barriers to learning and participation for each student.

Drawing on my own professional experience, changing teachers’ deeply held beliefs about students that are ‘lacking something’ is going to be considerably challenging. Whilst the great majority of teachers do believe in removing barriers to learning and participation for all students, I have witnessed teachers segregating students into groups such as SEN/non-SEN. A number of teachers hold a belief that ‘statemented’ children are not able to achieve as much as those who are ‘non-statemented’. Children are very often labelled by schools and pre-determined for achievement failure, resulting in considerable loss of self-esteem. In addition, a number of teachers still do not believe that they can successfully teach all children. A number of my colleagues feel they are not sufficiently prepared for the task of effectively catering to students with a variety of needs.  They therefore become very dependent on classroom assistants, calling them “life-savers” and claiming that “they would be lost without them”.

To conclude, I believe that teachers’ perceptions of students are still largely based on labels and as such, they are not in accordance with the theory of inclusive education, acting as a barrier to student achievement.  There is an urgent need of large-scale training for teachers and greater peer collaboration. Building teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach all students effectively, regardless of their differences, is likely to result in a more individual, non-labelling teaching practice, increasing children’s confidence and thus their learning.




Ainscow, M., Booth, T. and Dyson, A. (2006). Improving Schools. Developing Inclusion. London: Routledge

Ainscow, M. (2007) Taking an Inclusive Turn. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. Vol.7(1), p.3-7

Corbett, J. (2001) Supporting Inclusive Education: A Connective Pedagogy. London and New York: Taylor & Francis

Booth, T. and Ainscow, M. (2002) Index for Inclusion: developing learning and participation in schools. Available online at [accessed 14 October 2011]

Evans, L. (2007) Inclusion. Abingdon: David Fulton Publishers

Sapon-Shevin, M. (2007) Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms. Boston: Beacon Press

Topping, K. and Maloney, S. (eds.) (2005) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Inclusive Education. London and New York: Routledge

United Nations (1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available online at [accessed 13 October 2011]

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