Catherine O'Farrell, Founding Partner, Incluzun, UAE

Catherine has been working in education and inclusion for almost 20 years and is passionate about developing opportunities under UN SDGs 4 and 8. She has worked with international and national committees from the Global Sustainability Network to the Ministry of Education in the UAE to push for a more sustainable and inclusive world. She is the founder of Incluzun and she is a regular conference speaker and media contributor and hosts an International Forum on Inclusion & Wellbeing.


The Journal of Educational Administration recently released an article investigating Principals’ perspectives of inclusive education.

The researchers sought to investigate inclusivity from a phenomenological perspective- asking the question: “how can we develop and embed a true ethos of inclusivity that is no longer a task, separate to the mechanics of the educational machine, but rather, an integrated feature that flows like the life blood of academics and learning?”

The paper stimulates inward reflection at all levels in a school – senior leadership, middle leaders cascading down through all levels to administrative and support staff like maintenance and bus drivers. Seeking to reveal the true, common ethos in the schools under investigation. It suggests that true inclusivity can only be present if ALL stakeholders are committed to an inclusive vision.

The paper found that “certain structures are needed when planning how to develop mutual values when organising an inclusive school”. This paper demonstrates that inclusivity (like any core value) takes a targeted and structured approach to ensure that it is not only embedded but practiced in the school.

This paper addresses the need to engage and encourage all stakeholders to commit and carry out the necessary changes to consecrate an inclusive repertoire in the school. An integral ingredient for this recipe, the paper suggests, is building concrete, lasting change. This, it states, can be achieved by building, driving and maintaining firm stakeholder buy – in.

Concrete, lasting change is not an easy thing to achieve. Any manager who has overseen any project, staff overview or any type of reform knows how challenging it can be to embed change well. John Kotter, Harvard professor and change management expert, created a theory of change management focused primarily on the people involved in the organisation and their psychology. With schools being such complex structures, a focus on people is paramount.

Kotter’s change management theory involves 8 steps to creating meaningful and long lasting change in any organisation:

  1. Create a sense of urgency to motivate people
  2. Build your change team with leaders and change agents of various skills and departments
  3. Define your strategic vision for what you want to accomplish
  4. Communicate with everyone involved in the change management process to get them on board and make sure they know their role
  5. Identify roadblocks and address anything causing friction
  6. Create short-term goals to break your change management plan into achievable steps
  7. Keep up the momentum throughout the process of implementation
  8. Maintain the changes after the initial project is complete

Change management in a school can lead to many complexities, particularly when people are resistant to that change. Leaders are very often isolated from the general staff and report heavy burdens on their wellbeing. School management is reported widely as being one of the top most stressful jobs. This is reflected in research too.

When implementing change in schools, Principals reported “a sense of loneliness in relation to their superiors and decision-makers” (Östlund, 2021). This takes a toll on wellbeing and a sense of belonging. In a job that is highly stressful anyway- adding to this stress does not help.

So how can we avoid this kind of stress when implementing a new programme or change in a school?

By implementing a structured approach, one that is people focused (like Kotters) it was found that all stakeholders were strategically engaged at every level and inclusive practice was greatly improved.

This engagement effect is reflected further in a case study of change management in the NHS (National Health Service, UK) (Bamfod & Daniel, 2007). Health Care workers managers similar profiles to educational managers. Both experience high levels of stress, both report a sense of huge responsibility in their roles and both report a sense of worth and purpose that is higher than most other jobs. Taking this healthcare case study- we can apply some of the same practices in our similar field of education. Kotters model proved effective in building a shared ethos and core value system. This was initially driven top down but became embedded and practiced from the bottom up.

Research suggests that schools, like many complex organisations, need both top down and bottom up support in driving change. As da Vinci said- “we need to learn how to see that everything connects to everything else”.

In April 2020 an article in the Journal of Inclusive Education delved into the bottom up drive of inclusive education. Focusing on how instructional leadership affected teachers ability to operate in a fully inclusive manner.

This research focuses on developing an isolated single practice or tool which has ripple effects to drive momentum for changes in inclusive practice.

In this paper, principals took the Individual Education Plan IEP as a tool to lever changes around inclusion.

Using a targeted approach, they engaged all stakeholders and upskilled the whole staff, external practitioners and parents around the effective use of this single tool.

This approach was found to have a significant impact on perceptions of inclusive practice and ultimately on student participation and success in class.

The Kellogg school of change management adds clear steps to achieving success through this type of focused project.

  • Begin by assessing the alignment between the school’s strategy and structure to motivate for change.
  • Evaluate whether the school’s social networks (including all stakeholders) are fostering execution and innovation of this focused change.
  • Balance different organisational structures and allow for both execution and innovation.
  • As the project unfolds, iterations and developments may call for slight adjustments and calibration.
  • Constantly implement tactics to increase strategic agility and estimate any resilience encountered.
  • Assess each speed bump as it arises and address them incrementally.
  • Gradually build sustainable change.

So how can we take all of this research and convert it into something meaningful and useful for a school?

As principals, we get caught up in the day to day running of a school and rarely have time to step back and implement large scale structured programmes BUT taking the time to design and deliver an evidence based programme can change the whole trajectory of a school for the better.

To make change manageable we can emulate the research. Focus on a single tool, like the IEP and build a whole school plan of action around it. Focus on improving one key feature of practice that can impact all academics. This helps to narrow the lens and zoom in on a single manageable set of actions. These actions are streamlined, clear cut, measurable and, hopefully, easier to manage than a more complex, large scale approach.

Success is not an accident, it comes from hard work and effort but we do not need to reinvent the wheel every time we tackle a messy problem. By looking to the research, tried and tested methodologies, we can have a much greater chance of success.


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