Imagining inclusive schooling: an ethnographic inquiry into disabled children’s learning and participation in regular schools in Shanghai
In Mainland China, a national education policy called ‘Learning in Regular Classrooms’ (LRC) has been implemented for over 25 years to support the inclusion of disabled children in regular schools. Although the LRC policy framework has been gradually adapted in response to the global movement for inclusive education, little is known about what is happening in classrooms and schools. In particular, disabled children’s views and experiences of their school lives remain unknown. Drawing on perspectives from inclusive education, pupil voice, disability studies and childhood studies, this research is driven by a theoretical stance that positions disabled children as active and competent social actors whose voices should be valued and heard. This exploratory inquiry adopted an ethnographic approach. I conducted the fieldwork in 4 state primary schools in Shanghai, with 11 disabled children (designated as LRC pupils and labelled as having Learning Difficulties), 10 class teachers and 3 resource teachers. The Framework for Participation (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011) was used to inform data collection and analysis. Multiple methods were utilised including participant observation, interviews and participatory activities. Rich, in-depth and contextual data were collected and thematically analysed. This research highlights several key findings. First, the necessity of listening to pupil voice is reaffirmed. Children’s views of schooling revealed hidden knowledge that had been unknown to teachers. The child participants were sensitive, observant and reflective, exercising their agency to negotiate the circumstances in which they were living. They offered informative comments on school practice and shared aspirations for improvement. Second, it was found that the meaning of inclusive education failed to be addressed in everyday schooling process, although there had been rhetorical change in LRC policy, and its implementation helped to secure disabled children’s access to regular schools. Disabled children were still facing forms of marginalisation and exclusion, such as limited participation in decision-making, restricted opportunities to access extra-curricular activities and spaces, lack of support for academic learning, and negative experiences of bullying from peers. The existing special educational provision such as the ‘resource classroom’ was found to interrupt children’s sense of togetherness and generate negative labelling effects for them. Third, facilitators of and barriers to disabled children’s learning and participation were identified. The exclusionary process affecting disabled children was strongly fortified by the introduction of special educational thinking and practice, which not only marked out these children as incompetent and in need of protection, but also underrated the existing inclusive practice in regular classrooms. The process was further reinforced by the charitable model of disability in Confucian society and the prevailing competitive and performative school culture. Nevertheless, teachers could play important roles in negotiating all pupils’ learning and participation. Among the insights gained into teachers’ practice, a connection between teachers’ attentiveness to children’s worlds and their demonstration of inclusive practice was noticed, on the basis of which I discussed the implications of pupil voice for developing inclusive practice, and explored a working model for moving towards inclusive education in China with pupil voice as a core starting point. In China, there is still a long way to go before realising all children’s learning and participation. This research calls for a paradigm shift within the country to encourage new ways of thinking and researching, in which children must be seen as essential partners in the process of transforming and imagining possibilities for inclusive education.