Tag Archives: inclusion

Building equal learning opportunities for differently-abled children in Malawi: An interview with Patience Mkandawire on the evolution of Fount for Nations (Part 2)

In part 2 of this interview, Patience Mkandawire talks with Thomas Hatch about Fount for Nations recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. Part 1 of the interview focused on the origins and initial challenges in developing an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.

Gaining control of the program and focusing on schools
Thomas Hatch: You’ve told us about the origins of Fount of Nations in the activity center you established at a hospital; about the first two years after you established Fount of Nations with work in activity centers in several hospitals and in resource centers in schools. What was the next step? What was the next big transition point?

Patience Mkandawire:  At that point, we expanded to include more attention to community engagement, which also has its own set of challenges, but we also closed the hospital program. We narrowed our focus to working with schools and community engagement. At the same time, we realized that because we didn’t have our own space we operated basically on the whim of the schools and the teachers; we had no control over our programming. We started thinking that to really control our own program and maintain fidelity of our programs, we needed our own center, like our model school. We started planning for that and that opened in 2020, which was bad timing, of course, because that’s when the pandemic hit.

But when we started doing more work in the community, we realized the economic barriers that many of our parents faced, which was not something we had focused on. We started doing home visits and found that a lot of our parents had come from a village, left their land, and come into the city and were living in areas with very poor economic conditions. That started us thinking that we should develop an economic empowerment program. Initially, I was not too keen on this, but my field team insisted that we really had to do it because the parents weren’t listening to us. There was a time that one of the counselors went out for a group counseling session and when she came back her face was gloomy. “What happened?” I asked her, “Was the turnout not good?” And she said “This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”

“This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”

I was opposed to that because it’s not an area we knew anything about. Nobody on our team was an expert on it. But we began to do some research on micro-finance, and we tried a partnership with another organization that was already doing business and economic empowerment for mothers.That partnership however didn’t last long enough to yield results. We were stuck on logistics of how to train parents that often had to take care of their kids full-time. I am not sure what it really was but most organizations we tried to work with weren’t really willing to make adjustments to take into account the unique needs of children with disabilities or their families.  But we soon learned about Opportunity International. They had been training farmers and other populations in financial literacy, and we were able to get them to do financial literacy training for us. Then, once the parents were trained, we realized we needed to give them access to money…so we reached out to some of our funder friends, the Segal Family Foundation who connected us with a funder that was willing to give direct social cash transfers to some of our parents. We linked the cash transfers to the child’s education. In that way, we created incentives for increasing children’s attendance at school, and it turned out great.

TH: You said the economic impact program was successful, but what was your measurement of success? 

PM: We measured academic indicators such as attendance, progression and parent involvement in learning. We also measured social indicators like how many meals do the children eat a day. For example, before the program (and during the pandemic), 76% of the parents said their child ate once or twice a day because they just didn’t have any money. After the financial literacy training, the numbers flipped. Over 80% were able to eat three times a day. In addition, close to 70% of the businesses they started with the initial social cash transfers are still running.

The Pandemic & Beyond

TH: Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic affected the development of your program. What did you learn and how has that influenced how you think about developing and sustaining the program in the future?

PM: The pandemic is why I am here in the US, as part of the Obama Scholars program. When the pandemic hit, schools closed. And that was the first time we had ever imagined that anything would happen to our schools, I just can’t describe the feeling… All our programming happened in schools; our teacher training happened in schools; our parent convening happened in schools; many of our community convenings happened in schools. Schools are central in almost every village so they were very easy access points for us to meet people and to convene people, and suddenly, schools were all closed. And our teaching was all paper and pen. We had started doing some digital data collection, but our teachers across the country still taught on the blackboard 

I remember one of the first things I did was give a break to the entire team. We just decided “Okay we’re all going to go home, and we’re going to take a two week break to think about what we’re going to do. Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?” 

“Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?”

Over that break, the Government started to respond. They said “We’re going to have remote learning programs and we’re going to have TV and radio programs.” But I was thinking, “How is this going to reach a child who learns differently? Who cannot process? Who cannot hear?” Fount for Nations needed to respond too, but at that point, our team was also at risk and there was a lot of fear that we might die. But the team realized “if we are this scared, imagine what our parents are going through?”

It was really a team effort, and my husband and I would check in with individual team members and ask, “How are you doing? What are you going through?” But one by one, they said things like “We need to come back to work.” First, we said “We’re going to support the government in doing remote learning, and our parents are going to be teachers.”  That was a gamble, but we brought back our volunteers and decided they would provide the support because teachers could not go in the homes. We had the volunteers meet with the teachers and learn about the typical lesson plans for the week and then the volunteers would call the parents, and the parents taught the children. Fount for Nations led a coalition of 4 education partners of the Segal Family Foundation to deliver remote learning to 3000 primary school learners across the country. One of our other long-time-partners, Rays of Hope ministries, released a handbook for teachers to support the school radio programs, and we used that to train our volunteers. Then we just started deploying SMS texts and phone calls, and that’s how the kids learned during that period. All this is happening on the phone. It was a surprise in some ways how well parents responded. Our volunteers would set appointments with the parents, and if our volunteers were late, we’d receive a phone call, “I just wanted to check with you because I’m looking at the time, and she hasn’t called yet. Is everything okay?” 

The second thing was the counseling sessions. We also did that on the phone. Our counselors set up a protocol for mental health screening, and we started calling all our parents.  They’d get a call – “How are you doing?” – to check in.  If the parents’ needed extra support, the counselors would refer them or consult with them. We were also taking a gamble because this was the first time we’d ever called the parents for counseling sessions. Our counseling sessions had been in person. If the parents needed to cry, the counselor was there to just feel that with them. Now the sessions were not only over the phone, some of them were with a person the parents had never met because we had to increase the number of volunteers to make all the calls. It was a much higher volume. 

It was crazy, and I was just upset at how in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services. In 2020, Fount for Nations was one of three, maybe four organizations in the country that focused on education for kids with special needs. I just felt “I can’t do this,” because clearly people were not convinced that our work was as important as we think it is. That’s when the opportunity to come to Columbia came up. Joseph, my husband, said “Go. You need inspiration. You’re stuck. I think you need to go and meet awesome people. Meet experts. Get inspired. Come with ideas and then we’ll continue.” So I did, and I’ve been studying things like comparative policy studies at Teachers College, non-profit policy and advocacy, learning how international education policy is formulated. So now I’m thinking Fount for Nations is much more than a direct service provider. I’m thinking of Fount for Nations as a critical player in the ecosystem for inclusive education: as bringing all these stakeholders together to define and sustain the ecosystem and to inspire more actors to care about this issue.

in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services

That’s been a big shift in terms of our plans and in our overall strategy. For example, in our training, we’re thinking of using a “train the trainer” model and focusing on being really, really good at that. We could offer that training to a wider range of organizations that can support learning and development for teachers and for children, particularly those who have learning difficulties. I’m also thinking about how to get back to the health care system because there’s still a role that they play, especially in assessment and diagnosis.  I’m also thinking more about research now. How do we collect action-oriented data? How do we apply evidence-based research and implementation? Now merging those three things – advocacy, training and research – is becoming the core of our future plans. We are now working towards Fount for Nations becoming the Center of Excellence for Inclusive Education in the country and bringing together all these elements to really reduce the inequalities that exist in access to quality education for these children. I want to acknowledge that from our journey we’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning. If the teachers’ perceptions are wrong; if parents’ perceptions are wrong; if community perceptions are wrong; if healthcare is not supported; if research is not adequate; if the government does not fund social services, then, no matter how creative our approach is – which was our initial idea – kids still won’t be learning. They still won’t be succeeding.

“We’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning.

TH: You really tied up that story beautifully and transitioned into where you’re heading. One thing you didn’t mention, though, that kind of brings you back to your initial experience with your brother, is your interest in growth monitoring because you’ve identified early screening and assessment as critical factors moving forward. Can you just say a word about your strategy with that? 

PM: Yes, it was like a light bulb moment when I realized we could build on that. Like I said before, children in Malawi go to see a community health care worker for the first five years of their lives. From birth up to five, every single month, they have to go for growth monitoring. They are just going to get their weight checked; they’re going to get their height checked. And it’s mostly for nutrition screening, deworming, vaccinations, but they never get screened for developmental delays or learning difficulties. But I realized it’s a great opportunity because we could intervene early. The project I’m working on right now is, first of all, to adapt the assessment tools that are recommended so they are simple to screen for developmental delays and learning difficulties. And then we’ll train the healthcare workers to administer those assessments at the regular checkups that the kids come to anyway. That way we’ll get to see how many kids are at risk of developmental delays or at risk of learning difficulties. Then we can design workshops for the parents, because, with the pandemic, we’ve found that they can teach and help support their kids. For example, now that we know a child is struggling to sit up, how can we support the kid early on? And how can we intervene early? For most of these issues, parents would not know or understand that their child has something like epilepsy or even cerebral palsy until they were in primary school or even later. For example, I remember Elisa, whom I met when she was 17, and she had to drop out because she was just too big to be in primary school, and no one knew she had epilepsy until she repeated the same class 4-5 times!  I wonder if we had met Elisa when she was six months or a year old? What difference might that have made? Could she have coped with her condition and been more successful?  We want to make sure that these kids have a strong start by giving parents the information about what conditions their children have and the information that they need to help cope. Hopefully this generation of children will have a much better start.

Building equal learning opportunities for differently-abled children in Malawi: An interview with Patience Mkandawire on the evolution of Fount for Nations (Part 1)

In part 1 of this interview, Patience Mkandawire talks with Thomas Hatch about the origins and initial challenges in developing Fount for Nations, an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. Next week, part 2 of the interview will focus on Fount for Nations more recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.

The Origins of Fount for Nations
Thomas Hatch: Could you start by telling us a little bit about how Fount for Nations got started. What got you interested in these issues?

Patience Mkandawire: It was basically my mom who pushed me. She loved helping people and there was a time I was taking my baby brother for growth monitoring — in Malawi, growth monitoring happens every single month for children from birth to five years. When I was 14 or 15, being the eldest, I took my brother into the clinic and we were stuck in a line from 7 am to 3 pm and all he needed to do was get his weight checked! I went back home, and I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.”  And so I did. I went back to the clinic, and I asked a Dr. “Why do we have such long lines? How can I help?” “We don’t have a lot of people who do triage,” the Dr. told me. “If you wouldn’t mind just weighing babies that will drive the traffic a lot faster.”  That’s how I started.

I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.”

After that, I started volunteering at a local hospital [one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy] and I had a lot of time to understand why the kids were in the hospital, and I was very curious about their learning. At one point, I met a boy who had lymphoma and he told me that he was in grade four, but I found out he could not write his name — he wrote his name backwards and confused the B’s and the D’s. For me, that was so fascinating because I never really struggled in school, and here was this boy who was supposed to be moving into upper primary school, how could he not know how to spell his name?  I talked to an American pediatrician there who sort of took me under her wing. She showed me things around the children’s ward. She introduced me to special needs, and she told me he might have what we call dyslexia. At that point I set up an activity center for children at the hospital. I worked with a team of UN volunteers, and we did a little bit of fundraising for it. We did a toy drive and then a book drive, and I spent a lot of time with the kids, tutoring them and giving them opportunities for play and coloring and drawing and things like that.

That was really the first step. Then I went to college and studied nutrition and food science. The hospital was in the same city where I studied, so it was easy for me to just go there to check on things because I was not doing this alone, I was doing this with the team of professionals. After college, I didn’t have a job right away, and I volunteered at my mom’s school because my mom was a teacher at a private school. There I met another boy. This time it was looking like he had autism and his teachers were automatically failing him. But I got to spend time with him, and I discovered how he learned and found he loved storytelling and drawing. I experimented by telling him stories for whatever lesson he was supposed to be learning and asked him to draw. For example for his history class or his geography class, I’d tell stories about the Amazon and the insects there and the other species, and then he would draw. He did so well, and l thought “What an interesting way to learn.” But then I thought, “If this is what it looks like in a private school, I wonder what it would be like in a public school?” I visited a public school, and I found a lot of the same drama and problems there and that really started everything. It was a combination of experiences. I volunteered in different spaces then finally, I was like, no, something needs to be done and that’s when I set up Fount for Nations, with the support of my mom and my, then, very close friend who’s now my husband. We registered the organization and wanted to focus on children’s learning and children learning differently and to use creative arts as a way to teach literacy and numeracy. After I registered the organization, I went back to the activity center at the hospital, and it became one of the places that we worked. We re-opened the center with trained volunteers and trained healthcare workers. We professionalized it because I was now more aware and more organized.

TH: After establishing Fount for Nations you worked in healthcare settings and in schools, but did you have a focus at that time on working with children with developmental or learning differences? 

PM: That hasn’t really changed. I wanted to see that children who learn differently or are differently-abled can progress in school, but our scope was larger. We did programming in hospitals and programming in schools and programming in communities. And our goal was wherever a child is, they should be able to continue learning and succeed in their learning. So that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.

“that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.”

But the hospital programs, initially, were a little bit different. Even though it all started with a child who had cancer and a learning difficulty, not all of the children in the hospital were like that. For the hospital program we had to open it up. Our criteria were that the children had to be in primary school, six years to twelve years old, and the other criteria was they had to be in the hospital receiving treatment that would keep them out of school for a period of three months or more. According to the school schedule, if a child misses three months or more then they repeat the whole year, and we wanted to avoid the repetition. If they were going to be in a hospital for more than three months receiving treatment, then they qualified for our program. Kids with malaria, for example, did not qualify, because those are short treatments, but if they had tuberculosis, if they had cancer, or if they had HIV – that was also a very big deal at that time – then they could be enrolled in our program because they would be absent from so many classes. We later reduced this requirement to a month or more of hospitalization or if they were on treatments that required multiple hospitalizations.

The school program, on the other hand, has always been 100% children with learning differences because we work in school resource centers. These are special centers within the school where all the kids with different conditions come in and that’s where they get their support. In the resource centers, it doesn’t matter the child’s age or their ability, they are all put in one room with one teacher. That’s why it was such a challenge because even two kids with autism or two with cerebral palsy had very different needs. Children with cerebral palsy may have some mobility or no mobility. Some kids with autism were highly functional, but others weren’t. As a consequence, with the resource centers at the time, some of it was just the amount of work that the teachers had to put in to offer individualized learning. That’s where we came in: to provide the volunteers to reduce the student-teacher ratio. When we started, that ratio was around 45 or 50 to one teacher. We placed up to three volunteers per school reducing it to about 5 to 10 kids per teacher or teaching assistant. That’s how it was structured in the beginning, for the first two to three years of our work, focusing on strengthening the health care system and strengthening the school system to be able to support the children.

Initial Challenges

TH: What are some of the first challenges you faced as you tried to work in these different areas?
PM: The first challenge was at the hospital where I started the first activity center and in understanding the place of education in health care. There was a new leader at the hospital. He was not a pediatrician. He did not think that there was value in addressing the social-emotional aspects of patient care. He felt that we just needed to focus on physiology so we were in conflict.  As one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy, kids and their families often had to travel 400 kilometers from their homes to receive treatment. This was not easy on the families, so the hospital would admit the children for the duration of their treatment. That meant six months in the hospital, nine months in a hospital, a year in the hospital. And this is time away from school, away from socialization, away from friends, away from play, away from everything that is familiar to a child. My argument was that this affects their recovery; it affects how they respond to the medication; and, of course, it affects their parents, many of whom don’t believe their kids can get better.  So, we offered emotional health care for the parents and also for the child focused on play. And we used play to explain the different conditions and to explain the process of chemo to them. We used to play to help them just unwind and not be afraid of all the needles and being in the hospital. Also, we used play for learning and for providing continuity so that when they went back into school they are not lost and they have not regressed.

Everything came to an end when we were planning a fundraising event to renovate an old building into a new activity center for the hospital because we were starting to run out of space. There was a building that they used as a construction warehouse that was empty, and we wanted to renovate it. Everything was all set, but the day before the event, there was a misunderstanding with the hospital director and he literally kicked us out of the hospital. Just like that the program ended, and Fount for Nations left the hospital. I was so disappointed, but the beautiful thing about it is we had trained volunteers and healthcare practitioners, nurses and community health workers to provide play therapy and support the children socio-emotionally. I think the program stopped for about six months, but then it picked up again and now it’s being run independently.

The other challenge we had was with schools. We worked in resource centers for children with learning differences in government primary schools and those schools had their own unique challenges like low teacher salaries, lack of training for teachers, and teachers being overburdened. Initially, we sat down with the teachers and we said, “What do you need to help you succeed? To help these kids succeed?” And they said “we need extra help; we need teaching assistants, we need materials, we need help with parents.”  So, we focused on all those things.  

We also asked the parents, “Is this helping?” And what the parents said was, “This is great, but there is a lot of stigma and discrimination in the communities, and we get really discouraged and really disheartened.” We had been doing a lot of information sessions with parents to help them understand the different conditions that the children had, and we wanted to help them with coping strategies. But they told us, “The problem is bigger than us.”  Building on that, I wanted to help combat myths like these kids are bewitched and should be locked away which comes from the community, so we started doing a lot more community engagement and started working with chiefs and local leaders to start raising awareness around the abilities of children with developmental and learning differences.

We had an advantage for this work because in schools we started what we called “showcases.” At these showcases, kids from the resource centers would demonstrate what they had been learning. Because we used creative arts, it was very tangible, with displays of bangles, mats and color paintings among other creative projects. People were super excited. They’re like “oh these kids can actually do things!” Around the third year, we started an annual auction. We took what the kids produced at the hospital and the schools and worked with an artist to frame them, and then we auctioned them off. Part of it was fundraising but the most important part was raising awareness about what these kids can do about what they are learning. It was an educational family fun day as well as a fundraiser. 

But after a year of doing everything that the teachers and the parents wanted, we realized we couldn’t financially sustain it, so we sat with the teachers again and asked them, “What works? What doesn’t work? What has worked for you, this year, and what hasn’t worked? And what are your priorities?” They told us, “We would like you to focus on teacher training and parent support.” So, we dropped the material support. We dropped the volunteer program. We dropped the showcases. Instead, in addition to providing trainings for teachers, we started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school. 

…We started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school.

Time for an inclusive turn: Mel Ainscow on Inclusion as a guiding principle for educational reform in Portugal

This week Mel Ainscow shares his reflections on the implications of Portugal’s efforts to make inclusion a centerpiece of educational policymaking. Ainscow is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Manchester, Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow, and Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology. His works include ‘Struggles for equity in education: The selected works of Mel Ainscow’, and previous posts for IEN include ‘Finding pathways to equity’: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow and Christopher Chapman. An earlier version of this article, written for a UK audience, was published by the Fabian Education policy Group.

March 2022 saw the publication by the OECD of a review of national education policy in Portugal. The report, which was produced as part of OECD’s ‘Strength through Diversity’ project, has important implications for future reforms in many countries.


The most striking thing that emerges from the OECD review is the way that, over the last twenty years or so, Portuguese policy makers have used inclusion as a guiding principle for educational reform. Crucially, this is not seen as a discrete policy – a task to be allocated to certain individuals or groups. Rather, inclusion is regarded as a principle that must inform all educational policies, not least those concerned with the curriculum, accountability, funding and teacher education. In this sense, it is seen as being everybody’s responsibility.

“Inclusion is regarded as a principle that must inform all educational policies, not least those concerned with the curriculum, accountability, funding and teacher education. In this sense, it is seen as being everybody’s responsibility.

Since 2008, Portugal has had in place laws envisioning the provision of education for all students, without exception, in their local mainstream school. This legislation led to special schools being transformed into resource centres for inclusion, tasked with supporting their former students, who are now placed in mainstream schools.

Further legislation in 2018 provided a framework that sees inclusive education as a process under which the education system must be reformed so that it can adapt to the needs of all students. With this agenda as the focus, the Government has given priority to the development of policies that guarantee equal access to public education in ways that are intended to promote educational success and equal opportunities.

Abolishing labels

Importantly, the Portuguese legislation has moved away from a view that it is necessary to categorise students in order to intervene. Rather, it supports the idea that all children and young people can achieve a profile of competencies and skills at the end of their compulsory education career, even if they follow different learning paths. It therefore emphasises flexible curricular models, systematic monitoring of the effectiveness of interventions, and an ongoing dialogue between teachers and parents/caregivers.

“All children and young people can achieve a profile of competencies and skills at the end of their compulsory education career, even if they follow different learning paths.

This approach is in stark contrast to that taken in many countries, including my own, where recent years have led to an expansion of labels that situate problems of educational progress within the child. In England, this emphasis on labelling has led to a massive expansion in the number of learners placed in separate provision of various forms.  At the same time, there has been a worrying increase in those who are out of school altogether.


A key feature of the Portuguese education system is the emphasis placed on collaboration. This is facilitated by a well-established pattern of schools working in local clusters – a particular strength in relation to the promotion of inclusive practices and forms of organization that support the introduction of these ways of working. Indeed, many other countries are seeking to establish similar arrangements, building on research suggesting that collaboration between schools has an enormous potential for fostering their capacity to respond to student diversity.

A further area of strength in Portugal is the active involvement of community representatives in policy formulation within the school clusters. This includes the appointment of school directors, who are elected for four years. These arrangements provide a sound basis for engaging community partners to support the promotion of inclusion and equity within a local cluster.


I was privileged to be a member of the team that carried out the review in Portugal. A striking feature of our discussions with stakeholders in different parts of the country was the widespread awareness and acceptance of the principles upon which the national education policies are based.

Particularly impressive was the way that children and young people talked about their pride at being students in a school that is inclusive. Many also talked of the value they gained from being involved with such a diverse range of classmates.

“Children and young people talked about their pride at being students in a school that is inclusive. Many also talked of the value they gained from being involved with such a diverse range of classmates.

At the same time, there is a high level of awareness at all levels of the education system of the dangers associated with using labels in referring to potentially vulnerable groups of students. Frequent mention was also made of the political history of the country that has influenced the concern to see education as a basis for fostering democracy.


As the Portuguese education system moved forward in relation to inclusion over the last two decades, the country has also seen impressive developments in terms of equity. Indeed, it is one of the few countries with a positive trajectory of improvement in all of the subjects assessed by OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In addition, the rate of early leavers from education has reduced significantly, although there are significant variations between regions.

Portugal is one of the few countries with a positive trajectory of improvement in all of the subjects assessed by OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

It seems, then, that seeing inclusion as a principle for educational reform can provide a pathway to excellence. This points to the urgent need for a new direction in education policies across the world. These should be guided by UNESCO’s ‘Education 2030 Framework for Action’, which emphasizes inclusion and equity as laying the foundations for quality education.

So, as countries formulate policies for education reform, I suggest that it is now time to take an inclusive turn. Moving in this radically new direction will, of course, take time, as is evident in the story of Portugal, where there are, of course, still more challenges to be addressed. It will also require that the resources and expertise that exist within alternative provision should be redirected towards the development of schools where children and young people learn how to learn together and live together.

A Driving Force Behind Educational Change: Cecilia Azorín on Networks, Distributed Leadership & Inclusion

This week, IEN features the November Lead the Change (LTC) interview with Dr. Cecilia Azorín (@CeciliaAzorin), Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Murcia, Spain. Dr. Azorín is one of the leaders of an Erasmus+ KA2 Project comparing all age schools in Wales, Spain, and Iceland.  She received the Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award in Professional Capital and Community (2019).

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities.   

Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call??

Cecilia Azorín: Accepting educational responsibility implies conceiving education as something that can help individuals overcome inequalities, a mechanism capable of transforming lives and positively impacting people’s progress. This statement leads one to think about the social mobility that can be produced as a result of education. Harris and Jones (2020b) have recently stated that “social and educational mobility are important because they reflect the equality of opportunity in society” (p. 18). Put simply, Hargreaves (2020) defines social mobility as the chance to achieve greater success through education compared to one’s parents.

When your background is humble, for example, when your father is a farmer and your mother a homemaker, becoming the first PhD of your family, and eventually, a university professor, is no easy task. I have experienced social mobility firsthand, and it has not been a bed of roses. And yet, I can say that my own social mobility was the consequence of education and the experiences I received. Creating effective educational experiences for all children is the first step to dismantle oppressive systems. This is linked to an approach that essentially recognizes the power that education has in terms of social justice.

When I think about dismantling oppressive systems in education, a song springs to mind – “Another Brick in the Wall” released by the British group Pink Floyd in 1979. I invariably use this song as a university welcome for my students, future teachers, with whom I work on concepts such as, what is, and what is not, an effective pedagogical approach, how to capitalize on their passion for teaching, how to engage in divergent thinking and what it means to educate in an environment that responds effectively to student diversity. Another Brick in the Wall is a protest against the strict norms and rules of traditional conceptualizations of teaching and learning – a system more concerned with maintaining discipline and restricting creativity than with motivating and transmitting knowledge.

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration of Children’s Rights, the United Nations declared 1979 the International Year of the Child, thus recalling our collective commitment to protect children. From that moment on, authoritarian approaches to education began to be questioned. Undoubtedly, the message this song projected not only in British society, but in the rest of the world, allowed people to dream that the change in education was possible. In reality, the argument was clear and called for a new teaching, an improvement of the school based on less control and more freedom.

In 1980, one year after its release, this song was adopted as a protest anthem among black students in South Africa who were suffering from apartheid, a system of racial segregation that divided schools and communities in a discriminatory manner and unjustly perpetuated inequalities.

Today, there are new layers of exclusion that leave childhood and youth unprotected. According to the Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2020, 4): All over the world, discrimination is based on gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and other beliefs and attitudes; the Covid-19 pandemic has added new layers of exclusion.

Unfortunately, the continued exclusion of many merely confirms that oppressive systems are embedded in the very fabric of our societies, and are traditionally characterized by discriminating forms of oppression that directly attack the most vulnerable groups. For example, in Spain (my home country) and in many other places around the world, discrimination, stigmatization continue as does the fight to make schools more inclusive. Thus, a system of parallel schooling is currently maintained, with students attending so-called “ordinary” schools and others being relegated to “special education” schools. 

Inclusion is a major driving force for educational reform and a central goal of the international agenda. In a recent article, we analyzed how we can help schools to review progress on their journey to becoming more inclusive and show that fostering reflection amongst teachers about the contexts, resources and processes that underpin their work can make a difference (Azorín & Ainscow, 2020). But, how does one ensure that no one’s dream is denied and keep young people on the track to a brighter and equitable future without equal education opportunities for all children? The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions. This is probably one of the main challenges and responsibilities facing educational change scholars in these complex times.

“The school cannot and must not leave anyone behind; on the contrary, it must set itself up as a guarantor of the right to a truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, without exceptions.”

LtC: Given your focus on school networks as a strategy to enhance educators’ knowledge and practice, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience? 

CA: Nowadays, scholars are turning their attention to collaborative networking and all it entails. The inference is that educational networking as a policy mechanism is here to stay, and that networks represent a school improvement strategy with high expectations placed upon them (Azorín & Muijs, 2017). Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education. Some interconnected lessons derived from the penetration of networks in education are explained below (Azorín, 2017):

  • An opportunity for crossing boundaries. Networks enable the creation of a whole new scenario in which connectivity is prioritized over isolation; collectiveness over individualism; and collaboration over competitiveness.
  • A strategy for building bridges. When collaboration extends beyond schools and professionals, resources are effectively mobilized and there is an exchange of knowledge and experiences that make it possible to “learn from others”.
  • A driving force behind educational change. Networks are formed by interactive and horizontal structures that act as levers for change, leaving behind the hierarchies of the past to allow progress to gain momentum.

This way of understanding education embraces winds of change that go beyond school gates in the quest for greater collaboration. A few years ago, a couple of research stays in the United Kingdom afforded me the opportunity to see emerging networks and partnership alliances in action (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In an attempt to promote reflection on why professional learning networks are social, political, and cultural, as well as educational (Azorín, 2019), my research in the British context offers other views of networks that focuses not only on education but also on social welfare issues and aims to target networking from a broader perspective. This results in opening up schools to the community, a topic which is not yet covered widely in educational research.

“Networking is becoming ever necessary to tackle problems and establish the adjustments demanded by contemporary education”

To position school networks at the forefront of research, in 2018 I co-edited a special issue based on new forms of participation and social transformation through networking in education (Azorín & Arnaiz, 2018) in the Spanish journal Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado (see Volume 22, Number 2). This edition put the focus on the expected role of collaborative networks in education, the new forms of participation and social transformation that appear under these modes of organization, and the need to disseminate ideas that contribute to the creation of knowledge within this fruitful line of current and future research.

Recently I edited another issue on leading networks in the School Leadership & Management journal (see Volume 40, Number 2-3), which boasts an excellent line-up of international authors. This edition explores leadership actions that support effective networking and promotes reflection about whether networks can impact positively on students or are merely used as an organizational structure that benefits teachers in terms of professional learning and support (Azorín, 2020b). Together the diverse set of articles in this compendium conclude that empirical evidence in this direction remains thin and requires further attention.        

The central lesson of school networks as a strategy to enhance educator’s knowledge and practice is probably that networking affords a powerful way of organizing and operating; they offer viable solutions for the future of the network society and represent a reality that is advancing towards other forms of social participation and transformation. Networks are, in essence, the constellations illuminating the next routes of educational change.

LtC: In your recent work, you argue that distributed leadership offers new opportunities to understand professional collaboration generally and in the context of professional networks specifically. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in response to this argument?

CA: While COVID-19 continues, millions of people are caught in a traumatic experience. The pandemic is causing a chronic state of uncertainty and highlighting the weaknesses of education systems to adapt to change.

At the education level, leading schools during a pandemic is a challenge of vast dimensions. Once the initial shock is over, educational leaders need to recover the helm of their schools that this unexpected virus has taken from them. In this respect, networking is becoming a good ally in the fight against COVID-19.

Prior to this period of crisis, educational research and practice had already focused on the prevalence of an important current of thought that advocates distributed leadership as a key condition for effective networking and coherent professional collaboration (Azorín, Harris & Jones, 2020; Harris & Jones, 2017). COVID-19 has accelerated networking to an unprecedented level and distributed leadership is now being used as a mechanism of coherent response to the current situation. 

In education, there is a call for collaboration and leaders are being required to network. According to Harris and Jones (2020a), “most leaders will be running on empty given the myriad of challenges that COVID-19 has created for them, so distributed leadership is a necessity to survive” (p. 246).

We have argued that the adoption of a lens of distributed leadership practice within networks will afford a better understanding of how networks operate (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020). In our work, from the point of view of distributed leadership and networking we provide a three-fold classification that aims to make sense of the complexities involved in changing education policies and practices:

  • Network leadership: based on leadership through organizational connections across organizations, where the type of network dictates membership, there are no implicit barriers to entry and knowledge transfer is central to effective networking.
  • Lateral leadership: characterized by collective agency, interdependent decision making, collaborative action, formal and informal leadership patterns, collective ownership, fluid, interchangeable membership and releasing potential.
  • Distributed leadership: related to leadership by expertise within, between and across organizations, inter-changeable membership according to needs, a focus on leadership practice more than leadership position, and extending or ‘stretching’ leadership capacity as a key purpose.

In terms of policy and practice, Harris (2012) argues that “despite decades of research on school improvement, school effectiveness and system reform, some policymakers are still selecting and implementing policies that have little, if any, independent empirical evidence supporting them” (p.5). Distributed leadership perspective would shift the knowledge base on networks “away from largely normative descriptions, self-report and over assertion to more sophisticated research designs and analytical processes that would generate more rigorous and reliable evidence” (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2020, p. 121). If we look at the educational research, there is empirical evidence that supports the following set of propositions about the types of leadership practices that are most prevalent and effective within networks (Azorín, Harris & Jones, in press):

  1. Middle leadership supports effective networking.
  2. Distributed leadership within networks enhances innovation.
  3. Teacher leadership is an essential component of effective networking.
  4. Collaborative practices need to be learned and practiced.
  5. Formal leadership drives distributed leadership.
  6. Distributed leadership patterns matter in networking activity.
  7. Effective networks are communities of practice.
  8. Distributed leadership provides support in networked organizations.
  9. Leadership in networks is not fixed but interchangeable.
  10. Effective network leaders build and sustain professional capacity.

These findings clearly demonstrate that distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking. Within this change of outlook, a good recommendation is to take note of what evidence tells us and bring in policies that include what is functioning in practice to promote reforms that go in the right direction. It is important to facilitate links that allow distributed leadership to flourish in networks at the systemic level. To make this happen, educational leaders’ actions have to go beyond school limits and move towards a process of democratization and openness.

“Distributed leadership is a successful approach that can support, stimulate, and enhance networking.”

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

CA: One of my priorities as an educational change scholar is opening up schools to their communities and elevate these communities’ importance in decision-making and policy. In education, as in many other aspects of life, it is important to recognize that context matters (Harris and Jones, 2018). Schools have to reflect on the context in which they are immersed, be prepared to work in collaboration networks with neighboring allies, and to take firm steps to open up to the world (Azorín, 2019).

Schools are no longer expected to merely provide an educational function or service, but to safeguard the well-being of their students and, despite the pandemic, ensure continuity of learning. They are asked to take a step forward, to foster rapprochement with their local community, neighborhood, various educational and social agents, volunteer networks, and associations (Azorín & Muijs, 2018). In the 21st century, it does not make sense to live disconnected from what is happening around us. It is vital to open up and remove the barriers that still make it difficult for millions of people to benefit from the improvement provided by the different connections they have in educational and social spheres.

Similarly, the construction of a “school without walls” could be supported, both physically and pedagogically; a renewed institution capable of transcending its own rules and questioning its own practices and relations with its surroundings. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, reimagining schooling in that sense is a reminder that the call for collaboration and networking should not be delayed any longer.

Below are 7 important factors that educational change scholars could bear in mind to support the transformation of education when they engaged in and with different school settings:

  1. Communicate to share and exchange information.
  2. Connect to learn from others.
  3. Collaborate together for a common purpose.
  4. Create new knowledge.
  5. Co-lead for distributed leadership to flourish.
  6. Circulate ideas that allow the dissemination of innovations.
  7. Catalyze the change of cultures, policies and practices.

Educational change scholars act as links that bring the value of ideas and are able to initiate social movements that enable the transformation of educational systems for the improvement of their countries. This is often done through the use of evidence-supported knowledge and advice about practices that work. Their work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.

“Educational change scholars’ work is to connect theory, policy, and practice, clarifying the meaning of what they do so that others can replicate it.”

In short, I have published numerous results of research projects and experiences of educational innovation carried out in schools with which I had the opportunity to collaborate very closely. Often, when I share the trends in scientific literature and the proposals of some schools with others, the professionals working in them say they were unaware this knowledge was available. I have learned from these experiences how relevant it is that ideas travel from one school to another. When we know that something has worked in one school it is easier for another to want to put something similar into practice, while adapting it to its own reality. The educational change scholar has the capacity to make this possible. In summary, the interconnection between the different educational and social agents involved in the school, as well as the dissemination of their practices, is part of the formula for educational change.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

CA: Unquestionably, 2020 has been a turning point, a before and after in people’s lives. The pandemic has marked the end of the educational journey of the previous decades. Hargreaves and Fullan (2020) recently stated that “educational reform in the postpandemic age must be transformational and not seek to return to normal” (p. 327). Beyond the COVID-19 supernova (Azorín (2020a) “we need to come out of this crisis as a stronger society, with a fairer and more supportive educational system that really can change lives. Otherwise, we will have missed out on an opportunity” (p. 388).  In the coming years, educational change is going to take huge strides in terms of networking, leadership and innovation.

First, the monitoring of collaborative networks that have sprung up in education and society, especially in these uncertain times, needs to be researched. Since the beginning of the pandemic “the chains of favors have multiplied with initiatives of support and help towards the most vulnerable” (Azorín, 2020a, p. 383).  If networks are at the front-line of the crisis, where formal and informal groups connected by social ties have emerged in force. 

Second, Harris and Jones (2020a) state that “a new chapter is being written about school leadership in disruptive times that will possibly overtake and overshadow all that was written before on the topic” (p. 246). At the school level, there is no single person able to respond to all the demands and challenges deriving from COVID-19. In contrast, many actors are playing crucial roles at this moment and distributed leadership is positioning itself as a viable strategy for the present and future of education (Azorín, Harris, &Jones, in press). 

Third, within this uncertain atmosphere, it is worth asking if COVID-19 can act as a channel for innovation and change in education. I agree with Fullan and Quinn (2020), who conclude, “Our sense is that there are many people (students, teachers, parents and others) who see a dire need for improvement in learning systems and are willing to work toward that end. With the right combination of action positive system change could occur at a more rapid rate than at any time in the past century” (p. 22).

In any case, surely the above ideas can serve as beacons to illuminate the change in education that is so needed and will mark the new coordinates on which we will continue to teach, write and research.


Azorín, C. (2017). Redes de colaboración entre escuelas inglesas para la mejora de la inclusión socioeducativa. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, Número Extraordinario, 29-48.

Azorín, C. (2019). The emergence of professional learning networks in Spain. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 4(1), 36-51.

Azorín, C. (2020a). Beyond COVID-19 supernova. Is another education coming? Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 381-390.

Azorín, C. (2020b). Leading networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 105-110.

Azorín, C. and Ainscow, M. (2020). Guiding schools on their journey towards inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(1), 58-76.

Azorín, C. and Arnaiz, P. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Nuevas formas de participación y transformación social. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 1-6.

Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2017). Networks and collaboration in Spanish education policy. Educational Research, 59(3), 273-296.

Azorín, C. and Muijs, D. (2018). Redes de colaboración en educación. Evidencias recogidas en escuelas de Southampton. Profesorado. Revista de currículum y formación del profesorado, 22(2), 7-27.

Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020). Taking a distributed perspective on leading professional learning networks. School Leadership & Management, 40(2-3), 111-127.

Azorín, C., Harris, A. and Jones, M. (in press). Future Leadership. Distributed Leadership and Networking: Exploring the Evidence Base. In D. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership. Routledge.

Fullan, M. and Quinn, J. (2020). Education Reimagined: The Future of Learning, available at: https://edudownloads.azureedge.net/msdownloads/Microsoft-EducationReimagined-Paper.pdf (accessed 27 November 2020).

Hargreaves, A. (2020). Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility. Bloomington, United States: Solution Tree Press.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2020). Professional capital after the pandemic: revisiting and revising classic understandings of teachers’ work. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3-4), 327-336.

Harris, A. (2012). Lead the change series Q&A with Alma Harris. AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 20, 6.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2017). Professional learning communities: A strategy for school and system improvement? Wales Journal Education, 19(1), 331-333.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2018). Why context matters: A comparative perspective on education reform and policy implementation. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 17, 195-207.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020a). COVID 19 -school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 243-247.

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020b). System Recall. Leading for Equity and Excellence in Education. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

UNESCO (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report 2020. Inclusion and education: all means all. Paris: UNESCO.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.


The step by step integration of the inclusion
Belz, N.  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (11 April 2012)

The debate over the inclusion of children with special needs in regular schools is still ongoing in Germany. All parties agree generally with inclusion of children with special needs in heterogeneous school settings, although they do not agree with how, to what extent, and the speed at which it can be implemented.  Germany agreed to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2009), with inclusion being a part of that agreement.  In 2011 the conference of German cultural ministers gave a recommendation for an inclusive school system but devised no concrete plans for the states to realize it. The representative of the monitoring office for the rights of persons with disabilities at the German Institute for Human Rights declares that none of the German states have had an inclusive school system until now. Only 22.3% of the children with special needs were taught at a regular school in 2010-2011. The remainder special needs students were still taught at special schools. There are some schools that have a good inclusive system, but Germany is still far away from full inclusion. (The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education provides information about the development of inclusion in Germany.)

The following video from Deutsche Welle  highlights the Regine-Hildebrandt school in the German state of Brandenburg, showing “that it is possible to bring disabled students into the mainstream public education system.”