BLOG: From Iceland to Scotland: exploring inclusive education across contexts

11/30/2022

Introduction

During May 2022, Edda Óskarsdóttir (Associate Professor, University of Iceland) and Hermína Gunnþórsdóttir (Associate Professor, University of Akureyri) traveled to Scotland to visit Liz Curtis and Kirsten Darling-McQuistan, Teacher Educators at the University of Aberdeen, to discuss how inclusive education is understood and enacted in our different contexts, in line with the aims of the ConnectED project. Beyond exploring the local University campus and surrounding area, specific activities to facilitate discussion and exchange included: conversations with students and academics with a specific interest in inclusive education; a keynote presentation (by Edda and Hermína); attending a regional collaborative event; and visiting a local school.

Through these activities, different aspects of both the Scottish and Icelandic education systems came sharply into focus, revealing the complex and interconnected ecology involved in striving for more inclusive education: from the activities of children and teachers in the classroom, to regional and national activities and priorities. Engaging with these different layers has given us all (guests and hosts) the opportunity to reflect and learn from these exchanges and identify priorities to take forward to strengthen and enhance inclusive practices within our own contexts. We therefore describe and summarise the activities we engaged in and share our reflections below, using layers of the ecological system to organise our thoughts, questions and musings, from our different perspectives (indicated in our use of different coloured fonts).

School-based layers of activity

Meetings with master students in IP

We had a Teams meeting with practitioners undertaking master's in Inclusive Practice. Alice works in a school for children with multiple disabilities and usually works with a group of six students. They put emphasis on supporting students to be active, physically, socially and educationally. Michael Marten works in a large secondary school and he told us about some of the challenges he and other teachers are facing such as: 1) supporting students who find the studies challenging (have difficulties) but still need to pass the exams, 2) to make the curriculum accessible, e.g. to open the students eyes for how the history has sustained oppression and marginalization of some students and to see the role of the British empire in that process. Dandan, told us how she supports the mainstream class teacher to adopt different strategies and interventions to support their ASN children in class and said: "I support the class teacher with strategies to help the ASN pupils and hopefully help them to improve their inclusive practice within their classroom". She trained to work throughout Broad General Education years and has been working mainly in mainstream schools, but before she took teacher training she worked in a special school. 

A school visit

We went for a visit to a Primary School in a town south of Aberdeen. A second grade teacher welcomed us and took us on a tour of the school. The school building is situated near the town center and close to the ocean front. The building is old and outdated and the Local Authority is building a new school at the outskirts of the town, close to a forest.

Coming into the school we saw hallways filled with artwork made by students. The school had a friendly atmosphere and according to the teacher there is emphasis on collaboration between teachers and also between students. We got a chance to speak to the school's teacher for students with additional needs and she explained the support structure and how the focus was on an inclusive environment and education. She described her role as being collaborative towards the teachers, with emphasis on team teaching and then training the support staff to work with children individually or in small groups as needed.

Towards the end of our visit we spoke with the headmistress and she discussed her vision for the new school building. Her aim was to focus more on outdoors education, as she had experience and a license as an outdoor education teacher.

Liz and Kirsten: while we speak regularly with our students and visits many local schools in our role as Teacher Educators, having these conversations and making this visit with our Edda + Hermína opened up new ways of listening, seeing and engaging and as such different aspects of inclusive practice, particularly the importance of 'place'. Listening to the questions Hermína and Edda asked of our students and while in the school, enabled us to re-focus on this taken-for-granted aspect of practice which has the power to connect learners, teachers and staff together as a community.

Edda and Hermína: we found that the challenges that the teachers are dealing with in their practices are similar to those we face in Iceland. We were impressed by how committed the teachers are to their students and to working inclusively, finding ways to collaborate and learn from each other. This was both the case as we heard from the master's students and in the school. Discussing our visit with our hosts gave us an insight into school contexts in terms of policies and the social environment they operate within. We saw new ways of working with teacher assistants in the school that gave us ideas to bring back to Iceland.

Regional and National layers of activity

Collaborative conversation

It was really valuable for us to be able to participate in the event Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education: A collaborative Conversation co-organised by the 'Northern Alliance' (a Regional Improvement Collaborative) and the School of Education, University of Aberdeen.

The Northern Alliance is a newly formed Regional Improvement Collaborative, which aims to "develop a culture of collaboration, sharing of expertise and creating local and regional networks to improve the educational and life chances of our children and young people" see further on the homepage. In the introduction talk it was mentioned how important it is to "have a system where regional collaboration is accessible to all in order to reach equality for all" and what matters the most and creates the most success is the communication between students and teachers and what happens between them. The importance of agency was highlighted as well as learning networks and belongingness for teachers and learners.

The event was introduced as an opportunity to hear from and ask questions of Prof. Ken Muir about the key findings from his recent 'Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education' report, which surfaces national issues within the Scottish education system. Based on this report, the sub themes of the collaborative conversation were interdependence, inclusion and improvement. These themes acted as organisers for presentations and professional dialogue, giving participants the opportunity to discuss and share ideas about how to enhance professional agency and belonging through collaboration in order to support improvement and the equity of outcomes for all learners.

There were 3 workshop sessions with each one having a workshop from University of Aberdeen and one from the Northern Alliance that engaged with the afore-mentioned themes. The following presentations give an insight into the nature of the event: 

Interdependence

The Curriculum Workstream Lead for Secondary BGE/Senior Phase, presented onthe importance of agency, learning networks and belongingness for teachers and learners. Here, the subject support groups working within the Northern Alliance were introduced and how these have impacted teaching and learning in the region.

Inclusion

At this event, Kirsten presented Scotland's newly revised (3rd edition) National Framework for Inclusion, which is co-created and updated by the Scottish Universities Inclusion Group (SUIG). SUIG is a collaborative group of teacher educators working across Scotland's Higher Education Institutes.

Improvement

Working together to improve our pedagogy and practice, including digital, in a range of learning contexts. This presentation introduced an interesting online collaboration between teachers from various school levels across the northern regions. The end product of this collaboration was a collaborative e-book.

Kirsten and Liz: Attending and presenting at this event, which was located in an interesting inter-play between national level findings, as presented by Professor Ken Muir, and regional interpretation and action was interesting. It was an opportunity to explore understandings and share interpretations of what it means to be inclusive and how we need to work together. The layers of collaborative activity were striking. Were these all in tune? Perhaps not, but Edda and Hermína helped us to see how these established collaborative groups are a key part in our on-going efforts in terms of inclusion, but also helped us to consider the importance of looking outwards and engaging with different perspectives.

Edda and Hermina: We were lucky that the Northern Alliance event took place while we were in Aberdeen. This collaboration between communities in the north of Scotland is something we would like to see in Iceland. It could be empowering for teachers in different areas of Iceland and provide a platform for professional learning and development - as well as creating a meaningful conversation about education between those working at the municipality level.

Closing remarks

We have learnt a lot about the similarities and differences between the Icelandic and Scottish education systems, particularly in relation to the drive to make education inclusive. Through the time spent together and the opportunities for enhanced reflection, we can see the value and importance of learning from each other to continue the on-going process of ensuring education is for all. It was a valuable learning experience to see how both schools and teachers were dedicated to work towards social justice and inclusive education, something that relates directly to our network goals. 


About the project

The ConnectED project aims to create connections between early career scholars and researchers across the Arctic by organising a series of researcher visits. The project is funded by UArctic project funding for Network Activities on Arctic Research and Education, allocated by Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education (DAFSHE) and administrated by UArctic International Secretariat. 

Project coordinator:

Kalpana Vijayavarathan,
Assistant professor
The University of the Faroe Islands
KalpanaV(at)setur.fo