The Encouraging Voices project has been developed by Michael Shevlin, Education Department, Trinity College Dublin, and Richard Rose, Centre for Special Needs Education, University College Northampton, in collaboration with colleagues in Ireland, the UK and Iceland. This book is the culmination of the project, which explored the perspectives of young people from diverse backgrounds (including disability) regarding their educational experiences. What these young people have in common is the fact that they have been pushed to the margins and left out of the decision-making process in their own education. What these young people desire is universal access to the education system and ambition for their success from policy makers and teachers.
What is also apparent from the contributions is the fact that schools are a microcosm of society at large—where disability, culture and social background still prompt stereotyped beliefs about what individuals can achieve. Very often difference is presented as a reason for failure.
Based on shared themes that emerged from a variety of contributions, the book is loosely divided into four sections: voicing concerns; shaping identities; between two worlds; and common ground.
Voicing Concerns explores the views of children concerning rights and equality and highlights the unequal power relationships between children and adults. It highlights negative attitudes towards minority groups, described as ‘unsuitable for friendship or even as school companions’. The impact of bullying not only on victims, but also on others who feel powerless to help, is outlined. The desire of children for a more democratic structure within schools where their voice is listened to is clear.
Shaping Identities addresses the influence within the education system of institutionalised stereotypes that emphasise difference as deficit. Not only is there a lack of provision for minorities, there is a lack of ambition for them in the system. Most positive experiences were attributed to individual teachers or to good schools. In contrast some examples of good practice are outlined where pupils are facilitated to learn the necessary skills to participate in developing their own learning. Where such collaboration exists the scepticism and apprehension of teachers is replaced by a better understanding of pupil needs and more focussed intervention. For the pupils part greater self-awareness is developed. Improved behaviour and increased responsibility among pupils are the hallmarks of a collaborative approach.
Between Two Worlds records the experiences of marginalised groups who have participated in mainstream education. In the mainstream environment attitudes and lack of systemic support serve to underline and reinforce the sense of difference. It points to the significance of cultural awareness when planning and providing integrated education. It also highlights again the necessity for consultation with pupils if equality and inclusion is to be achieved.
Finally, Common Ground presents a variety of perspectives on how a rights-based approach can inform a positive educational experience for all. It outlines the importance of legislation and policy but the key to real change is the inclusion of diversity within school culture and practice. For this to bear fruit practitioners must ‘buy into’ inclusion on a personal level.
In its double meaning title—that of encouraging the voices of those who have been marginalised and facilitating voices of encouragement to change—this book achieves a balance between highlighting significant issues and outlining some positive approaches to change.
This book is a timely contribution to the debate around education for people with disabilities. It is a book that should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in education from policy through to practice. When he officially launching the book, Senator David Norris recommended that it should be placed in the Oireachtas Library and be prescribed reading for all politicians. I agree entirely.