Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity (CREID)

On the presumption of mainstreaming

By Professor Lani Florian, Bell Chair of Education, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh

Professor Lani Florian

Concerns about inconsistencies in how the presumption of mainstreaming in Scottish schools is being applied has prompted the Government to review its guidance on this topic.  In support of the current public consultation on the duty to provide education in a mainstream school to all of Scotland’s children, this blog  considers the pros and cons of this policy and asks whether it still has a place in Scottish education.

When the presumption of mainstreaming was introduced into Scottish policy nearly twenty years ago, the Scottish Executive [1] noted that, for the first time in Scotland, we will create a presumption that every child in Scotland — every child — will go to a mainstream school [and] defined three limited circumstances when … debate about such matters could occur.

These circumstances are when mainstream education

  • would not be suited to the ability or aptitude of the child;
  • would be incompatible with the provision of efficient education for the children with whom the child would be educated; or
  • would result in unreasonable public expenditure being incurred which would not ordinarily be incurred,

and it shall be presumed that those circumstances arise only exceptionally.

At the time, the principle of inclusion in education was very strong in Scotland as it was elsewhere. The idea that children identified with special educational needs should attend the school they would have attended if they did not have such needs was being strongly promoted as a rights-based form of provision.  The policy intention of the presumption of mainstreaming was to strengthen the ability to secure a mainstream education for a child while seeking a balance between sometimes competing interests.

The rights-based perspective underpinning inclusive education declares that children with disabilities are not to be excluded from what is available to others on the basis of their disability because so doing is a form of discrimination. This perspective has a long history. The ideas have been embedded in international policy since the post war Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that everyone has the right to education. Other declarations such as the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; UN Standard Rules on Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, the 1994 Salamanca Statement and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities all affirm the right to education without discrimination, and this is reflected in current international education policies, notably the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ for all. 

Initially, rights based arguments were supported by research that showed that children who were educated in special schools did not have good outcomes on many important post-school quality of life indicators, and sociological analyses of the special education enterprise that showed how it functioned to maintain rather than change education’s normative centre the so-called ‘mainstream’ where most children were placed.

Many parents and disability advocates found this untenable. They argued that the mainstream offered the best chance for social acceptance and better life chances. The argument for inclusion was an argument for a better educational opportunity in a mainstream environment that welcomed everyone.

This sentiment was so strong that when the Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act was debated, Nicola Sturgeon expressed concern that the 3 circumstances or, ‘op outs’ gave local authorities too wide a discretion to refuse children with special educational needs access to mainstream schooling. In supporting an amendment (which was defeated) she made the following point:

The first opt-out in subsection (2) says that mainstream education will not be provided in a mainstream school if the school would not be suited to the ability or aptitude of the child with special educational needs. Let us be quite clear at the outset. Very few mainstream schools, without very special effort, would be suited to the ability or aptitude of children with special educational needs. Surely the challenge of inclusion is to make schools accessible for all children, not just for some? A good school will adapt to suit the abilities of all children, not just some. The first opt-out absolves local authorities of the responsibility to provide schools designed to bring out the best in all children, regardless of their abilities. That responsibility should be the hallmark of a good education system.

But how this could and should be achieved for everyone has been a subject of intense debate and consequently there have been different interpretations of how provision in mainstream schools might best be provided.  This has led to variability in practice.

In my own research on the successful practices of teachers in inclusive schools that achieve good results for everyone, and in the work of many others, we can find examples of children who are happy, well supported and learning.[2]  But we can also point to examples where children are not well supported, who are isolated and not flourishing in their learning.  Worryingly, there have been some recent reports that document low levels of satisfaction with the level of support that schools are providing.

One report[3] noted:

  • Almost half (49%) of those surveyed felt that they have received a below average or poor level of support from their school


  • Only 8% of those surveyed claim to have received an excellent level of support from school teachers and school nurses


Another report[4] found: over 80% of the respondents in their study of inclusion said we are not getting it right for every child.

Recently, a colleague wrote to me following a professional development event she attended and said:

The participants really laid into the speaker. They claimed the 'inclusion agenda' was making their job impossible. There seems to be a growing discourse that blames the most vulnerable in our schools for problems in schools. There clearly are funding problems in schools that are impacting harshly on teachers' working conditions - but these issues seem to be used to justify resentment of children that have been identified as requiring additional support. It also seems that resources for children with difficulties is seen as an 'add on' and the first thing to be removed if the budget is cut.


The consultation on the presumption of mainstreaming must not become a referendum on inclusion policies and practice.  We cannot ignore the difficult and complex work involved, or dismiss the concerns of parents and teachers who feel that things are not working for too many children.

The presumption of mainstreaming requires that schools are supported to suit the abilities of all children when pressures mount whether that is due to budget cuts, how resources are deployed or when what counts as the hallmark of a good education system changes there will be those who will say that the presumption of mainstreaming is a failed policy.

What is important to keep in mind is that there are concerns about ‘getting it right’ for children with additional support needs in every type of setting mainstream and special. Too many people both on both sides of the inclusion argument agree, we can do better.  The question is how. 

In answering this question, I would argue that questioning the presumption of mainstreaming is asking the wrong question. Type of school is not the issue the issue is about the quality of the child’s education. The more important question is how can we work together to reduce inconsistency in practice.


Lani Florian

Bell Chair of Education



  1. Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. (2000). Meeting of the Parliament, Wednesday 7 June 2000, Volume 7, No 1. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
  2. Florian, L., Black-Hawkins, K., & Rouse, M. (2017). Achievement and Inclusion in Schools (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
  3. O’Regan, F., Logan, P.E., Lloyd, T., & McConkey, M. (October 2017). Born to be ADHD: A lifetime lost or a lifetime saved. ADHD Alliance.
  4. Enable Scotland. (2017). #Included in the Main?! 22 steps on the journey to inclusion for every pupil who has a learning disability. North Lanarkshire: Enable Scotland.