Final Project Evaluation Report

Summary of Findings

The Inclusive School Communities (ISC) project was a multi-faceted set of activities and resources with the aim of increasing SA schools’ capacity to operate more inclusively. There is a widely recognised need for teachers and schools to shift towards more inclusive ways of working, but achieving the necessary cultural, policy and practice changes represents a significant challenge for many schools. The ISC project represented an innovative opportunity for schools to increase their capacity for inclusive practice. In particular, the combination of the cross-sector participant group, extended networking and professional learning opportunities, involvement of youth mentors, access to a broad range of expertise, and flexible co-design approach were innovative program elements.

The primary focus of the program evaluation was to understand the nature and scope of any changes in attitudes, capacity, practices and/or policies related to inclusive practices in participating schools, and to identify the impact of these changes on staff, students, and other community members.

Overall, the evaluation found evidence of positive outcomes in relation to all five program goals. That is, there was evidence that engagement in the ISC project was associated with positive change in attitudes and culture, knowledge and capability, and policy and practice related to inclusive education. In addition, the project supported feelings of connection and belonging to community, including for individuals living with disability, and fostered potentially sustainable partnerships across stakeholder groups. The extent to which these outcomes were substantial and likely to be sustainable varied across outcomes and school sites.

The strongest evidence reflected an increase in school participants’ own awareness and knowledge of issues related to inclusion, and renewed commitment to advocate for and drive inclusive practices at their schools. There was evidence of changes in practice and policy, but the extent to which these changes were beginning to emerge, as opposed to more embedded across the school (and therefore associated with cultural change), varied among sites; most were at the emergent stages. There was greater attention to student voice in multiple schools, with some introducing new structures to increase opportunities for meaningful participation, including by students with disability. There was evidence of mutual benefits arising from the participation of youth mentors, but this resource appears to have been under-utilised by schools and represented a missed opportunity for deeper engagement.

The ISC project made a significant contribution to inclusive education by engaging diverse stakeholders and providing a valued forum for professional conversations among school participants as they deepened, refined and questioned their understanding of inclusive school cultures. Across multiple sources of data, it was evident that the Community of Practice model of professional learning was effective in equipping participants with key knowledge related to inclusion, enabling participants to share ideas and engage in collaborative problem-solving with peers from other sites, and fostering potentially sustainable relationships. Some of the original participants, who entered the project at a more advanced point in their journey towards inclusion, felt that the CoP meetings were of less benefit after the second round of schools joined—they felt that the group became too large and the content remained too introductory. For these participants, the opportunity to work with the external consultant and with other, more advanced schools became more relevant as the project progressed. JFA-PO leaders provided options for the CoP group to break into smaller sub-groups, but this offer was declined by participants. Then COVID-19 interrupted the face-to-face meetings and created significant challenges for schools, who were forced to redirect their attention towards preparing for online learning and supporting students and families. Several school participants noted that this resulted in decreased engagement and momentum related to the ISC project.

For example: …the COVID situation just set us back by a term, and just in terms of what we wanted to achieve, and getting the work done. In our project in particular, we have a very, a small student leadership group that we called our inclusion group, and just starting from about the middle of term one would have been, normally when we’re starting to work with those kids, as leaders and develop them. Then of course, we missed those last four weeks of term one. And term two for us, was just getting it, getting back on our feet after the shock we’d all been through, and we just put most of our focus into student learning at that time, and I guess we just took our eye off that leadership ball in that sense.

These issues notwithstanding, it was clear that the CoP model was strongly endorsed by participating schools. It is also acknowledged that the JFA project leaders found creative ways to respond to unanticipated events such as COVID-19, including through the establishment of Zoom meetings and professional learning webinars.

Of note, participants highly valued those project experiences that provided them with applied examples of inclusive practice (e.g., examples shared by CoP peers; visits to other schools; particular webinars) and enabled them to discuss and plan for practices at their own sites (e.g., CoP work with peers; opportunities to discuss site planning with external consultant). Some participants indicated that they commenced the project believing their school was inclusive, but engaging in the project, and particularly accessing ‘real world’ examples, prompted them to re-examine their understandings and acknowledge specific areas for improvement. Some schools indicated that participating in the project helped them to identify specific gaps in their school’s approach to ensuring a comprehensive school-wide culture of inclusion.

In the following sections, findings from Chapters 3-6 are synthesised and summarised in relation to the five evaluation questions.

Findings in Relation to Evaluation Questions

1. To what extent has the ISC project achieved positive change in attitudes and culture within mainstream services (schools), related to the inclusion of students with disability? 

It should be noted that most of the school-based participants entered the ISC project by choice and were motivated by an existing commitment to the effective inclusion of students with disability in mainstream schools. Therefore, it might be expected that changes in attitudes towards inclusion for this group might be modest. Nevertheless, 60% of survey respondents agreed that engagement in the project had resulted in a change in attitudes. Perhaps more significantly, there was evidence from the interviews and CoP observations that participants strengthened their recognition of the role of attitudes in generating change in practices among teachers and leaders at their schools. Engagement in the project also enabled some leaders to renew and expand their commitment to inclusive education. These findings are promising in terms of the likelihood of effecting broader attitudinal change in schools.

In terms of inclusive culture, participants recognised cultural change as essential for the introduction and sustainability of inclusive school practices. At the same time, the imperative to encourage more inclusive cultures at their sites was perceived as a major challenge. Half of the respondents to the survey agreed or strongly agreed that their participation had resulted in a more inclusive culture at their sites, which is promising, albeit the lowest level of agreement across the outcome items.

It is well documented in the literature that achieving cultural change in schools is a multi-faceted, longterm prospect involving the coordination of resources and people working towards a clear, shared vision and sustained by common values (Dyson, Farrell, Polat, Hutcheson, & Gallanaugh, 2004; McMaster, 2013). Some of the frustration felt by participants in this project came from their experiences of trying to effect change without the genuine support of principals or key leaders in their schools and without a sense of shared ownership among teachers. Clearly, effecting fully inclusive school cultures was beyond the scope of the ISC project. However, there was promising evidence of positive change in this direction. The ISC project contributed to significant professional conversations among school participants as they deepened and refined their understanding of inclusive school culture. The project certainly raised participants’ awareness that constant attention to staff attitudes and practices is an ongoing requirement and explicit plans must be in place to review these in a consistent and sustained way. Some schools indicated that participating in the project, and in particular having the opportunity to visit other schools, helped them to identify specific gaps in their school’s approach to ensuring a comprehensive school-wide culture of inclusion. These experiences left participants in a stronger position to advocate for specific changes that would impact inclusive culture.

2. To what extent has the ISC project achieved increased knowledge and capability within mainstream services (schools), related to inclusive practice?

The evaluation data suggested that participating in the ISC project was associated with increased knowledge of inclusion and inclusive practices, and increased capability for the school leaders directly involved in the project. There was strong evidence in support of this outcome. Responses to the online survey indicated that 90% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that participation in the ISC project had raised their awareness of issues related to inclusion, while almost three quarters agreed that the project supported them to increase their knowledge and skills relevant to inclusion. The CoP feedback surveys from 2019 similarly reflected participants’ agreement that engagement in the CoP meetings had increased their knowledge and confidence related to inclusive practice.

Throughout the data, there was evidence of leaders rethinking their existing understandings of inclusion, noting that as they learned more, they recognised the limits of their previous interpretations of inclusive education. For example: I thought that I had a lot of knowledge, but I have learnt so much through the project, through people’s tool kits, through the discussions with other schools and getting to see other schools. It’s just been – like it’s a great project and every time I meet someone, I usually say you need to go on this project.

In the CoP observation data, knowledge and capability was the most prevalent theme, which is consistent with the focus on knowledge development and professional learning for the project participants throughout the CoP workshops. The webinars in 2020 provided additional opportunities, beyond the CoP meetings, for professional learning related to inclusive education. Participants shared examples of how these resources had supported growth in their own knowledge, but also enabled them to work more effectively with other staff. For example:

Making good use of the webinar recordings with small groups of teachers - working through the curriculum adjustment process that Loren [external consultant] modelled in the webinars with teachers, building their confidence and capacity.

A strength of the project in relation to professional learning was the openness and flexibility of the JFA-PO project leaders, and particularly Letitia as Project Leader. Experiences such as the interstate field trip were not pre-planned, but developed as a response to participants’ emerging needs and priorities from the CoP discussions, and this proved to be among the most powerful learning experiences for many participants. The shift to online webinars once the planned conference was cancelled due to COVID-19 is another example of responsiveness to participants’ developing professional learning needs and a willingness to be flexible in the delivery of the ISC project.

Participants strongly endorsed the CoP model as effective in their professional learning, and particularly valued the ongoing opportunities for networking and ‘thinking together’ with leaders from other schools across sectors (Government, Independent and Catholic). However, most attributed their professional growth to the combination of multiple project activities. These included the visits to other schools, opportunities to engage with the mentors, access to more personalised consultation with Loren Swancutt (consultant), and work on the toolkit resources. One participant, from a school more advanced with inclusive practices, described how the CoP was beneficial in terms of networking, but went on to explain how the opportunity to work individually with the consultant and visit other schools helped them to plan their own next steps:

When we started talking to Loren, we realised that some of the things she had done… they were further down the track. That’s where we wanted to get to. So, she worked with us… sort of did a mud map for a strategic plan with us. So, it was I suppose the nuts and the bolts that sit behind what we do, rather than looking at… what they were doing. So yeah, she was a great support in that sense. And then going to the school to see how that worked, and also didn’t work… because there’s no such thing as a perfect model.

The value of the combination of learning opportunities was further reflected in a participants’ comment on the online survey: The project has provided fantastic opportunities to experience how other schools 'do' Inclusive Education, to hear from students with disability how education has (and hasn't met) their needs, as well as introducing pedagogical approaches, demonstrating them in action etc. Above all, being able to meet with like-minded educators who are passionate about inclusion has provided me with the support and ongoing motivation to ensure this becomes more of a reality in my own site.

In addition to increasing their own knowledge, there was evidence that participants also increased their capability and confidence to support other educators in their understanding and implementation of inclusive education. Throughout the CoP meetings, online workshops, and interviews, there were instances of discussions, questions and sharing of ideas related to building teachers’ capacity for implementing inclusive practices. Given the widely-recognised challenge of changing teachers’ attitudes and practices related to inclusion, and particularly teaching students with disabilities, it makes sense that this would be a strong focus of leaders’ discussions.

There was some, albeit limited, evidence that participants’ increased knowledge and capacity had broadly translated to teachers, leaders and students not directly involved with the ISC project. There were examples of leaders sharing resources and leading discussions with staff at their schools or changing reporting practices. There were some instances reported of youth mentors visiting schools and speaking with staff or student groups, which raised awareness of issues related to inclusive education. For the most part, participants acknowledged plans to ‘roll out’ key ideas to broader staff in the future, but the strongest evidence at this stage was for professional learning gains concentrated within the group of participating leaders.

3. How has the project contributed to changes in practices and/or policies at participating schools?

Analysis of survey data indicated statistically significant changes over the course of the project in policy and inclusive principles, collaborative planning and support, family engagement, learning environment and inclusive classroom practices, based on respondents’ self-assessments. 68% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that engagement with the project led to changes in their practice.

Participating school leaders reported a range of practice changes specifically relevant to the inclusion of students living with disability. Examples varied between schools, but included a decreased reliance on withdrawing students with disabilities from the regular classroom; greater attention to student voice, including through establishing student inclusion committees; examining the role of teacher aide staff in supporting students with disabilities; exploring models of co-teaching; and reviewing processes surrounding Individual Education Plans (e.g., “I thought I was pretty pleased with our IEPs and then I thought, actually, we don’t even make mention of the children’s strengths and interests in their IEP, so we really need to add that in”). Involvement in the ISC project supported participating schools to review and evaluate their school policies associated with inclusive education. This effort was reflected in discussions during CoP meetings, feedback on CoP surveys highlighting policy revision as a focus of follow-up action, data from interviews with leaders, and work on developing tools for the project website. Some schools updated existing policies or developed new policies, while others identified policy as an area for future attention as part of their progress towards inclusion.

The extent to which these changes in practice were emergent as opposed to embedded varied across schools, and were most strongly evident in schools who entered the project with strong foundations of inclusive practice already in place, and a clearer sense of their inclusive goals and priorities. That is, a smaller number of schools discussed their involvement of the project as a chance to supplement and enhance the journey towards inclusion they had already begun, such that they were working from an established base of knowledge and a clear, shared vision related to inclusion. In other schools, there was evidence of identifying priorities and making some progress towards inclusive practices.

On the survey, respondents reported changes in practice, but few of these were rated as “Fully in Place” across the school by the end of the project. Data from the interviews with school leaders indicated considerable evidence for Guskey’s (2000) first three evaluation levels of satisfaction with the project, increased learning and awareness, and changes in school-level support and organisation. However, outcomes at Levels 4 (application of new knowledge) and 5 (student level outcomes) were less evident. A participants’ description of their progress related to developing an inclusive policy was indicative of this increased knowledge and awareness that had not yet translated into practice: We had a go at writing a policy, and at that point, it seemed all very straightforward to just go, well we’ll have an inclusion… policy. But we haven’t really, in hindsight, done enough learning about what we should have in it. I grabbed a few things from some examples that I could find. And so, that really is still – I still don’t know that we’re ready to perhaps formulate, as a staff, a policy. But it’s certainly useful thinking, a starting point for us.

The findings of limited transfer of new knowledge into embedded practice is consistent with the literature on schoolwide change and effective professional learning. That is, increased awareness and knowledge among staff leading the change process is a critical first step, but for each site it will take a shared vision embraced by the whole school (McMaster, 2013; Sailor, 2015; Tomlinson & Murphy, 2015); strong distributed leadership (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010; McMaster, 2015; Miškolci, Armstrong & Spandagou, 2016); targeted, ongoing professional learning for all teachers that is directly linked to their daily work and to student learning (Desimone, 2009; Timperley, Ell, Le Fevre & Twyford, 2020; Van den Bergh, Ros & Beijaard, 2014); and coordinated attention to aspects of school culture (Dybvik, 2004; McMaster, 2013; McLeskey et al., 2014) over time to effect lasting change. Each of these components of the change process must be carefully planned and evaluated in its local context.

Most of the aspects noted above were well beyond the scope of the ISC project. However, given the timeframe and the fact that the CoP meetings were attended by only a small number of staff from each participating school, it was promising to note the evidence of changes in practice and policy that did occur at multiple sites. The evidence suggests that the ISC project was most effective in raising awareness about inclusion, encouraging motivation and commitment, providing knowledge and access to resources, and helping leaders set priorities and lay solid foundations for changes in practice to occur. Whether the emerging changes in practice become embedded and associated with cultural change in the future will depend upon the follow up actions that are embraced and enacted by individual schools.

4. How has the project contributed to increased connections and potential sustained partnerships between all key stakeholders?

It was clear throughout the data that participants found the CoP model particularly valuable in linking them with a strong network of like-minded educators. Participants identified the connections with other schools at a similar point in their journey towards inclusion as a valuable component of the project and reported high levels of satisfaction related to networking with other schools. It was notable that participants highly valued the opportunity to network across schooling sectors (Government, Independent, Catholic), which some have had few opportunities to do, and which helped some participants to understand the constraints and possibilities afforded by different systems. Consistent throughout the data was the sense that participants appreciated time to engage in shared problem solving, and to discuss relevant issues and practices that other schools were considering or trialling. As one leader explained:

I think from my perspective… being involved in the project, it was more about realising that everyone is on a journey. I think the networking part of it is – was probably the most important part of project to be quite honest, because it gave you the opportunity to tap into like schools. Or to work with schools that might have been working on something similar… But certainly, being able to tap into other people, and just run things past them. Or to work together on things, I think was certainly good.

There are some signs that engagement of participating schools with aspects of the project may continue following completion of the formal activities. The inclusion ‘book club’—whereby a group of educators isreading and discussing together a recent text on inclusive education—is one example that speaks to potential sustained partnerships. Leaders varied in the extent to which they saw these networks with other schools as ongoing and sustainable. Some schools, particularly those in rural areas, sensed it may be more challenging to maintain networks given time limitations and competing demands, while some more experienced participants suggested that they may be less likely to continue their engagement outside the ISC project. The impact of COVID-19 on schools and the restriction on face-to-face meetings was reported as a challenge for some schools, both in terms of maintaining ongoing engagement with other stakeholders in the project and sustaining motivation.

Participation in the ISC project increased participants’ awareness of resources and information related to inclusive education, including the programs offered by Julia Farr Association and the services and support available through external consultants. This served to broaden the professional networks of the educators involved, beyond those they would typically access within their own schooling sector or existing networks. The website provides the potential for ongoing engagement with the project group, should participants continue to contribute resources as they continue work at their schools. 

The opportunity to connect with youth mentors was a unique element of the ISC project. Currently, there is increased attention in the health and disability research literature to co-designing projects and valuing the perspectives of those with lived experience of disability. There are recent examples of this approach being applied in inclusive education (e.g., Hyett et al., 2020), but these remain relatively rare. The ISC project provides a clear example of meaningful engagement of young people living with disability, which enabled important new connections for participating schools. Participants reported valuing the contribution of the youth mentors and what they could offer, and there were multiple examples of mentors contributing to the development of resources, and to conversations and planning in schools. However, the evidence from project leaders, school participants and the mentors themselves suggests that this was an under-utilised resource in the project. A number of schools described future plans to engage the youth mentors, which suggests some potential for these connections to continue.

Beyond engagement with the schools, a number of youth mentors described the opportunity to network with peers within the mentor group, who were similarly passionate about inclusive education, as a catalyst for further collaboration and advocacy. Some indicated that this networking experience had increased their knowledge of inclusive education, exposed them to peer role models, and improved their confidence and skills to be an advocate in the disability and inclusion education space. These connections, formed through the ISC project, have significant potential for sustainability. As one mentor explained:

Actually, three of us mentors now are working on another project and we just found each other through this one, and so we have been able to continue some advocacy work outside of the project so that’s been a strength. Like working with other – not just the schools collaborating, but also us being able to create other change in the inclusive education space.

The project steering committee, while not a specific focus of the evaluation, represented a clear example of a new, cross-disciplinary and cross-sector partnership. The JFA-PO leaders drew together a group of educators, administrators, advocates, parents, and young people with lived experience of disability, which enabled a governance structure representing multiple perspectives and types of expertise. This element of the program offers an important model for similar projects.

5. How has the project contributed to increased opportunities for active participation and feelings of belonging in community for various stakeholders, including individuals living with disability?

The strongest examples related to this outcome came from the experiences of the youth mentors, and the increased attention to student voice on matters of inclusive practice in schools.

The ISC project included young people with lived experience of disability in meaningful and sustainable ways. This group brought their own experiences of living with disability, but many also had expertise, professional experience and emerging leadership skills in the field which were potentially very beneficial for schools. It is unfortunate that the mentors’ expertise was not engaged to the extent it could have been. While the opportunity and support structure was offered by JFA-PO through the project, only a small number of schools took advantage of this. It is acknowledged that interruptions and pressure on schools due to COVID-19 played a role in this outcome. Schools also varied in the extent to which they developed clear plans related to inclusive education, which meant that some did not reach a point where they had specific goals for engaging the mentors. Despite this, there were multiple examples of active participation and meaningful engagement with the mentors, with mutual benefits for schools and the mentors themselves. In particular, where mentors had the opportunity to attend schools and speak with staff and students, there were clear benefits for both parties. This outcome was ably facilitated by Letitia’s commitment to shaping the project activities around the needs and goals of all parties, including through the varying levels and types of support she provided to individual mentors, and the tailored opportunities to contribute.

As noted in the previous section, there is evidence that these young people benefited from the chance to network and connect, including with each other, to build their own knowledge and skills, and to contribute their considerable expertise to supporting inclusion in schools.

Student voice is a principle of effective inclusive schools and the ISC project explicitly focused on this area. A number of schools had either developed plans or had begun to implement practices related to increasing student voice in matters of inclusion, and this included providing opportunities for students with identified disabilities to participate more fully in discussions and decision making about inclusive practices. At one school, student leaders led the development of a video in which they captured their peers’ opinions and ideas about being inclusive. A participant from another school described a process of seeking feedback from students and parents on inclusive practices. At several schools, the establishment of a Student Diversity and Inclusion Committee was underway, supported by a $500 grant offered by JFA-PO for this purpose, and through guidance from JFA project leaders and mentors. While schools were in various stages of implementation with this component, and most were at the early planning stages, there was certainly evidence of increased opportunities for active participation, connection to community, and leadership for dozens of students living with disability in participating schools. Although it could be said that, given the resources available to them through the project, participants did not develop this area of practice to the extent they could have, there was still evidence that the outcomes of the ISC project addressed this set of goals.

As described in the previous section, the project steering committee represented an important and genuine opportunity for multiple stakeholders to actively participate in discussion and governance, and to provide leadership in the area of inclusive education, and this includes committee members living with disability.


As highlighted in the previous sections, there is evidence that the ISC project addressed key goals and made a significant contribution to inclusive education in South Australian schools. Based on the evaluation findings and the relevant research literature, the following recommendations are offered in relation to (1) promoting the sustainability and extension of project outcomes in schools, and (2) designing similar or related projects in the future.

1. Consistent with previous research, outcomes of the ISC project lent support to the Community of Practice model as an effective means of professional learning for educators (Desimone, 2009), including across sites. Combined with other project activities, this forum enabled participants to access, share, and develop resources and solve problems related to their daily work. It is recommended that future projects in this space have a similarly applied focus.

2. The ISC project provided a promising example of a model for genuinely engaging young people with lived experience of disability, leading to a range of mutual benefits. A similar approach could be replicated in future projects, with attention to structuring the role of mentors to ensure maximum ‘take up’ by participants.

3. The ISC project enabled school participants to strengthen and expand their own knowledge of inclusive education. The extent to which this results in increased knowledge and capability among other teachers at the participating schools, with ultimate benefit to students, will depend on leaders’ next steps. For future projects involving school leaders, a strong focus on topics related to working with other teachers is likely to be beneficial. Examples could include (but are not limited to):

• Assessing school inclusivity and identifying priorities.

• Designing and leading professional learning workshops.

• Models of effective professional learning for teachers (including coaching, mentoring and establishing effective communities of practice).

• Addressing teachers’ specific concerns related to inclusion of students with disabilities (which can persist even when teachers increase their knowledge and skills related to inclusion (Forlin & Chambers, 2011)).

• Managing resistance or negative attitudes among staff (or parents).

• Systematically evaluating teachers’ learning and progress related to inclusive practices over time.

4. Learning experiences in school classrooms must be differentiated to address varied readiness levels (current knowledge and skill in relation to task demands), interests and preferences to ensure appropriate challenge and support for individual students to promote learning growth and engagement (Tomlinson, 2014). The same principle applies to groups of teachers and leaders. The ISC project highlighted the need to consider more explicitly differentiated learning opportunities, particularly within the CoP structure, for participants at different levels of experience and expertise. JFA-PO leaders provided scope for participants to take ownership of the project and to drive the agenda of CoP sessions, but this was not always taken up. A more structured approach to differentiation within the professional learning opportunities is likely to be beneficial.

5. The ISC project included participants representing a range of specific roles, and only some of these were school principals or senior leaders. The importance of strong, informed leadership for inclusive education is highlighted throughout the literature (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010; McMaster, 2015; Poon-McBrayer & Wong, 2013). Future projects might consider requiring a senior leader to attend as part of a school team, to attend selected sessions, or to engage in other targeted opportunities related to the project. Programs such as Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL; and the more recent Principals as STEM Leaders provide examples of effective professional learning aimed to promote student outcomes by increasing principals’ capacity for instructional leadership.

6. The ISC project was most effective in addressing knowledge and awareness among leaders. For inclusive education to become fully embedded in schools, multiple aspects of school culture, policy and practice must be addressed across different levels and in the context of a whole-school approach guided by a shared vision (Ekins & Grimes, 2009; Read et al., 2015). Future projects in this space could be considered at the school level, focusing on a small number of sites which could become case studies of inclusive education for others to emulate. Approaches such as Design Thinking (Panke, 2019), which emphasise co-design and local contextual factors, may be particularly relevant to this kind of project. Attention to concepts of Implementation Science (Askell-Williams & Koh, 2020) to ensure sustainability of outcomes would also be important.