Top Nav Breadcrumb

Three considerations to help cultivate a totally inclusive school culture

By Angeline Aow   and Dr Sadie Hollins

In 2022, I and one of my co-authors, Dr Sadie Hollins, wrote our book Becoming a totally inclusive school: a guide for teachers and school leaders. Our vision was to help schools to become ‘a global education system that is truly, and in every respect, equitable, diverse, inclusive and enabling of social justice’.  

Our definition of total inclusivity is in alignment with the IB’s stance on equity and inclusive education which states that inclusive education is about ‘all learners’.  

More explicitly, total inclusivity for us means: “recognising, valuing, protecting and nurturing diverse identities, including those of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability age, religion and language”. 

In this blog, we share three considerations for becoming a totally inclusive school, highlight their connections with IB philosophy, and suggest possible next step initiatives.  

It is important to note that these considerations are not ‘quick fixes’; they are starting points for your journey to becoming a totally inclusive school.  

They do not in any way replace the need for deep, honest, and ongoing reflective engagement and learning in this area. We owe it to our students to be agents of change and to cultivate the world they deserve, and so as you reflect on these considerations, we encourage you to make connections to your own school community, culture, and context.  

1. Strengthen the written and unwritten rules to safeguard from identity-based harm

The historic and institutional written rules are the policies and procedures that govern how schools are run. These rules outline behavioural expectations for members of your learning community, and they shape how a school culture evolves. The unwritten rules are the cultural practices in your learning community that are passed on through learnt behaviours and word-of-mouth.  

Both types of rules play a role in how educators uphold both the school’s and the IB’s mission. To strengthen your school’s inclusive culture, it is essential that both your ‘written’ and ‘unwritten’ rules protect students’ evolving identities from harm. 

This means that we must move away from traditional definitions of safeguarding towards a focus on identity-based harm. This includes racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. As Alysa Perreras and Dr Emily Meadows write: “targeting, erasing, or excluding a person based on their identity must be treated as harm and abuse.” 

The IB Culture standard (0301-02) is important here when it comes to the ‘written rules’ as this standard states that schools need to implement, communicate, and regularly review their inclusion policy so that all learners are supported.  

Possible next-step initiatives 

  • Review your existing policies, including your school’s mission and vision, and evaluate whether you have effectively embedded identity-based inclusivity within them. If not, consider how you might rewrite these to better support your school community. Seek out sample policies from other IB schools who are already actively working on this, or check out resources such as GLSEN’s policy recommendations on how to support LGBTQ students 
  • Read Perreras’ and Meadows’ article on the recommended language to use when addressing child safeguarding through an equity and belonging lens, and check that your policy and procedural documents reflect this. This must be followed by concrete measures to ensure its implementation. 
  • Raise levels of understanding and educator capabilities to place total inclusivity at the heart of decision-making. Workshop topics to consider include: unpacking power and privilege; identity-based harm in schools; safe reporting pathways; courageous conversation protocols; and culturally responsive learning and teaching. 

 2. Focus on personal and collective well-being

The wellbeing of a child (or lack of) may be directly related to a safeguarding concern because we are tuning into signs of when a child is in distress. When learners do not have a sense of safety and belonging, they are less likely to be ready for learning.  

The PYP framework features personal and social education where learners’ development of their own and others’ identities is a part of a scope and sequence of learning. In the identity strand of the Personal, social and physical education scope and sequence [available to IB educators only via the Programme Resource Centre], an understanding goal is ‘concept of self and feelings of self-worth’. This goal recognises that the development of a healthy self-identity impacts positively on how students learn, and how they interact with others. 

According to the IB’s What is well-being? policy research paper, a micro-level influencer of student well-being is the school, classroom, and teaching (Balica, IBO 2021). Students report that they are more likely to feel that they belong at school when they have teachers who provide support and are interested in their learning. Additionally, teachers who model well-being behaviours and positively engage students within the classroom are important predictors of student well-being. 

It is critical to cultivate learning and teaching that affirms learners’ unique identities and develops their social and emotional skills. To achieve this, teachers firstly need to be well, and secondly, they must model culturally responsive interactions which support a culture of care for all. 

 Possible next-step initiatives 

  • Seek the help of a professional who can expand thinking about culturally responsive learning and teaching. You may wish to consider this list of diverse professional development consultants to find facilitators and consultants who can help inspire members of your school community to become agents of change. 
  • Identify the needs of learners and culturally adapt and design practices for your school’s context. Read the IB’s Academic buoyancy and resilience for diverse students around the world research paper (Anderson, et. al., 2020) and consider the recommendations. In particular, see recommendation number three which places importance on inclusive adaptation to one’s local cultural context, and also on understanding the unique needs of students and their fears, traumas, hopes, and dreams. 
  • Read the book Culturally responsive teaching and the brain by Zaretta Hammond (link shows book preview) to strengthen how you can make better teaching choices to engage, motivate, support and expand the intellectual capacity of all students (Hammond, 2015). 
  • Cultivate a sense of belonging by expanding inclusive representation. For example, after the IB published their diversity, equity and inclusion statement, updates were made to the Middle Years Programme curriculum documents to replace ‘he or she’ terms with ‘they’ and ‘their’ to align documentation. Explore how to elevate inclusive language practices across the school’s documentation and resources. 

 3. Foster learner agency and collaborative partnerships

Truly valuing others requires educators to trust in their capabilities for both themselves and their students because there is no learner agency without teacher agency. If we value learner agency –  that is voice, choice and ownership – then we need to consider how we are incorporating a representation of voices into how decisions are being made. Students who have agency of their own learning have a strong sense of identity and self-belief, and they help build a sense of community and awareness of the opinions, values, and needs of others. 

For a totally inclusive school culture to thrive, we need to develop partnerships for learning in community with others. As a priority, we need to truly listen to and get out of the way of our student leaders by decentring adult decision-making, and elevating student agency, voice and leadership.  

 Possible next-step initiatives 

  • Empower students through active encouragement of, and support for, student-led advocacy groups such as social justice committees and gender and sexuality alliances. Check out episode 9 of the Unhinged Collaboration podcast to hear students from BBIS Berlin Brandenburg International School’s Social Justice Committee. This episode highlights the power of student agency to raise awareness, advocate for, and plan change when it comes to social issues. One of the powerful ways in which they’ve done this is through the creation of zines.
  • Seek out and signpost opportunities for staff members to engage in dialogue with others about issues of social justice. For example, the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color ( AIELOC)’s webinars and annual conference. 

Remember that once your school community is engaging in learning together about topics related to becoming a totally inclusive school, they must be provided with opportunities to move forward in a cycle of action. That is, choosing to learn about something, taking action, then reflecting on the implications for schooling. 


The suggestions we’ve shared in this blog are not tick boxes to simply ‘check-off’, but rather resources that you can engage with, reflect on, and use to support growth. Our communities continue to be our richest resource for cultivating the environment that our students deserve, and we must engage with them if we wish to promote sustainable change. 

Angeline Aow is an international educator, author, consultant and pedagogical leader. She has undertaken multiple roles within schools, as a teacher, curriculum coordinator, accreditation coordinator and professional learning and development coordinator and is currently PYP Curriculum Coordinator – Upper Elementary at Berlin International School. Angeline is an advocate of inclusion, coaching, concept-driven learning and teaching and contributes as an active citizen on social justice issues through her role as a country network leader of @WomenEdDE and work with the Council of International Schools as well as her involvement with the International Schools Anti-discrimination Task Force. Her book, Becoming a totally inclusive school: a guide for teachers and school leaders, was published by Routledge in November, 2022. Angeline is also a member of IBEN (IB educator network). 

You can follow Angeline on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Dr Sadie Hollins has previously worked as a head of sixth form at a British international school in Thailand. She is the creator and editor of the Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine and co-author of ‘Becoming a totally inclusive school: a guide for teachers and school leaders’. Sadie now creates content for a university and careers guidance platform for schools. 
You can follow Sadie on Twitter and LinkedIn.