A Sociology of Special and Inclusive Education: Exploring the Manufacture of Inability

reviewed by Olivia P. Robinson - August 28, 2017

coverTitle: A Sociology of Special and Inclusive Education: Exploring the Manufacture of Inability
Author(s): Sally Tomlinson
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 113818277X, Pages: 196, Year: 2017
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A major task of sociology is to examine the range of social structures that have developed historically and to determine if these structures are unbalanced due to the power of social hierarchies. Sally Tomlinson (2017) uses a critical sociological perspective in A Sociology of Special and Inclusive Education: Exploring the Manufacture of Inability to uncover the ways special and inclusive education systems have developed through the structural actions of government policies to manufacture inability. In particular, Tomlinson focuses on the U.S. and U.K., examining how education becomes a competitive enterprise with policies and practices that separate children in schools based on presumed ability levels. The push for free market policies in education has only increased the income inequalities and the ‘fixed’ employment opportunities available for certain groups based on race, social class, gender, and ability.

In the Introduction, Tomlinson refers to this book as “Mark Two!” (p. 3) in reference to her original text published in 1982: A Sociology of Special Education. However, in the 30 years since the initial book, “It seemed that there was a need to present a wider historical, social, and political perspective on what was clearly an expansion of a system to deal with lower attainers and the ‘special’” (p. 3). Therefore, in this eight-chapter text, excluding the introduction and conclusion, Tomlinson introduces her central questions on page seven:

1. Why and how has a whole sector of education developed to deal with up to 25-30% of young people regarded as having learning difficulties, low attainments, behavior problems, or disabilities?

2. How have special education programs and resources become subsumed into variations of inclusive education?

3. Why have ideological beliefs in hierarchies of ability, limits to learning potential, and IQ as measurement of supposed genetic attributes continued to legitimate the treatment of young people?

4. What happens to young people after their special, included, or lower attainers program, in terms of work and life chances?

Through answering these research questions, Tomlinson dissects how “special and inclusive education plays a part in a continued reproduction of inequality” (p. 6) in its attempt to manufacture a type of ignorance and to deny populations access to mainstream education. Tomlinson begins to uncover in Chapter One how the idea of mass education for all social and ethnic groups has transformed into the education of the higher and lower attainers in order to keep traditional social hierarchies and a competitive job market of skilled workers intact. Thus, the creation of special and inclusive education turned into the “dumping grounds” (p. 54) of lower attainers of students with disabilities, learning difficulties, and behavioral issues.

In Chapters Two and Three, Tomlinson provides a rich historical overview of the development and expansion of special and inclusive education in both the U.S. and U.K. This provides the reader some background knowledge and a deeper understanding of how special and inclusive education transformed into what it is today: exclusion. Continuing this review of history in Chapter Four, Tomlinson touches extensively on the developments of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test due to the rigid belief that an IQ test can measure an individual’s intelligence and even predict an individual’s ability levels and outcomes. Both the U.S. and U.K. use IQ assessments to sort children into varying forms of education, and employ the assessment in order to justify the type of education they receive. Children who typically receive lower scores on IQ tests are from racial minorities, the working class, or live in poverty (p. 78). Even though the reliability of IQ tests continues to be questioned, they are often used to make the claim that intelligence is largely hereditary, and typically children from minorities are less academically inclined, thus enforcing the belief that children are born with some kind of ‘fixed’ ability level and that certain races are biologically inferior. Tomlinson proclaims the U.S. and U.K. have continued to use biological determinism in order to help legitimize the disproportionate identification of students from the lower class and ethnic minorities in special and inclusive education.

Additionally, Tomlinson acknowledges in Chapter One and more explicitly in Chapter Five that a nation’s economy and those in power directly influence the education system. In both the U.S. and U.K., political parties are advocating that all children and youth should be educated to “reach their ‘potential’ [which] lies in the myth of some kind of fixed ability, defect or disability” (p. 65). Moreover, there is a held expectation that all young people must be prepared to work, and are “expected to become economically productive” citizens (p. 5). However, both countries are experiencing a persistent growth of social issues such as dropouts, delinquency, and mental health problems surrounding their youth. On page 24, Tomlinson proposes four ways that societal problems among youth stem from the manufacturing of inability in schools:

1. Perpetuating the belief that there is only inherent potential in the few, and fixed levels of inability in most children, and that many need a ‘special’ education.

2. Perpetuating the belief many children and young people have less ‘ability’ and ‘human capital’ to develop, and thus cannot perform well in a knowledge economy.

3. Removing young people who are regarded as interfering with expected standards and credentialing of others into separate institutions, alternative education, and young offenders institutions.

4. Denying that educating previously excluded social and racial groups has been partially and slowly successful.

Tomlinson dedicates distinct chapters to the various hands that play a role in special and inclusive education. For instance, in Chapter Six, the power of professionals is discussed to explore the issues that arise when professionals such as psychologists, teachers, and neuroscientists use their expertise to assist in maintaining levels of inability. Furthermore, Chapter Seven discusses parents’ roles, assumptions, and labels regarding their children in special and inclusive education. Tomlinson acknowledges that parents are treated as a homogenous group, one often blamed for “a range of social and educational problems” instead of participants in and perhaps victims of the same social and economic structures that create inequality (p. 132).

In Chapter Eight and the conclusion of the text, Tomlinson provides the reader with current research findings that indicate the failing of special and inclusive education. The policies and practices over the past 30 years in both countries have continued to sort children based on presumed ability levels, where lower attainers receive lower levels of education. However, lower attainers “continue to be defined by class, race, and gender and their future is largely exclusion from high levels of education and placement in vocational education and training, low-level employment or unemployment” (pp. 149-150).

To truly appreciate the complexity of this text, readers need to have some background knowledge of sociology, special education, and the political and economic policies that surround education. Therefore, this book would be most beneficial for graduate level students in special education, disability studies, race and class studies, psychology, and the medical and neuroscience fields. Further, Tomlinson focuses more exclusively on the U.K.’s education system and government policies. For a closer analysis into the educational policies in the U.S., readers should accompany this book with additional texts, such as Ravitch (2016) in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Additionally, Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, by Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey, (2014), and DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education, by Connor, Ferri, and Annamma (2015) would be excellent books to read in tandem with Tomlinson.

A Sociology of Special and Inclusive Education: Exploring the Manufacture of Inability (2017) provides a deep historical perspective on the education system that surrounds issues of race, gender, social class, and disability. This contributes to the reader’s understanding of how special and inclusive education has developed over time, as well as within certain social constructs surrounding those deemed as able, less able, or disabled. The critical questions raised in this text, along with the research analysis and rich history, make this a powerful resource for educators, professionals, and policymakers.



Ben-Moshe, L., Chapman, C., & Carey, A. C. (2014). Disability incarcerated: Imprisonment and disability in the United States and Canada. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Connor, D. J., Ferri, B. A., & Subini, A. A. (2015). DisCrit: Disability studies and critical race theory in education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ravitch, D. (2016). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Tomlinson, S. (1982). A sociology of special education. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 28, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22145, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:33:38 PM

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