CfESEND blog: Social Inclusion - Enabling vs Empowerment: progressing and succeeding in employment

Blog by Pete Benyon, Inclusionist and CfESEND Curriculum Project Manager at Derby College Group (DCG), for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme.

It is typical to read and hear professionals talking about “empowering” learners, especially learners who are categorised, on a statistical and/or diagnosis basis, as being “at risk”, “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged”. The intent of the organisations, reports and professionals using these terms is not in question. However, the impact of these words, from an inclusion perspective, could be.

The word empowerment has become commonplace for good reason and, quite rightly, is viewed very positively. So, how can giving someone the power or control to make choices and take opportunities not be positive? Well, the problem and the answer are in the question. If we give power or control to an individual this automatically puts individuals in the state of powerlessness unless we provide it for them. By categorising people in this way and putting ourselves in the position of powerful we are creating and/or maintaining a status quo that limits individual’s efficacy, advocacy and perception of self, often leading to or sustaining learned helplessness.

To combat professionals bestowing power and to create an environment where people own their choices – the consequences, the successes and the failures – and boost their resilience as a part of their unique journey, we can start talking about enablement.

This may appear a semantic argument – which it is – but, due to our strong belief in linguistic determinism (which is supported by the history of inclusive practice – it was only circa. 100 years ago that we still categorised people as “uneducable “and had “schools for imbeciles”) a discussion about the words that we use, what they actually mean and what their impact on our learners is, both short-term and long-term is significant and valuable.

So, what does this look like in curriculum practice and, more specifically, in developing employability skills?

The answer, in short, is: codesign and collaboration with learners and other stakeholders (teachers, job coaches, work-experience officers or equivalent, parents and employers) creating study programmes that aim to develop autonomy, volition and the ability to spot and access opportunity; the anchors of enablement. It is not “doing for” or “over-supporting”; it is facilitating high expectations in, and for, all.

By enabling learners to understand that they are a stakeholder, that they are the key driver in the process and that they have the ability and voice to make that process what they want to it to be, can be integral to how a person views themselves and their opportunities. This requires bold and confident leaders in education to “lose the rule book” and to work with their learners, parents, local employers and other organisations transparently and honestly, challenging what has been before with the hope and faith that, by working in collaboration, the goals of the whole of society, by meeting the needs of every individual, can be achieved.

Until every individual no longer needs to be “empowered” and are enabled by our education system to access the opportunities in an inclusive way, the goal is not achieved.

If you would like to hear more voices of inclusion speaking about how inclusive curriculum can enable aspiration in all learners, please join us at one of our exciting Employability Conferences taking place in March 2021.

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