Earlier this month, I spent three days at the UKFIET global education conference in Oxford. It was my first time at the biennial event, so I hadn’t quite struck the optimal balance between attending sessions and networking in the exhibition hall. Listening intently for eight hours (“intently” because I was sketchnoting) I was too tired for the UKFIET disco, the reason I’m sure people keep returning year after year.

The event was built around discussions on inclusive education systems, tackled through themes such as system actors, data and technology, and financing. The most thought-provoking for me, however, were the sessions that problematised the very idea of inclusion. Who are we trying to include, to what and why?

I was a sporty kid. I was enthusiastically competitive even when my peers’ enthusiasm for physical matches waned as we reached adolescence. The PE teacher was happy to leave the organising of teams to a couple of us self-nominated captains. Once the strongest players – always the same girls – had been picked by the captains, the teacher would randomly and discreetly assign the remaining few – always the same girls.

Once, as captains, we decided to be inclusive. We agreed not to fight over the strongest centre-backs first but call out the individuals the girls who were often left on the bench – and in our assessment, must have felt sad about it.

You can imagine how that went. I’m still ashamed for my virtuous 13-year-old self. “Being singled out like that was one of the most humiliating experiences at school”, one of the girls wrote in our year book.

So, with inclusion, as with most other complex social issues, technical fixes must be preceded by an understanding of who, what and why. Dr Hadiza Kere Abdulrahman made this point in her brilliant presentation by questioning the Western hegemony in education. It made me think of inclusion as a euphemism for cultural assimilation. The focus of her study is the Almajiri education system in northern Nigeria that has for long been portrayed as the breeding ground for poverty and violence. She contrasted media images of children with begging bowls with her own photos of children engrossed in their studies.

Here is my sketchnote of the talk and some of the other sessions. You can also find them on the UKFIET conference website.