I NOTICE the phrase “inclusive education” has become very fashionable these days. From parents to politicians and a fair few of us in the field of early childhood education, everyone seems to be smitten with the idea of achieving equity in education through the supposed magic pill that is mainstreaming “special needs” children.
Let me first state that education is a fundamental human right. The United Nations has codified it as such in its charter, and anyone with an ounce of intellect cannot dispute the starring role of education in raising the quality of life for individuals and society.
Yet I fear that in our missionary zeal to pursue inclusive education, Malaysians specifically and Asians in general risk distorting what constitutes equity and diversity, and grossly underestimate the groundwork and, indeed, sheer grit needed to implement it.
Instead of reducing the discrimination special needs children face at school, such a plan in its present shape and form may in fact backfire and intensify it.
Before I explain why, let us first establish what inclusive education is, since there seems to be much confusion over the definition.
Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) describes inclusive education systems as those “removing the barriers limiting the participation and achievement of all learners, respect diverse needs, abilities and characteristics and that eliminate all forms of discrimination in the learning environment”.
The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 meanwhile narrows the definition of special needs to students with “visual impairment, hearing impairment, speech difficulties, physical disabilities, multiple disabilities and learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s syndrome, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and dyslexia”.
There are two glaring problems here. First, lumping the above variety of physical and mental challenges under one umbrella is in itself discriminatory, as it equalises the learning ability of all within.
This is ludicrous.
A child with a physical handicap could be on par with his so-called “normal” peers in keeping up with coursework, something that may be impossible for those with ADHD, autism and especially dyslexia.
How will a blanket policy for special needs children address their highly diverse needs? If the popular notions of inclusive education are made real, will there be multiple streams to the “mainstream”? And if learning methodology, timelines and schedules are stratified for those within the special needs domain, then what is “inclusive” about the system?
Second, I am of the opinion that we have a naïve understanding of inclusivity in the educational context, driven perhaps by our feverish desire to mimic the West. What we perceive as “inclusive” is integrative at best, something writ large in the education blueprint that maps out the closure of special needs facilities and merges their students with general bodies.
Besides bringing everyone under one roof, as the “combined classrooms” envision, there will plainly be separate clusters of students that are physically together yet galaxies apart in terms of academic and support requirements.
Nevertheless, there are positives to inclusive education as an ideal that makes it worth fighting for. I recently read a well-argued piece by Dr York Chow Yat-ngok in the South China Morning Post where he wrote that teething pains aside, combined classrooms will promote empathy and acceptance among all children and additionally raise the self-esteem of those with special needs.
While Dr Yat-ngok and similar-minded experts hold admirable positions on inclusive education, their arguments could go both ways. If we agree that young children absorb information like sponges and are in the process of building personalities, there remains the risk that even one distressing episode with a special needs child, say an autistic one, could internalise in them negative stereotypes about that group for life.
As humans, our concept of “normal” is often far removed from the scientific benchmarks that policymakers use to establish educational guidelines. And young children, especially, judge normality through adequate participation in social rituals as minor as sharing toys during playtime or napping together peacefully.
Also, when comparing Malaysia’s preschool system with developed nations, we must keep two very important things in mind: numbers and attitude.
First, the current teacher-to student ratio in Malaysian preschools is very taxing on educators. Here we have one teacher for 15 to 20 children whereas the ratio is six to eight in the West, excluding support staff like medics and mental health professionals.
And given young children can have wildly diverging personalities, it requires an enormous amount of patience and physical energy simply to teach the “normal” ones.
Therefore, before attempting to consolidate special needs and mainstream preschools, the government must first bridge this gap in terms of teacher numbers and skill-sets or risk pandemonium and even class-action lawsuits by parents if the new school environment endangers their children.
Next, the graver problem of attitude: The majority of Malaysian early childhood educators never wanted to enter the profession. I hear this every day at universities and in the field.
Because of the quota system in public universities, many settled on a major that was not even their second or third choice simply to attend a prestigious institution. And as working professionals, many regrettably do not care.
The greater irony here is how the pecking order of public education programmes cheapens early childhood education. Don’t have the grades to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer? Just go teach preschoolers.
The bottom line is the roadmap to inclusive education in preschools must be put away until both state and civil society awaken to their responsibilities. We cannot keep gambling with our children’s future, nor frustrating the few teachers who actually care about them.
** Jerrica Fatima Ann is a Malaysian early childhood educator and editor of www.imageofachild.com.
Taking a stand for inclusive education
IN my heart of hearts, I believe that we are all special. No individual is the same as another, not even twins.
We all have little quirks that make us unique, whether it is an obsession with having everything in order, a habit of reading out loud or the urge to sanitise one’s hands after touching any little thing.
In spite of our quirks, we all want to be accepted for who we are, and we are lucky when our family, friends and colleagues do so.
If society can accept “normal” people and their eccentricities, why can’t it extend the same courtesy to those with special needs? I believe the answer lies in our education.
Society is a reflection of our education system. If we learn from young to perceive those who are different from us in an unfavourable light, it is natural that we pass this same mindset on to the next generation. Sadly, this creates a nation that lacks values like tolerance, understanding, compassion and kindness.
Taking a stand for inclusion and diversity is more than a special needs agenda; it is about fighting for a better world where everyone is accepted for who he or she is. And it has to start with education.
As an educator, I believe that we need to make a constant and conscious effort to push for inclusion and diversity. This is why we should continue to emphasise the importance of the special needs programmes.
It saddens me when schools turn down special needs children because they can’t handle them. To me, special needs children are just like any other kids, except that they need time and help with learning.
There are countless studies that advocate inclusive classrooms for both normal and special needs children. In an inclusive classroom, children with special needs are known to learn faster by observing their normal peers and being motivated to keep up.
Normal children, on the other hand, learn important values like tolerance, kindness and compassion through interacting with them.
What can be better than this? After all, we want our children to grow up ready for the real world.
The question is what kind of world do we want? I, for one, want a better world for our children, and that starts with embracing diversity and practising inclusion.
PUA CHEE LING, Chief executive, Dika College Puchong, Selangor
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