Including children with disabilities in education: inertia or tipping point?

An inclusive classroom

An inclusive classroom

December 3, 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations General Assembly.  It is a day to reflect on the still too prevalent exclusion of children with disabilities from education and to ask tough questions:  Have the international commitments to quality and inclusive education signaled a tipping point towards major change?  Or will the status quo of segregation and exclusion prevail for children with disabilities?

The facts

Positive momentum towards inclusion

  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by 175 countries, calls for "an inclusive system at all levels".
  • CRPD General Comment 4 makes important distinctions between exclusion, segregation, integration and inclusion.  It underlines that systems that commit to including students with disabilities can improve education for all students.
  • Sustainable Goal 4 requires that all governments "ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning".

Pull of inertia

  • Many of the current accountability measures used to assess quality incentivize exclusion and segregation since teachers or schools may be penalized for having students who perform poorly on tests
  • A focus on disability type rather than learning style leads to continued exclusion, investment in segregation and integration and a corresponding failure to invest in inclusion.

People with intellectual disabilities and their families align with GEMR

Inclusion International, the global federation of persons with intellectual disabilities and their families, has undertaken an initiative, Catalyst for Inclusive Education, to assist its members in over 115 countries to advance inclusive education. Findings from the first year of the initiative are consistent with the recent Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) 2017-18. Below is a side by side comparison from the two organizations:

Catalyst for Inclusive Education Global Education Monitoring Report 2017-18
Children with intellectual disabilities are ignored by regular education systems Inequality is underestimated
There is a lack of coordination between Ministry of Education departments Governments lack clearly defined education plans
Most spending on education of students with disabilities is on segregated services; Ministries of Education are unaware of international commitments Laws and policies favoring inclusion do not translate into practice
Privatization means parents must pay for supports for inclusion Market competition can deepen social division
Special education focuses on disability rather than Universal Design for Learning There is little agreement on skills needed by teachers
Standardized testing leads to exclusion A focus on using standardized tests as a measure of quality leads to a narrowing of curriculum, teaching to the test, and selective admission to schools

The GEM report concludes that a focus on accountability only can hamper progress towards inclusion, and that ignoring equity helps to maintain inertia in existing systems.  Standardized testing:

  • caters to the majority and overlooks children out of school and children with disabilities;
  • assumes all children hit the same benchmarks and disregards different learning styles;
  • fails to account for social protection measures that are not measurable in tests; and
  • assumes a link between high test scores and success after school.

According to the GEMR, "accountability needs to emphasize building more inclusive, equitable, good-quality education systems and practices."

Quality and inclusion going forward

The UNESCO Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education (2017) offers some guidance on how to move from inertia to a tipping point towards inclusion. It advocates that achieving quality and inclusion requires:

  • Recognizing that inclusion and equity are overarching principles that guide all educational policies, plans and practices;
  • Designing the national curriculum and its associated assessment systems to respond effectively to all learners;
  • Understanding and supporting national policy goals to promote inclusion and equity in education by all partners who work with learners and their families; and
  • Creating systems to monitor the presence, participation and achievement of all learners.

Some simple steps can help governments shift the balance from current inertia to a secure tipping point in favor of inclusion. The key first steps are to:

  • Stop building special schools;
  • Move resources currently invested in special schools and classes to support inclusion; and
  • Modify pre-service and in-service training to prepare teachers to teach all students.

How can GPE help?

The recent World Development Report 2018 (WDR) issued by the World Bank focuses on learning outcomes and learning metrics, and pays little attention to issues of inclusion or the most disadvantaged learners. Despite a lack of emphasis on equity, it offers an unusual glimmer of hope by signalling the value of investing in education, and acknowledging the right to education. The report skimmed many vital issues in order to cover a theme as broad as education, but left the door open for an investment in examining the links between equity and quality.

The Global Partnership for Education can help to shift the balance in favor of inclusion. The upcoming Financing Conference offers an ideal opportunity.  SDG 4, which has been adopted as the GPE vision, inextricably links quality and inclusion. Supporting fully inclusive education systems, which are inclusive of students with disabilities, should be a cross-cutting focus.  It is time for GPE to work with its partners, including national governments, donors, civil society, private sector and foundations, to develop an action plan to match the vision. 

When that happens, December 3 will be a great moment for celebration.

Author(s)

Chair, Inclusion International’s Catalyst for Inclusive Education
Diane Richler is a Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation International Fellow and Chair of Inclusion Internationals Catalyst for Inclusive Education. She is past president of Inclusion International, the global...

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