Special Needs in Mainstream Education

The Right to Education Act here in India attempts to achieve many ends, regrettably most of them political rather than educational or driven by research-based knowledge of what is good for society. Here, I want to focus on the intention of the Act towards those children with Special Needs (defined in the broadest sense to include those with physical, mental or learning difficulties).

The Act is very simple and straightforward – indicating that every such child should be granted a place in a standard, mainstream school, public or private. At face value this may sound fully justifiable and pursuant to a just, fair, inclusive society. However, before coming to such a conclusion I feel we should be willing to learn from the experiences of other countries (especially when it is an acknowledged fact that their was very little conscious research behind the provisions of the RTE).

In UK, in 1978 Mary Warnock (now Baroness Warnock) chaired a committee on Special Education. The results were far-reaching and radical including a massive shift in focus on educating learning disabled children in mainstream schools.

This trend went on for over 20 years with Baroness Warnock as being a champion of Special Needs rights. However, in 2005 Baroness Warnock shocked the special needs community when she expressed dissatisfaction with the very system that she had helped to create. She went so far as to call it ‘appalling’. By that time, the situation was that so many children had been moved out of specialised schools in to mainstream ones that only 100,000 children remained in the special schools. This meant that many of those children faced very long journeys to and from school. Warnock suggested that all that had been done had been with the very best of intentions, with compassion, intellect and respect for the rights of those with special needs.

However, whilst ideologically sound, the practical outcomes had been an inability to achieve the laudable aims desired. As well as the challenges for the 100,000 students mentioned above, her research indicated that what had been done also failed to meet the needs of the children who had been ‘mainstreamed’. Too often, in what were still largely conventional classrooms in most mainstream schools their special needs were not being adequately met. However, the financial and academic attention given to attempting to meet their needs had often reduced schools’ abilities to meet the needs of all their other pupils. In short, the policy hadn’t really met anyone’s needs very effectively. As a result, Baroness Warnock advocated a reversal of the policy and the establishment of more special schools.

Let us not forget that all that happened in UK – a country that was starting with a mainstream education system that was far better equipped materially and professionally than the public or private schools of India. This was brought home to me when the Education Secretary of Delhi was seeking advice on how to employ/ recruit and/ or train an enormous number of Special Educators to meet the requirements of the Act and orders handed down from the courts.

Most schools in the country lack even the most fundamental and rudimentary tools of inclusion, such as ramps, level ground surfaces, adequate space in classrooms for wheelchairs, audio sound loops in classrooms for the hearing-impaired or safe environments for the visually-impaired. The vast majority of mainstream teachers need to undergo extensive sensitization and inclusion training, along with training in differentiation skills to meet disparate needs of students in a single classroom.

In the circumstances, I believe that a realistic and practical strategy is required, with the following elements;
1) a start should be made on closing the training gaps of teachers, perhaps with a ‘Foundations of Inclusion’ certification course that all would be required to complete within 5 years,
2) expansion of course offerings to develop specialised skills of special educators,
3) Direction of specific funds earmarked from Education Cess (there must be some reason we’re all paying that money!) for establishing Special Schools in all major urban areas and districts with departments/ subsidiary units specialising in different needs (sight, hearing, physical, mental),
4) defined time limits for all public and private schools to address certain core fundamentals for basic accessibility for inclusion, including ramps where possible (otherwise lifts), special toilets etc.
4) A rolling programme, linked to point 1 above in timing, to mainstream children (in both public and private schools), where their conditions place them in the mild to moderate part of the spectrum in terms of their learning difficulties AND where assessment concludes that they can function effectively in large group inclusive learning environments.
5) Where the child does not meet the definition under point 4. above, guaranteed provision of a place in the Special Schools set up under point 2. above.

Just because a Minister sitting in Delhi says something will be a particular way, doesn’t make it so. We have to start from where we are, not where we wish we were. Otherwise, pie in the sky, unrealistic programmes dictated from on high will simply mean lot of ideological angst and guilt whilst little changes practically and those with learning difficulties continue to be treated as marginalised members of society with their needs completely unmet.

I welcome others’ thoughts and views.

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4 Responses

  1. I agree that there are some big problems with RTE. I don’t understand one thing.
    Are you suggesting that vast majority of teachers in the main schools should undergo training or the teachers in special schools need to? Making all the teachers in all schools undergo training will result in the same quality of training as we are seeing in the mass education started due to RTE – very poor. But if extensive training for teachers in special schools is done then that might help.

    • I’m suggesting both – rudimentary sensitisation and awareness about special needs for all teachers with a certificate requirement and in-depth training for special needs educators. Too many special needs go unrecognised and addressed for lack of basic awareness with mainstream teachers.

      • What you are saying is true but the part about awareness required by all teachers is not something that can be implemented in near future. If that needs to be done society at large needs to be targeted.

        If all teachers are required to do this training most of them will get the certificate and be done with the awareness program. Unless society at large becomes aware about the problems making a certificate compulsory won’t make a real difference because there are innumerable ways to get the certificates.

        The part about teachers of special schools going intensive training holds merit. That may make difference if coupled with financial incentives or some other benefits.

        Also point 4 about ramps etc. in all private and public schools is not realizable at the time. Many schools lack basic amenities. Till they are available adding infrastructure for care of children with disabilities will be a financial burden that most schools will find ways to avoid.

        In this regard take the example of China’s sports. They made special schools for sports instead of trying to make available equipments and facilities for sports in every school.And the results are in front of us. We can use the same thing for this problem. Establish special schools with adequate facilities or selecting some particular schools and give them the facilities.

  2. Ah ! these Preparations , these discussions ,
    these Rehearsals ,
    this big momentum .

    Did anybody ask the atom ,
    what is Inside the spectrum ?

    Things moved , people moved ,
    debates shook conscience of few.
    And then ,
    Off Stage , Lights off ,
    End of the Show !

    Dear Mr. Mark ,

    This evening , I was jotting notes on Special needs , its a very touching subject , heart vice , takes hell out of being to touch it. Give me some time , I would write back on this Blog site.

    Till then,
    Keep your thinking mind on , it is a wick which brings light to us all.

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