Facing an inclusive dilemma

Savitha Ravi, a remarkable teacher who believes in learning with children in an inclusive learning environment

Savitha Ravi, a remarkable teacher who believes in learning with children in an inclusive learning environment

One of the great pleasures of my work is visiting schools and spending time with teachers and children. Over the past 30 years I have visited schools in many countries mainly in Europe, and Asia and have been privileged to see teachers providing great learning experiences to their pupils. I am often overwhelmed by the generosity of the welcome I receive and the valuable time that teachers share with me.

The pressures on schools are many and the need to address the perpetual changes in legislation and the restructuring of education systems has inevitably begun to take its toll on hard pressed professionals. For politicians being seen to express concern about our schools is a ready vote winner, even when they have little that is constructive to offer.  All of us have a responsibility to ensure that our actions are supportive of teachers and not increasing the pressures upon them.  As an advocate for the development of a more inclusive approach to schooling I am often conscious that this has in itself been seen as adding to the burden of already hard pressed teachers. In recent years, as schools have considered how to address the needs of increasingly diverse populations of children, teachers and school managers have had to address a number of dilemmas. Those of us who have campaigned for inclusive education must be prepared to support colleagues as they attempt to address these issues.

An example of these pressures has troubled my mind considerably over recent weeks since my return from Bangalore where I spent a little time with my good friend and colleague Savitha Ravi. Savitha is a great enthusiast and a tireless teacher who has established an outstanding school in the J.P. Nagar district of Bangalore. The school, called Pramiti from a Sanskrit word that translates approximately as “right conception” was founded by Savitha with a vision of creating an inclusive and just learning environment for children from the locality. During the few years of the school’s existence Savitha has worked hard to provide schooling for children who have been enrolled regardless of their needs or ability. This admissions policy sits well with the school’s mission statement that states:-

 “Pramiti facilitates education through continuous learning that is intuitive, dynamic and progressive. Education is not the mere accumulation and retention of knowledge but a way of life that is complete, ongoing and changing. The vision of Pramiti is enabling learning through creation, realization and co-existence.”

Most schools today have mission statements, but not all manage to live up to their high ideals. Pramiti is certainly an exception and over a few years has built a reputation for being a welcoming school that respects all children and families, and where all staff have made a commitment to understanding and meeting the needs of a diverse population. Inclusion in this school is imbued within everything they do, it is far more than a distant ideal.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that Savitha now faces a dilemma that has come about from the very success that she has achieved at Pramiti. Over the years the school has gained a proven track record of success in meeting the needs of children who have been excluded by others or denied an opportunity to cross the threshold of their neighbourhood school. Because of this success increased numbers of parents of children who have been “diagnosed” as having special educational needs have sought a place in Pramiti. As a result of of her commitment to ensuring that all children have access to a good education, Savitha has welcomed all children into her school. But now she is wondering how does she maintain a balance between those children with special educational needs and others? If all of the pupils from the locality who have disabilities or special educational needs enter her school and other school principals take no such  responsibility, what impact will this have? Will her school continue to be a fine example of inclusion or may it come to be regarded as more like a special school?

Already some parents have questioned whether there are too many children with difficulties in the school and have expressed concerns that this may detract teachers from their ability to meet the needs of their children. Savitha has assured these parents of the undoubted skills and commitment of her teachers to address the diverse needs in their classrooms. Indeed they demonstrate this ability on a daily basis. But inevitably questions of this nature will persist. The pressures from several directions are bound to continue.

Savitha is a fine example of a committed professional who has a vision of creating a more equitable and inclusive education system. I have no doubt that she will stand by these principles and will continue to provide an educational haven for all children in her community. Life will become easier for her and for her dedicated staff only when other schools in the area follow her example. However, there is a real danger that others who when they see the fine work that she is undertaking will abdicate their own responsibility rather than facing the dilemmas that Savitha is now addressing.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act should ease this dilemma, but will only achieve its objectives when more teachers and principals like Savitha are willing to rise to the challenge. In the meantime teachers who have the same vision as Savitha need to unite in their determination to create a more inclusive education system in Bangalore and elsewhere in situations where children continue to be denied access to an appropriate education. When called upon to make a choice whether to take actions that are right or those that are expedient I hope that like Savitha others will choose to do what is right.

Learning together - a first principle in practice at Pramiti School

Learning together – a first principle in practice at Pramiti School

Do enjoy the Pramiti School website at the link below

 http://pramitischool.in/

8 thoughts on “Facing an inclusive dilemma

  1. Good for Savitha in leading the way. This is an example of why on a systems level there needs to be good policy and coordination. If every school is expected and required to be inclusive by the educational authorities then, theoretically, children with disabilities will be spread around schools in proportion to their numbers in the local communities. Of course exclusionary practices can then often go ‘underground’ as they so often have here in Canada (“Yes, we are legally required to register your child in our school, but she would be MUCH better off in the local special program. Why don’t you go there?”) but with good monitoring and good selection of school leaders we could hope this would reduce over time.

  2. Thank you Richard, I will keep my word, I will never give up and I will definitely build a small inclusive school where the only point to be considered during admissions and discussions with parents would be ” Are you willing to learn?” Children are always ready, they welcome change, they become the change they want, but as teachers and parents, we are always eclipsed by fear and success that is driven by what others think about us. Recently a boy aged 41/2 who at present comes to Pramiti from Vijaynagar (almost 19km away) was asked to find a school closer by Dr. Ashok so that the child can get more time to relax and also spend at home. The Parents went to a school in their locality and were turned away. The principal said that they stopped taking children with special needs because they stopped getting admissions from typically developing children. I have parents of typically developing children who have applied to a school for 1st grade not because they feel that the learning would be better but because they have just one or two children with special needs out of about 300 children and I have 12 out of my 60 children who are supposedly the only ones with special needs. I am not assuming this. I was clearly told this. So what will the parent do if the other school decides to taken in 50 children with special needs to have a healthy ratio. If you look at it rightly, if 12 out of 60 being children with special needs is not a great ratio, even having 298 typically developing children out of 300 is an unhealthy ratio! The parents even told me that they will try out this school for a year and if it does not give them what Pramiti gave, they will come back to us and then we should please not deny admission. I humbly said to them that I don’t think I would in the near future be able to do any such thing although the human tendency that sometimes does take over me wishes I could do that. The funny thing is also that they tell me if we do not get admission in the other school, we will definitely come to Pramiti. so my question is – how will the scene change then?
    Tim, hello! There are many schools who redirect children with special needs to special schools. The school in our neighbourhood send every child with special needs who seeks admission there to our school but they never help us with typically developing children. The greed for numbers prevent them from helping us. I do not want to whine or feel discouraged as I am not. I know change is welcomed gradually and if I can keep moving forward without allowing fear to come in my way, I will definitely contribute to the world, one of the inclusive schools of our times and the future.

  3. Hi Savitha and Tim,
    Good to have you both in discussion together like this. I hope someday that you may share ideas in the “real world” – see you in Bangalore Tim?
    The story you provide here Savitha is typical of so many I hear, and not only from India. Maybe there is a thread to keep going in this blog. Let me give it some thought and see what we can do. Thanks to both of you for responding – how do we get those who are the blockers who need to engage in the debate involved I wonder?

  4. Hi Savitha and Richard,
    I work at The Valley School, Bangalore as a special educator and have been following your blogs since Satish uncle forwarded one to me. We have been working to enable an inclusive setup here too and I would still call it work in progress.
    Richard, It is very true when you say that the teachers need to be supported to support the special children included in the school. It sometimes is easier to work with the other children who are naturally accepting of differences amongst themselves.
    On another note, Savitha, I attended a workshop a few days back. What came across so strongly from some of the staff from other schools was that taking in students with special needs implied that they were a special school and hence “they used special educators services to identify students whom they might have missed during entry AND request them to leave”. What i seem to be hearing time and again is that children even with mild difficulties or who learn differently should not be a part of the mainstream setup.
    How in the world is this going to help create a more sensitive and inclusive society when the at the foundation level we see it as something that should be done from outside – like a visit to a special school or slum… to sensitize children – rather than starting at home and making the change in the school environment.
    I do see your point Savitha and understand when you say ( comment in an earlier blog entry) that there is a danger of your school having a wonky ratio. Keep up the good work, savitha. Will catch up soon.

    • Hi Radha,
      It’s always good to hear from The Valley School, one of my favourite locations in Karnataka – please do say hello to Satish, Sushama and all friends there.
      When you wrote – “What I seem to be hearing time and again is that children even with mild difficulties or who learn differently should not be a part of the mainstream setup”. I was reminded of so many conversations I have had with colleagues, not only in Bangalore but in many places both in and outside of India. My biggest worry about the RTE is that children are being “accepted” into mainstream schools then placed in little enclave like ghettos where they have minimal contact with their peers. You are quite right to say that teachers need support. This must start with a shared vision in schools and a real commitment to become more inclusive. The danger is that when experts from outside come and talk to teachers in the school that they are seen as idealistic. Much more time is needed to discuss the principals and philosophy of the individual school and gaining shared beliefs about what the school is for. I know that this is often a challenge and proably more so in a school like The Valley which is seen as elite. However, if teachers like you can take a lead, schools like The Valley could make a significant difference to the lives of children and show the way to other more resistant institutions.

  5. Radha, it is very nice to have you in the blog which has become a very integral part of my life now. Richard and others, I have an idea. Why don’t we conduct a seminar where we do not specify anything about inclusion or anything the next time Richard visits. This seminar could be titled – We all learn differently or something – here we could select a few like myself, Radha, Richard, Johnson and whoever else might be interested who present two case studies each where they had to use different strategies of teaching to a child who is typically developing and a similar situation with a child with special needs. The motive would be to show people that every child is unique and learns differently and everyone of us has some special need or the other. We need to create a movement wherein parents realise that their child’s learning is not going to be affected negatively if he or she is in an inclusive progarmme. Speaking about special educators, I have had teachers who are just Montessori trained and have been able to get through to children with special needs very effectively.
    This seminar may be conducted by a school like Valley as the audience will be more diverse and it should happen in the heart of the city or Pramiti can collaborate with Valley and the seminar can be conducted at Pramiti as well, so that distance does not become a problem. The target audience could be parents and teachers from different schools. I do not know what Satish Uncle would feel but this is just a thought that suddenly came and I am only thinking aloud. Please do let me know your viewpoints.

  6. Hi Savitha,
    This is an excellent idea. Perhaps Satish would host this at The Valley. Plenty of time to think about doing this in September

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