The desert appears endless. Each time I jolt awake from the occasional nod, as I attempt the impossible mission of gaining some sleep in the cramped space of the aircraft seat, I look down through the window at a windblown landscape of sand and rock. It seems that the emptiness of this barren scenery goes on for hours, with little sign of habitation or herbage. Then suddenly breaking the distant skyline a jagged range of snow-capped mountains appears to relieve the pancake flat monotony and shortly after this the cultivated fields and dotted evidence of the housing of presumed agricultural workers. Before long a series of long blue roofs leads to the city and we are arriving in Ürümqi.
I am told that Ürümqi is the city furthest from the sea of any in the world, and I can well relate to the truth of this statement as the four hour flight from Beijing has carried me across land that was characterised for the most part by emptiness. It is certainly a relief to arrive, with an opportunity to attempt the next stage of sleeping off the jet lag in a hotel room.
This morning I was engaged in discussion with a group of Professor Meng Deng’s MA students, all Chinese with the exception of a bright young man from Zimbabwe. Issues of the development of inclusive education and a comparison between the challenges faced by teachers in western societies and those in China made for an interesting and lively discussion. The debates surrounding curriculum challenges, the training of teachers, school expectations of children with disabilities and the difficulties posed by state examination systems were all exercised. Many of the arguments rehearsed were familiar and I am sure that a similar discussion has been had in countries all across the world. As always it was exciting to see young people who are exercised about the injustices faced by marginalised learners and to hear of their endeavours to effect change, often against the odds, within the Chinese education system.
Dozing during the flight, my mind kept returning to a single issue debated during the morning. Having been asked about the historical development of inclusive school provision in the UK, I had outlined the evolution of schooling from segregated special schools in the 1970s through the provision of special units in ordinary schools to the more general acceptance of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools. This gradual process from the denial of a right to access to schooling, through to a more inclusive approach continues after more than forty years, but remains an unfinished venture, with many teachers and schools still challenged in their efforts to address the needs of a minority of pupils. In China, as in so many Asian countries that I have visited, in an effort to “catch up” with western educational models there is an attempt to by-pass much of the process that was undertaken in the west. The focus is clearly upon moving directly to mainstream education for children who have traditionally been excluded from schools. The middle stages of special school and unit provision, whilst not totally absent is seen to some extent as an undesirable element that could slow progress in this area.
Unsurprisingly the young people with whom I met this morning, pioneers for inclusive schooling and heavily influenced by the leadership of Professor Meng Deng, sense some frustration at the opposition they face in their quest for a more equitable education system. Unlike their counterparts in much of Europe and other western societies, they have a limited history of developments in provision for children described as having special educational needs. Whilst teachers in my own country have benefited from the learning that has taken place on a slow journey towards inclusive schooling, this historical context is less secure here in China. To an extent the apprehensions now felt by many teachers here are related to the apparent haste towards change. Is it possible to take this short cut to inclusion? However, for children who have been marginalised for so long, it is hard to justify a slowing of this movement, so it will be interesting to see how their opportunities are progressed.
I have no doubt that these and other issues will be high on the agenda during the next two days of a conference here in Ürümqi. I look forward to learning more on these matters from colleagues here and to have an opportunity to debate them further with teachers from local schools.