Making a journey with shortcuts

Relief in the Ancient Bazzar o Urumqui

Relief in the Ancient Bazzar of Urumqi an important city on the old silk route

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.

13 thoughts on “Making a journey with shortcuts

  1. Beautifully written, Richard. I am of the view that we need to take this shortcut so that our mistakes are not repeated, but it is uncharted territory. As long as people have what is best for kids at the forefront as opposed to political agendas I think a way can be found.

  2. Hi Tim,
    The political agenda here is, as you know, a dominant factor. My main concern is that children will be “mainstreamed” without teachers being properly prepared and that this could cause resentment. An interesting place to watch in the future I think.

  3. Hi, Richard and Tim, I would like to join this conversation. The governments of China are attaching great importance to special education. The country witnesses the vast increase in number of special schools and teachers for special education, especially from 2010. According to the Ministry of education of China, the number of newly established special schools from 2010-2012 is 147 (from 1998-2010, it was 171). The increased number of special school teachers from 2010 -2012 is 4,047 (from 1998-2010, it was 9,757). As a result of this, there is a countinuing drop of the rate of the students with special educational needs learning in regular classes since 2007.
    I recently visited a new special primary school in our city. There are about 80 students in the school. When asked where the students were before they joined that school, the principal replied that most of them were previously in mainstream schools. This special school has comparatively better facilities than the old ones in the city. The principal further told me that the students were happier in the school than they were in the mainstream schools.
    With the new national policy initiatives, for example, the Special Education Promotion Plan for 2014-2016, there would be more cases like this in China, which help to explain why there is a drop of the SEN students’ rate for inclusive education. I wonder if this is the right direction towards inclusive education. I share Richard’s concern and I guess that, when students with SEN are resented in mainstream schools, they will probably find themselves in special schools. This is understandable, as from the first place, most of the students with SEN went to mainstream schools in China in 1980s because there were not enough special schools to accommodate them. Now they go to special schools because the conditions are improved there whilst the teaching capacities in mainstream schools for students with SEN still lag behind. I am curious to know if in other countries, inclusive education develops in the same way as it is in China.

    • Hi Mary,
      This is very troubling and absolutely moving in the wrong direction for China. The same happens all over – often special schools do have superior facilities that make them look attractive to parents. But what a wrong-headed way to go about things. All kids are entitled to good education facilities. The principal’s comment that the kids are happier in the special school is entirely anecdotal. They may well be happy, but how would he/she really know they are happier?

      • Hi Tim and Mary,
        This is an interesting debate and one that would benefit from greater exposure. Schools are above all learning institutions, and whilst I fully endorse pupil happiness as a measure of school effectiveness we should surely be considering the educational progress made by children as a priority.It seems to me that placing a child in a special school in China is often more for the convenience of teachers than the benefit of the pupils. Having said that, I appreciate that in a vast and diverse country such as China there are major challenges in terms of gaining some kind of unified response to children’s needs and that there is a vast training issue at the core of this. A heavy responsibility for Mary nand colleagues I feel.

  4. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for such a comprehensive reply. My concerns are those that you have expressed very well here. Where special schools have opened it appears that these have not been to accommodate those children who are out of school, but simply as a way of taking those who are struggling in the mainstream out. Some of the teachers I have met are very happy with this situation as they see children who they think are problematic being removed from their classrooms. Because of this there is an immense resistance to accepting children in special schools into the mainstream. China is clearly committed to special education, I am not convinced that it is so committed to inclusive education,

  5. Dear All, Really interesting discussion!
    Mary talks about the increase in the number of special schools and special educators in China , especially since 2010. I want to share some interesting developments in my country during the same time period. In India, there has been a slow down in the opening of special schools but an increase in the number of special educators.
    The Right to Education Act (passed in 2009) provides ALL children (6-14 years) the right to free and compulsory education till completion of elementary education in a neighbourhood school. Schools who were earlier denying admission on the grounds of disability, economic or social status could no longer do so.
    What actually followed was the emerging of a ‘staged’ version of inclusive education – setting up separate resource centres or rooms for the ‘Special ‘children within regular schools. A little special school within a regular school. Most schools add one or two token ‘inclusive’ activities during the day. Due to lack of adequate preparation time, resources , training and intent, most regular schools had no idea about what to do with the ‘Special’ ones. The most logical and practical solution was to employ ‘experts’ –the special educators. Demand for special educators increased, special education courses mushroomed all over –all under the guise of ‘Inclusive Education’.
    I’m not going to comment on the content or quality or relevance of the courses. What’s interesting to note is that mostly everyone seems to be happy with this arrangement. I’m not. I wonder why!
    Richard, regarding the journey, my personal view is that sometimes it’s ok to take some short cuts. But the purpose of the short cut is not to ‘catch up’ with the west but for a more efficient and effective use of the limited time and resources that we possess. Also, not repeating the mistakes made by the west.
    We need to understand that Inclusive education is a new situation for both special as well as general educators and that is why there are no ‘experts’ who can guide the process. That is precisely why waiting to be adequately prepared or trained is not really going to help. In fact, my experiences have shown that some special educators who go with the intention to ‘facilitate ’ inclusion of children end up doing just the opposite! It is indeed an uncharted territory- that both special and general educators need to explore and discover as a team. So as an educator , I would not mind bypassing the ‘expert’ phase followed by the west.

    • Hi Kanwal,
      This is a very useful contribution to the debate. The point about avoiding the mistakes made in the west if a good one. It is perhaps as important to look at what we have done wrong as it is to examine what we did right. The RTE is, I feel a potentially strong vehicle for inclusion, but one that is sadly still subject to some abuse as you know. Your comment on the quality of training is also pertinent. I have seen some excellent training in India, but as you rightly state, some of it falls well short of what teachers deserve. My experience through teaching on the MA programme in Bangalore is that many teachers are eager to gain a greater understanding of inclusive teaching and that they are committed to moving forward. Unfortunately there are still many “elite” schools in India who see this responsibility as being for the government schools alone. I know that this is not always true and that some have really embraced the spirit of the RTE with enthusiasm. I also believe that there are some good special schools in India where the expertise of the teachers could be better exploited for the benefit of those in mainstream schools. Things are changing for the better. Progress will be slow but we must not give up.

      • I would agree with Kanwal about the concept of an ‘expert’ because we are dealing with individuals who are unique and hence one size does not fit all. However, expertise in the field is also important as it would enable practitioners to make right judgements in order to be able to provide the best possible support to those who need. The intention of those who attend the training is also important as commitment and dedication towards the cause is more likely to benefit inclusion compared to mere career implications. The mushrooming of special education courses is probably the result of career implications I believe and therefore, the RTE is will have less impact whereas a training combined with commitment will have much more impact and will lead to ‘meaningful’ inclusion rather than just compliance with directives of the department for education.

        • Hi Benny,
          Yes we need teaches with committment. Unfortuately many teachers working in India and many other countries are low in status and the importance of providing them with support and training is not seen as great. Getting teachers onto courses in India is a struggle, but once they are there they respond and demonstrate a great committment to children.

          • Richard,

            I think there is some financial/economic aspects involved here. For a start, teaching in India was considered a secure occupation in the sense that it provided job security and the only / main requirement was that all the students were able to reproduce diagrams and formulae in an excellent fashion and you were considered an excellent teacher – the examination based assessment of the quality of teaching. As long as the students were having good grades, the perception was that no further training was required and if the child failed to perform, either he/she was lazy or ‘useless’, but it had nothing to do with the teacher because other students did well. It is difficult for them to see education as an all encompassing, change making process which affects every aspect of the pupil’s development as an individual. Once this perception is changed, teachers will see the need to engage in training to improve their practice through on-going training.

  6. It was an honor being in the audience of Prof Richard when you visited Beijing at BNU. Having you share your rich expert knowledge on Special Education really enlightened me. I can say I got the nuggets of your whole work and research in a Q&A session of just over an hour. Thanks to Dr Meng Deng for allowing us to have such a opportunity, from the perspective of Africa and in particular Zimbabwe the began, and being in the presence of Prof Richard Rose couldnt have come at a better time.
    Thank you you Prof you coming to BNU was greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Tawanda,
      It was my privilege to have an opportunity to work with you and your fellow students. I am sure that you will make a great difference to your country when you eventually return. I do hope that you will pursue your dream of a PhD and hope to see you in the future

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