Working with colleagues at the conference here in Ürümqi today I found it interesting to observe the similarities and differences, in terms of the challenges that we face in developing more inclusive education systems. Whenever educators get together to discuss the promotion of inclusion there are familiar themes that emerge. The attitudes and apprehensions of teachers, the inadequacy of school resourcing, the pressures of a competitive assessment regime, these are all clearly of concern in China, just as they have been during similar discussions in the UK, India, Malta and in many other places I have encountered. There is no surprise that teachers are expressing their anxieties about what they perceive as being the additional challenges of working with a greater diversity of pupils in classrooms. Neither is it uncommon to hear discussions related to the possible impact that the presence of children with special educational needs might have on academic outcomes in schools.
What did surprise me a little was the continuing focus upon a medical-deficit model approach to special education provision that persists here in China. Where I was concerned to talk about inclusion through the development of appropriate teaching approaches and changes in classroom environment, many of the professionals who came to talk with me were focused upon children with specific diagnoses of disability or need. The hunt for a panacea in working with children with Down’s syndrome or autism continues, and whilst this is something I am familiar with at home, there many teachers have begun to look at teaching approaches and classroom management for the promotion of inclusion.
It is understandable that teachers who encounter a child who has been categorized with a label such as Down’s syndrome will want to find some information about this condition. However, if we can encourage teachers to examine how they can adjust their teaching and change their classrooms to make them welcoming to all learners, the need to spend so much time examining labels will lessen. Discussions of differentiation, child centred assessment and focusing upon achievement and progress rather than attainment often lead to useful suggestions about teaching practices and successful classroom interventions. These are of far more help to the busy class teacher than a series of medical facts and figures.
Whilst we can offer research evidence for the effectiveness of inclusion from western contexts, these are very different from those seen in China or other Asian countries. There is an urgent need for more data to be collected from within this country, and there are sufficient researchers committed to achieving this to make me believe that we will soon be seeing the kind of evidence that might enable schools to move forward.
The enthusiasm demonstrated by colleagues at the conference today and their willingness to engage in ideas leaves me in no doubt that progress in developing inclusive schools will be made here in China. The fact that education researchers, teachers and policy makers are eager to discuss these issues with professionals from other countries is a significant indicator of a determination to improve the situation for all children. I hope that the dialogue which was conducted here in Ürümqi will bear fruit and that we shall be hearing about further developments in inclusive education from China.