“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
At various times during the past ten years I have had an opportunity to work with two of China’s leading university teachers, researchers, and writers on matters concerning inclusive education. Having spent time with Professor Meng Deng at Beijing Normal University, and with Dr Feng Yan from Shaoxing University, I am aware that they have made a significant commitment to assist teachers in their appreciation of the rights of all children to obtain appropriate schooling. They have contributed to the development of courses, the conducting of research, and through their writings, a communication of ideas aimed at promoting a more equitable and inclusive education system. I also know that at various times they have been faced with indifference, dismissed as being focused upon an area of minor concern or even castigated for their audacity in providing a critique of the current education system in China. However, neither of these dedicated colleagues have shirked from their determination to work for a more inclusive educational community that recognises the needs of all children.
It was therefore with some interest that I read earlier today an article brought to my attention by a Chinese student, and published at www.womenofchina.cn the website of the All China Women’s Federation. I must admit that I had never previously heard about this organisation or visited its website. The article appears under the headline “China Badly Needs Special Education Teachers, Schools” (I assume there should be an ‘and’ before the word schools). In this article written by someone named Chen Bai, the experiences of parents of children with special educational needs in China are described, with a suggestion that there is a need to move forward to make more appropriate provision for children who have often been denied schooling.
The author claims that “The issue of caring for special needs children has been increasingly discussed as China embarks on sweeping educational reforms. By law, all children are entitled to basic education through public and special schools.” She then goes on to present examples of the struggles that parents have had to obtain schooling for their children as a result of the apparent challenges that they present to teachers. This, she postulates, is a reason why the law has been so difficult to implement and progress towards inclusion has been slow. A lack of funding, social stigma attached to having a child with a disability and the small number of teachers trained in special education are reasons that she puts forward, for the lack of momentum towards the provision of better educational opportunities for some children.
A national plan issued by the Chinese Government in 2013, aims to ensure at least 90 percent of children described as having special educational needs have access to compulsory education by the end of 2016. The current figure is said to be around 72% which in itself represents a significant improvement over the past ten years. Both Meng Deng and Feng Yan have been working hard to secure this kind of progress in their own regions of the country and it appears that they now have an increasing number of allies. “‘Inclusive education’ that recognizes and meets the learning needs of all students in all schools should be the main theme running through China’s education system in years to come,” Xu Jiacheng, Dean of the School of Special Education at Beijing Union University is reported as saying.
During my visits to China over the past few years I have often been disappointed by poor provision made in schools to support children who are experiencing difficulties. I have sometimes been dismayed by the lack of interest that some teachers, and especially those working in universities, have exhibited towards providing training opportunities aimed at increasing the confidence of teachers in addressing issues of diversity. Perhaps now the tide is beginning to turn. Elsewhere in Asia, during visits to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and India, I have been impressed by the innovation of teaching colleagues and their commitment to address the needs of children who have been previously denied opportunities for learning. Maybe mainland China is now recognising that both economically and morally, a failure to address the educational needs of the most vulnerable in society will have long term consequences for sustainability and resilience within Chinese communities.
In 2010 Feng Yan wrote:-
“Although China has a firm commitment of educating students with SEN in regular classrooms, there are many obstacles to overcome if these students are to be provided with appropriate education. Some of these are logistical and economic. Others reflect deep-rooted cultural values.”
Let us hope that some of these obstacles are now being removed and that an increasing number of children who have been denied their right to education may at last be welcomed into their local schools. If this is the case, the expertise of Meng Deng and Feng Yan is going to be in great demand as more teachers seek the professional development that will increase their confidence and competence in this area.