A few years ago I had an opportunity to spend time working in Hong Kong, when I was awarded the Marden Fellowship as Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, in the New Territories District of the Special Administrative Region. During my time there, and on subsequent visits, I made many friends and good colleagues who were working at the Institute of Education and in schools. My time was spent working on research and writing projects with Professor Chris Forlin who was at that time a substantive member of the academic staff, teaching on post-graduate courses, and doing consultancy for various government agencies and schools. 2007 – 2008 was an interesting time to be in Hong Kong as discussions about the development of more inclusive schools was high on the education agenda, and opportunities to debate the interpretation of inclusive schooling within a Chinese context were plentiful.
It is seven years since I last visited Hong Kong and I have no doubt that much will have changed during that time. I must admit that as several former colleagues from the area are no longer working there, I have to a great extent failed to keep abreast of educational developments in the region. Whenever Hong Kong makes the international news, as it did most recently through the extensive pro-democracy demonstrations that brought this non-stop district to a grinding halt, I have endeavoured to play catch up with what is happening in the education field. However, the news reports around schools in Hong Kong are usually quite bland, with little focus upon the progress being made to address diversity in classrooms.
Today, an article in the on-line edition of the most popular English language newspaper in the area, The South China Morning Post (23rd February, 2015), did come to my attention. Under a banner headline Special Needs Students: More Support Needed in Hong Kong Schools. Robin Cheung a retired school principal wrote about his concerns that whilst teachers in schools have shown considerable commitment towards inclusion, progress is being impeded by a lack of adequate resourcing and poor access to training for teachers.
These are issues that have been raised in many parts of the world and are certainly not exclusive to Hong Kong. Mr Cheung, in bringing attention to these apparent deficiencies is echoing concerns that I hear every day here in my own country. However, he develops his argument further by suggesting that the consequences of a failure to provide adequate support has resulted in some children receiving worse provision than that which they were previously afforded in segregated special schools. Describing the ways in which many schools operate, he states that:-
“They also resort to class streaming and put most special educational needs students together to minimise the disruptive and dragging effects on other students. It seems they are running a school within a school, but without the abundant resources enjoyed by the former special schools”.
The notion of segregation within a mainstream school is certainly not new. The designation of classes for children with special educational needs, thus separating them from their peers for all academic purposes, is a model that has been seen in many countries, including my own over many years. The rationale behind this exclusive action appears to be the potential disruption attributed to children with special educational needs, an example of stereotyping if ever I saw one! This, Mr Cheung rightly observes, was never the purpose of inclusive education and is a clear indication of a failure to administer policy with the commitment needed to ensure success. The arguments rehearsed in this Hong Kong article have certainly been aired on many previous occasions, but a number of more interesting points are also made.
Mr Cheung suggests that whilst there are problems for schools where a commitment to inclusion is stated, but not easily attained, there is a need to look at the situation in a more holistic manner. Adjustments to the curriculum are needed, rather than believing that children can be made to fit that which exists, and this he states is not simply a task for the schools alone:-
“…rather than just keeping such students in schools and maintaining a semblance of order and learning, these students need help to develop into self-sufficient, productive citizens, but the curriculum design, pedagogical innovation, assessment and life and career planning involved are far beyond the capability of any individual schools. Their concerns just highlight the inadequacies of the present system”.
A more holistic approach to developing inclusive societies that place a greater emphasis upon a broader range of skills, knowledge and understanding is seen as an important pre-requisite to enabling schools to address a broad range of learning needs. In making this assertion Mr Cheung is certainly expressing a concern that is felt by increasing numbers of teachers. If we truly believe in the development of inclusive schools, surely we must ensure that the rest of society works with us in order to understand what it is that all children can do. In this way we will be able to support them in making a valuable, and hopefully valued contribution to their communities.
The news from Hong Kong may not be earth shattering, but it does serve as a reminder that schools alone do not have the answers to creatng a more equitable society.