Educational justice: Special needs children matter

Educational justice: Special needs children matter

BY Melisa Porter

Thursday, July 02, 2020

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COVID-19 has exposed the petticoat of the Jamaican education system with inequality and injustice in full view of the public. What is not known is that the most vulnerable in the system -- children with special educational needs -- have suffered and continue to suffer.

Like every newborn with a gleam of hope in their eyes, students with special educational needs only long for equity and a fair chance to flourish in the classroom. Instead, their dreams of success are hampered by institutional barriers such as inadequate pupil-to-teacher ratio, limited special educational needs educators, poor pedagogical practices, and underfunded schools, just to name a few.

Even though the special education unit in the Ministry of Education has taken positive steps in improving service provision for these students, the reality is much more is needed to provide quality and accessible education for students with special educational needs.

First, the low numbers of special education teachers that are trained cannot support the growing student population. As indicated by Dr Polly Bowes-Howell ( The Gleaner, March 13, 2019), ''Only 313 of Jamaica's 23,000 teacher cohort are trained in special education.'' To further complicate matters, Jamaica has a mere handful of special needs schools dedicated to offering specialised programmes and services for a select group of students (for example deaf, blind, mental challenges). These schools are concentrated in Kingston, posing issues with accessibility for children in rural parishes. At present, there is one named public inclusive academy in Westmoreland among other inclusive private schools. Private schools, though, breed another difficulty for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. This challenge is vividly captured by media coverage on occasion. Further, with the cost for private schooling can reach as high of $90,000 per term. Who, then, is really included? Certainly not the majority of people who live in this country.

It does not take rocket science to tell us that Jamaica is in dire need of State-funded inclusive schools, and if a solution is not found soon many children, especially from poor families, will be left behind.

Inclusion as an ideal

Studies indicate that policy development has been geared towards supporting inclusive education globally. This theme is aptly positioned with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular, goal four, which affirms inclusive education as a foundational pillar in achieving human development. These ideals are clearly embraced in Jamaica's Vision 2030 framework, which promises equal education for all.

Inclusive education ensures access to quality education for all students by effectively meeting their diverse needs in a common learning environment with support to remove barriers that may lead to exclusion. Carefully note, inclusive education means more than simply being educated in the same physical space, it involves a crafted system that provides an appropriate curriculum, quality pedagogy, policies, and the requisite assistive technology that supports differences in learning abilities.

For the Jamaican education system, inclusion is a desire that is scarcely met in reality, but for a few. In fact, what exists in some secondary schools are students, who obtained low Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) scores (now Primary Exit Profile [PEP]), being placed in reclassified ''high'' schools or junior high schools. Many of these students experience learning delays but have not been assessed, and for those who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, the support offered is inadequate, resulting in them underachieving or becoming drop-outs.

The Task Force on Educational Reform Jamaica (2004) has already highlighted this issue, in stating that ''most children with special needs are mainstreamed without adequate learning support resulting in underachievement'.

Special needs policy overdue

''Where there is no vision, the people will perish.'' If the special needs policy holds the vision for students with special education needs you and I can guess their current fate. The special education needs policy was documented in 2017 and subsequently referred to Cabinet, where it currently sits. Amid reminders from stakeholders, and the imminent school term, the policy still lingers. Unsurprisingly, the Government's slow pace in publishing this policy has now been further compounded by the negative effects of COVID-19. As a result, the Government now scrambles to reach several major decisions to determine the educational trajectory for all students. We ask that in the making of these vital decisions that we do not leave students with special education needs and disabilities behind.

Frankly, we will not remain silent as systemic inequalities in the education system continue to seep through the seams of society, giving birth to normalised practices that maintain the divide between the haves and the have-nots. For years students with special education needs have not been treated equally at a societal and government level. The role of leaders is to administer justice through its policies and legislations. They should ensure that the necessary social and economic arrangements are in place to foster social justice in and out of the classroom. For example, providing quality and accessible education for students with special education needs not only enhances individual capabilities, but prepares them to be critically engaged in their communities, through contribution from their careers (income) and civic participation (influencing change). This approach is paramount in empowering them to collectively challenge their own marginalisation.

We must repel the taken-for-granted stance, that students with special education needs are less important because their potential contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) may not be as significant as other students. To achieve educational justice, leaders ought to lead the charge in deconstructing socially constructed ideologies, along with removing social and economic barriers that maintain a pervasive cycle of inequality.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exposed long-standing gaps within the education sector and will utterly destroy weakened structures. Please, let us act quickly, but sensibly, by utilising the necessary resources to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable; do not treat them as an appendage. Time is of the essence, we were waiting, but now we are demanding: Implement the special education needs policy immediately!

Melisa Porter is a head of the Cynthia Shako Early Childhood Education & Daycare Centre at the University of Technology, Jamaica and Chevening alumna. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or melisaporter29@gmail.com.


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