THE National Early Childhood Intervention Council welcomes comments by Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching on MOE’s “Zero Reject Policy” and initiatives to ensure children with special needs have equal access to learning (“Plans for special needs students”, StarEducation, Dec 6; online at tinyurl.com/star-special-needs).
The National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) is a registered coalition of parents, therapists and professionals from a large number of NGOs and agencies working with and advocating for children with special needs.
We are delighted that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is implementing proactive initiatives for children with special needs to meet the Malaysian Education Blueprint’s target of 75% children with special needs in inclusive education programmes by 2023.
We applaud MOE’s implementation of the Zero Reject Policy, which ensures that no students with special needs are turned away from schools. We strongly agree with Teo’s call (reported in Sin Chew Daily) for schools not to use the three-month probation period as an excuse to push children with special needs away from mainstream classes.
We are also encouraged that the ministry has plans to build accessible school facilities so that children with physical disabilities have barrier-free access. We also applaud the directive that an individual education plan is made compulsory for every student with special needs, regardless of the education programme they are in.
The focus, however, appears to be on children with physical disabilities and in the Special Needs Integration Programme (PPKI). Children with special needs still need to meet certain criteria set by the MOE’s checklist for inclusion readiness before they can be considered for participation in the inclusive programme. This is contrary to the principle and philosophy of inclusive education.
Inclusive education means that all children, regardless of characteristics and learning abilities, receive education alongside their peers. Inclusion is not about the child fitting in and meeting mainstream education targets, but about making changes to the school system and environment to ensure the child participates fully and meaningfully in school.
Approximately 50 years of research evidence is clear that inclusive education, not integration or segregation, is the most effective in cost and educational outcomes for all children, with and without disabilities. There is no evidence that inclusive education hinders the academic outcomes of children without disabilities.
Research has shown that children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms perform better in academic skills, such as language, reading and math skills; form positive peer relationships; develop better socialisation and have fewer behavioural problems than those placed in segregated settings.
Children without disabilities in an inclusive environment can achieve academically, develop more effective communication with all peers, have less fear of human differences, are more adept at interacting with people who look or behave differently, and can nurture respect for people and reduce prejudice, discrimination and bullying.
Hence, inclusion fosters awareness, acceptance and appreciation of individual differences and diversity. Children with and without special needs not only benefit from but also thrive in inclusive settings.
Currently, children with special needs mainly attend the PPKI programme, itself a form of segregated education. Although the MOE reports that in 2017 (“Quick Facts 2017 Malaysia Education Statistics”), 25,396 students with special needs were being educated in inclusive mainstream classrooms, more than half were only partially included (13,081). This does not accurately reflect the practice of inclusive education in its truest sense.
The Inclusive Education Programme (PPI), as currently practised in our schools, is placing children with special needs in the mainstream classrooms and expecting them to keep up with their peers without disabilities. Some of this inclusive programme only happens for non-academic subjects like art, music and sports, instead of a full school day. Often times, there is no additional support or modification in curriculum, and the child with special needs is expected to “keep up”.
NECIC would like to make a few suggestions to enhance the ministry’s initiatives so that all children with special needs indeed have equal opportunities to education.
> Zero Reject Policy and an inclusive KPI
Adopting the Zero Reject Policy is a significant step forward, as it states that no child should be rejected from schools. This should not be interpreted as admitting children with special needs into the PPKI programme. It is a huge misconception that these non-mainstream programmes provide better learning outcomes and environment for children with special needs because it is not inclusion.
We should evaluate school effectiveness based on inclusion KPIs. Schools will be prompted to consider the diverse needs of all students and make adaptations to enable full and meaningful participation in schools. Besides accessible facilities, providing a flexible curriculum, multiple assessment methods and school-wide positive behaviour support are best practices that all mainstream schools should adopt in implementing inclusive education.
> Individual education plan (IEP) to be implemented effectively
We would like to emphasise that the IEP is important for all children with special needs, including those included in mainstream classes as their needs are invariably unmet. It is encouraging that MOE’s Inclusive Education Guidelines states that IEP involves shared planning with parents and a multidisciplinary team (eg, therapists and doctors). Unfortunately, this is not widely practised in reality. IEP should be routinely shared, discussed and planned with parents and therapists, who provide crucial input to support children’s learning.
> Deploy PPKI teachers into mainstream classes
About 15% of children in mainstream classes have some form of special needs (eg, autism, dyslexia, ADHD, visual/hearing impairments and physical disabilities) and currently their needs are not well supported. PPKI teachers are a vital source of support and should be deployed into mainstream classes to support teachers in differentiating and co-teaching lessons, adapting teaching materials and lesson instructions, and planning behavioural and social skills support strategies.
The concern that our schools and teachers are not yet ready for inclusive education is real. However, it should not be a hindrance to implementing inclusive education in all our mainstream government schools.
While we wait for the MOE to provide teachers with more training and knowledge, we hope the District Education Offices and schools can be empowered to engage with the disability community to provide hands-on training for teachers. A supportive and inclusive attitude will enable children with special needs to participate in mainstream schools fully.
Inclusive education is a right for all children. It is our responsibility to Make The Right Real.
DR WONG WOAN YIING (President, NECIC & Consultant Paediatrician)
PROF DR TOH TECK HOCK (Vice President, NECIC & Consultant Paediatrician)
DATUK DR AMAR-SINGH HSS (Advisor, NECIC & Consultant Paediatrician)
NG LAI THIN (Project Officer, NECIC)