Inclusive education in Canada is a reality

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When Harland Sanders began selling fried chicken, he was no different from anyone else. What turned his efforts into the famous KFC restaurant was a few small details, among them the secret ingredients of his spice mix.

What is the secret ingredient of inclusive education? It is that children with disabilities spend time together with other children – that is the magic that bears fruit in the long term, for everyone.

The basic difference in the approach to inclusive education between the Canadian system and the Czech one is that the professional support provided to a Canadian school for inclusive education is not for the pupil, but for the teacher. As Erica, a teacher in Canada, says:  “If I send a pupil with problems away from my classroom to see a specialist, then I will not improve as a teacher, but if the specialist comes to me and consults with me on how I can support the pupil, I will be better prepared to aid such children in future.”

Professional support for teachers in working with diverse collectives in Canadian classrooms is provided by resource teachers employed full-time by the school. They are recruited from the ranks of experienced teachers who are natural leaders and who have several years of teaching experience.

Some are former leaders in literacy or numeracy development and some have completed courses and special training for working with pupils who have special educational needs. Their job description is to aid teachers with planning lessons so that all children in the group have something to do.

Sometimes these resource teachers co-teach with the main teacher. In the afternoon, they assess what has worked and what needs to be developed differently.

A school with 500 pupils has three resource teachers, while a school with 2 000 pupils has eight. Besides these instructors, there are also teaching assistants in some classes who do not have to meet overly demanding requirements and who are sometimes recruited from job-seekers enrolled with the Labor Office or parents involved with the school.

What does it look like when a resource teacher meets with a class teacher regarding a problematic pupil? The resource teacher asks the class teacher: How is this pupil complicating work in the classroom? What bothers you the most about this pupil? When does this happen? What are the indications that the problematic behavior is about to begin?

The teacher writes downs answers to these questions and together with the resource teacher comes up with ideas for what can be done at those moments that might trigger the pupil’s undesirable behavior. Teachers leave these meetings aware that they themselves have a problem with that particular pupil and that they can attempt the ideas or solutions discussed during the meetings.

In Canada they are convinced that inclusion functions well when it is naturally distributed. The rule is that a school cannot accept pupils with disabilities who do not reside in a school’s catchment area.

During the 1990s, the OECD and UNESCO studied the system of inclusive schooling in the Canadian province of New Brunswick and found that it is financially efficient and functions well. Those who began the reforms to the system that led to this, naturally, were parents.

These people wanted their children to attend school in their own catchment area together with neighboring children. It was soon clear to all involved that this was not a UNESCO idea, but just the wish of these Moms and Dads.

Everyone did their best to aid these parents in making those wishes a reality. Gordon Porter, a former principal who aided the Department of Education with its inclusive reforms, recalls that the beginning was not absolutely easy, though.

Upper primary teachers were initially against inclusion, believing they were going to have to teach the same material to children who could not read, speak, or who had other problems. Once the teachers understood that it was not necessary to teach everything to such children, that they could adjust the curriculum for them, the battle was won.

With the support of the international network of the Open Society Foundations, the organizations Inclusion International and Inclusion International Canada have sponsored a five-day residency in New Brunswick for the purpose of studying inclusive education that was participated in by 11 people, predominantly representing Latin American countries. Education in New Brunswick has been inclusive for more than 25 years already.

The local government there decided to close its auxiliary classes and special schools out of respect for human rights generally and for international conventions (such as Article 47 of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) because such arrangements were viewed as segregation. What we heard from city school workers, parents and teachers was that children with disabilities also belong among us.

We cannot send such children to special schools, they told us – how would they ever accustom themselves to coexistence with everyone else in our city? Instead, in the schools we heard of examples of pupils who were able to become members of society after graduating from elementary and secondary schools together with everyone else.

One girl named Marie, who has Down Syndrome, helps make sandwiches at the local bistro, and John, who has mental disabilities, folds towels at the Crown Plaza Hotel in the city center. Everyone has a place where they belong, everyone is important.