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Justine Barlow, founding Head of Academy at HKILA, reveals why she rejects the ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching and learning

PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

Historically, the education experiences for students with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) can be said to have been one of either exclusion (one in which students are prevented from or denied access to education) or segregation (one in which students are educated in separate spaces, following programmes designed specifically to respond to their various needs, away from typically developing students). In the 1960s, educators began to favour integration, which sees students with SEND placed in mainstream classrooms, where they are expected to adjust to a standardised ‘one size fits all’
approach to education.

In 1994, UNESCO concluded that the experiences of children with SEND in education were in urgent need of review, and called for ‘education for all,’ regardless of physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other differences. This resulted in The Salamanca Statement (UNESCO 1994), in which the international community agreed to endorse the approach of inclusive schools. ‘Inclusion’ replaced the term ‘integration’ and the quality of education for children with disabilities in mainstream schools was targeted for systematic improvement.

By the early 2000s, UNESCO’s definition of inclusion had developed into the ‘removal of barriers to high quality education for all children and the process of celebrating and responding to diversity in schools.’

This ethos was my springboard for establishing HKILA in Discovery Bay in 2010. I made a conscious decision to move towards creating a school that delivered an effective, inclusive and adaptable curriculum that catered for the needs of all students. At the heart of the school is the absolute belief that ‘we’re better together.’

Before we can enter into a discussion on inclusive education today, we have to understand what inclusive education is. The Education Bureau here in Hong Kong draws its definition from a 2000 OFSTED report, Evaluating Educational Inclusion: Guidance for Inspectors and Schools: ‘An educationally inclusive school is one in which the teaching and learning achievements, attitudes and wellbeing of every young person matters. Effective schools are educationally inclusive schools. This shows, not only in their performance, but also in their ethos and their willingness to offer new opportunities to pupils who may have experienced previous difficulties.’

Clearly then, inclusive education is a broad concept and one that needs to be considered from both a practical and rights perspective.

Research consistently shows that schools that practice effective inclusion support excellence for all students. Inclusive classrooms can (and do) impact positively on the social and emotional development of typically developing students by promoting acceptance of human difference, tolerance of others and growth in self-esteem. At HKILA, I have witnessed these qualities develop in our students first hand. Not only that, I have seen how these qualities have fostered life-long friendships between students and their families. It is this that drives my team and I forward.

Research also indicates that students with SEND who are taught in general education classes, academically outperform their peers educated in segregated settings. This is also true for students that spend a larger proportion of their school day alongside their typically developing peers in mathematics and language.

The support available for students with SEND varies across Hong Kong’s private education sector. Some schools are very open about their limited support for students with SEND, others offer integrated activities, and a number of schools offer fully inclusive education for their students.

Private schools tend to be smaller than public schools and so by default are better designed for inclusion. There are, of course, other benefits associated with smaller schools. At HKILA, smallclass sizes are non-negotiable. However, our commitment to keeping a high teacher: student ratio is, we believe, the most important element in effective inclusive education. Knowing our students’ strengths, weaknesses, personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes is essential to understanding how we can best motivate and support each of them individually and offer them a more enriching and rewarding education. A high teacher: student ratio is not exclusive to smaller schools and can be easily replicated in larger schools.

In 2014, the Hong Kong Government published a Whole School Approach to Integrated Education paper outlining their commitment to supporting mainstream public schools develop an inclusive learning environment, along with curriculum guides and resources aimed at facilitating the learning of students with SEND. The document includes resources to support students with ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, and visual and hearing impairments in mainstream schools. There is limited general data available on how well the recommendations have been implemented, but current statistics show that the number of students with ASD in mainstream public schools has increased by 6,660 since 2010.

There can be little doubt that attitudes towards students with SEND have changed for the better in the past few years. Although globally, there are countries that have been slow to move from segregation to inclusion, the number of students with SEND educated in inclusive settings is higher than ever before. Inclusive education has come a long way since Salamanca, but there is still work to be done.

Analysis of research conducted in the UK on the experiences of children with ASD, found that although 71% of these students were placed in mainstreams schools, these schools were often ill-equipped to provide the quality support and provision necessary.

Furthermore, research conducted just last year suggests that 27 years on, little advancement has been made when it comes to the further development of inclusive practice. So, what’s stopping us?

The benefits of inclusivity are well documented. So why is it then, that so many schools still struggle to implement effective inclusive education successfully?

At HKILA we understand that effective inclusion requires a fundamental change in culture and instructional practice from everyone in the school community. It is a process dependent on collaboration, cooperation, responsibility and restructure. School leaders must work to address any concerns from parents or staff about the effects of inclusion on typically developing students and answer any questions they may raise in relation to academic progress, teacher time and attention and undesirable behaviour in the classroom. A comprehensive review of studies drawing on research from 26 countries into these concerns found that the academic progress of typically students was either not affected, or affected positively by inclusive education. Sharing this information is key in helping to change long held attitudes and beliefs.

Schools must also work hard to ensure that staff are adequately skilled and trained to assist them in their development as inclusive practitioners and to cope with the challenges this undoubtedly brings.

Curriculums should be designed to be flexible and creative, and offer equal opportunity for students to achieve learning outcomes. Consideration needs to be given to students’ learning styles as well as teaching approaches. For HKILA, this meant choosing a curriculum partner (Dimensions UK) that shared our ethos and worked with us to develop a tailor-made strength-based curriculum.

Developed with the guidance of UK-trained therapists Speak Up! and Hands Up! are two specially-designed programmes, unique to HKILA, which aim to support and complement our core curriculum.

Speak Up! sessions are designed to enhance receptive and expressive vocabulary, language fluency, speech articulation and social skills. The Hands Up! programme encourages the development of gross and fine motor skills, core muscle stability, hand-eye coordination, sensory integration and more. As part of these sessions, we recently incorporated a renowned US-based programme: Bal-A-Vis-X. Standing for Balance, Auditory and Visual Exercises, the programme addresses visual tracking deficiencies, auditory imprecision, impulsivity, balance and anxiety issues, and has been linked to significant improvements in behaviour, focus, attention spans, memory and academic results.

There is no doubt that moving towards effective inclusion is challenging. But, as we have seen for ourselves, in doing so, schools enrich the experiences of all students. By implementing strength-based approaches, schools become places where educators foster the development of empathy, acceptance and tolerance. They become places where there is respect for others, high expectations and solid academic performance. They become places that motivate, engage and inspire students to aspire to excel. Excellence is for everyone.

Justine Barlow is the founding Head of Academy at HKILA, a private, DB-based international school that aims to make education accessible to all children. HKILA follows the latest UK National Curriculum objectives and caters for students from Year 1 to Year 9. It provides specialist education provision for students who need a little extra support, an online learning curriculum for students who prefer the flexibility of at-home learning, and a fun after-school programme.

To find out more, visit www.studyhkila.edu.hk.


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