Geoff Johnson: Long road to real inclusion

Too often, great ideas live or die in the details involved in implementing the idea.

Unfortunately, just as often, the details of implementation are left to people who either did not fully understand the idea in the first place or who believe that if the idea cannot be justified on a spreadsheet, it is not worth pursuing.

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Business analysts tell us that great ideas mostly fail because of obstacles on the path to realization, including lack of commitment, not enough research, poor timing, lack of strategy, unrealistic expectations and, most commonly, fear of failure.

Public education should be the last place where great ideas come to die for any of these reasons.

One great idea that cannot be allowed to die in an environment ostensibly devoted to growth and development of children is the practice of the inclusion of children with special needs in regular classrooms.

I clearly remember riding my bike to school in the 1950s past a different school — one surrounded by a chain-link fence. There was a large sign on that fence that read Greenacres School for Sub-Normal Children.

Honestly, I would pedal a little faster because, in my childish ignorance, I had no idea what “sub-normal” meant or if whatever necessitated those children being separated was contagious.

That was nearly 40 years ago, but the public education system of today, both organizationally and politically, is still struggling with a full philosophical and fiscal commitment to the idea of “mainstreaming” children with special needs into regular classrooms. At present, no Canadian province has a full inclusionary system of education beyond the level of words.

In 1995, a Special Education Policy Framework for British Columbia was established, which advocates inclusion.

But a well-documented 2002 study by Lupart and Webber called Canadian Schools in Transition: Moving From Dual Education Systems to Inclusive Schools found that as general education began to shift toward more inclusive practices, it became apparent that regular classroom teachers and administrators were “insufficiently prepared and ill-equipped to effect the multidimensional and complex changes that inclusive-education reformers had envisioned.”

Advocates for children with special needs point to cuts in specialist teachers, insufficient training, too few education assistants and a general lack of support for students with special needs as the major obstacles to the realization of successful inclusion.

It is an irony that it took a Supreme Court of Canada decision to restore relevant parts of the 2002 teachers’ contract removed arbitrarily by the government of the day. Those class-size and composition clauses in the teacher contracts were specifically designed to enable a systematic move to inclusion.

Glen Hansman, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, quoted in this newspaper, said the subsequent shortage of properly trained special-education teachers has resulted in students with special needs missing programs or being told to stay home.

Between 2000-01 and 2016-17, students with special needs made up a relatively constant one-10th of the total student population.

However, according to a 2019 BCTF study based on information from the B.C. Ministry of Education, almost a quarter of special-education teachers were lost between 2000-01 and 2016-17. As a result, by 2016-17, there were, on average, 2.6 more students with special needs per special-education teacher than in 2000-01.

In 2019, there are still voices that deny that inclusion is beneficial for all concerned, but other, fortunately louder, voices, speak on behalf not only of children with special needs, but all the others who, once they attain adulthood, will have learned not to fear differences and will form our cultural attitudes to people with special needs.

Times have changed since the days when I hurriedly rode my bike past that chain link fenced-off school for “sub-normal children.”

But they’re not changing fast enough. Not for the parents of children with special needs, anyway.

And not for the kids who just want to be with other kids.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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