Big fight for school with no bullies
One of the few mainstream primary schools that still welcomes children with special education needs is struggling to keep its doors open due to insufficient government cash.
Despite being a pioneer in the model of integrated education encouraged by the government, San Wui Commercial Society School must raise funds every year to take in children with special needs, even though it is government subsidised.
'We want to continue this work. We believe that having special-needs children educated alongside other children is beneficial for all. But I'm not sure if we can continue if we cannot raise enough funds to support this,' said Lui Kam-leung, who has been headmaster of the Sheung Wan school for five years.
The school has 120 pupils, of whom about 40 have moderate special needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger's syndrome and other forms of autism.
For the past 10 years, the school had been running an inclusive teaching model where pupils with special needs share the classroom with other children. Each class has two teachers - the subject teacher and an assistant - to help youngsters struggling with problems such as poor social skills and who have difficulty grasping class material.
'Most of them are weak in social skills and sometimes language,' Lui said. 'The best way is to have them interact with other children.'
He said teachers, parents and students all see the benefits of the integrated model, but it requires more resources than standard classes.
Having to hire extra teachers, speech therapists and counsellors places a huge financial burden on the school.
Lui said that in the past three years, the school had to raise HK$3 million through donations and fund-raising to keep its doors open. The school faces a financial crunch each year as it tries to enrol enough pupils just to stay open.
'If this situation continues, I'm not sure if we can continue to accept so many pupils with special needs,' Lui said.
Ironically, Lui said, the government doesn't provide the extra funds needed to run the model because, it says, the school does not have enough pupils with special needs. This means the school must raise HK$500,000 a year just to hire the five teachers and provide the counselling, speech therapy and other services to cater for their needs.
Lui said the school tried to give all pupils normality: all children can become prefects, volunteer and even become mentors for younger classmates. These experiences build up children's confidence, as well as letting them know that they are just different rather than 'a problem'.
'It's amazing how much the students learn from each other,' said Lui, who believes that children learn empathy and consideration just by being with one another.
'When you put children together who are different and teach them about understanding and respect, they grow up to be exceptional young people - because they care about others.
'This isn't something you learn in books or classes, but this is important education - perhaps even more important than aceing your classes.'
One woman who has spent three years at the school as an assistant teacher echoed Lui's view.
'Here in our school, there is no bullying whatsoever - no one laughs at other students who may have done something embarrassing,' she said.
Another teacher said that it would be a shame if the school could no longer take in pupils with special needs because of financial strain.
Neither teacher has a permanent contract, which means they come to the end of each school year not knowing whether they will be rehired the following year. But both have decided to stay on despite the lack of job security.
'I am staying here - as long as the school will take me - because I think we're making a difference here,' said the first teacher.
Grace Tang enrolled her autistic son in the school six years ago, because it was close to her home and was willing to admit pupils with special needs.
Tang said her son, like other children with autism, struggled with language skills and his emotions. But she saw a big difference in her child when he went from kindergarten to Primary One.
'I really appreciate what the school has done,' she said.
Her son got to be a prefect and represented the school at the speech festival, even though he wasn't good at public speaking.
'The difficult thing is: if a school takes in a lot of special needs children, then it will be easily labelled as a special needs school and other students will stay away from it,' Tang said. The integration method benefitted children with or without special needs, although she acknowledged that it has not been easy for the school.
'Sometimes schools want to include integrated teaching and want to help special needs children, but they risk being labelled,' Tang said.
Last year, about 15,900 children with special needs studied at mainstream public primary schools in Hong Kong.