Poor policy for special-needs pupils means everyone suffers
The public has been asked for views on integrated education, but the first task is the government's: respecting every pupil's right to quality learning
The Legislative Council subcommittee on Integrated Education has been holding a series of meetings on the difficulties in integrating pupils with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream education. Public views have been invited.
SEN pupils are those who have needs and disabilities that affect their ability to learn.
Inclusive education is a rising global trend. Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that education be directed to the development of the child's personality and abilities to their fullest potential. Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees the substantive right to inclusive education and requires signatories to implement inclusive education system at all levels.
During the past 15 years or so, the government has taken steps to mainstream SEN pupils under the banner of integrated education. However, the policy has often been criticised as ill-conceived, half-hearted and inefficacious.
There are always sceptics who hold that integrating SEN pupils would lower the overall academic standard of regular schools. Others worry that resources of special schools may be drained in the guise of integrated education, jeopardising pupils with genuine needs.
And there is a long list of problems concerning the operation of integrated education: insufficient training and support for teachers, ineffective resources allocation and co-ordination, lack of curricular and pedagogical differentiation, absence of diversified progression pathways and unfavourable school ethos, just to name a few. Needs and expectations are diverse and mixed, but the policy fails to address them properly. As a result, everyone suffers.
The crux of the problem is the government's misconception about inclusion and failure to recognise access to quality inclusive education as a substantive right.
Inclusion is not only about placement. It is about recognising and respecting everyone's right to quality education. Every pupil, with or without SEN, should be given the opportunities to develop to their fullest potential. Inclusion echoes the requirement spelled out by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The social benefits it brings are maximisation of possibilities and potential. In a sense, it widens society's pool of talents.
The inclusiveness of our education is an indicator of how tolerant and caring the society is.
Inclusion is made possible through accommodative measures, equal opportunities, curricular and pedagogical innovations, positive attitudes and an ethos of being supportive. SEN pupils are respected as full, active participants, instead of incompetent learners and sources of trouble. This "social model" is the backbone of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
We need concerted effort to advance inclusive education. We don't need to have every school run on the same model. A plurality of inclusive schools, integrated schools and special schools may be good enough to ensure that different pupils' needs are properly served.
But the gist is that every pupil's right to quality education should be respected and taken seriously, whether they have SEN or not.
Education is for all. Inclusion offers an ethical vision that is long missed in Hong Kong education: respect for diversities.
The right to quality education should be recognised as a right of every pupil, with or without SEN, and should form the basis of the government's education policy. And Hong Kong should fulfil its obligations under the two international conventions.
Simon Ng , assistant professor and senior programme director of law at the School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong, is interested in the social and cultural aspects of law, popular legal culture, disability rights and rule-of-law education and has published in all of these areas.