Special needs students: more support needed in Hong Kong schools
In recent years, as an outcome of the inclusive education policy, students with special educational needs who were formerly served by special schools have been allocated to mainstream schools.
The purpose is to help students with various sorts and degrees of learning, behavioural or emotional problems or handicaps integrate with normal students from early life.
For these students to receive proper care and education in mainstream schools, there are requirements for schools to have their teachers trained so that there are sufficient teachers in each and every school qualified for taking care of these children in classroom teaching, curriculum design or tailoring, exam arrangements and pastoral care.
Whether a school will admit these students depends on parental choice and their academic achievements. It is fair to say lower-band schools have received most of them, although trends show the better schools have also started admitting them.
The special educational needs concept embraces a broad range of students with learning difficulties, such as autism, hyperactivity, attention deficit, dyslexia, emotional or behavioural problems, physical handicaps or impairment and so on. No school nowadays can have the luxury of having no admission or single-type special educational needs students. Schools that receive these students receive extra funding based on the number of such students admitted, so they can deploy more manpower to run supportive programmes.
An educational psychologist service is also available, but a single psychologist has to take care of six to eight schools, resulting in only one visit per school every two to three weeks. Although the policy is noble, the kind of support and resources for the schools does not seem to match the difficulties on the ground.
Recently, I visited a mainstream secondary school. Fifteen per cent of its students have special educational needs. These include only the known cases, that is, those cases parents are willing to disclose. The school receives the maximum amount of designated funds from the government, with which it appoints extra teaching assistants, and also forms a team to run supportive programmes and activities, including screening and grouping, after-school coaching or pre-exam tutoring, special exam arrangements, pastoral care, referral systems, teacher professional development and parental liaison.
They also resort to class streaming and put most special educational needs students together to minimise the disruptive and dragging effects on other students. It seems they are running a school within a school, but without the abundant resources enjoyed by the former special schools. They manage to nurture an inclusive culture and keep most special educational needs students at peace during school hours. Yet the principal and the teacher in charge reveal areas of concern.
First, for inclusive education to succeed, they think all teachers need to be trained, especially when the needs of these students seem to be broadening and even regular students have diverse learning needs. Second, rather than just keeping such students in schools and maintaining a semblance of order and learning, these students need help to develop into self-sufficient, productive citizens, but the curriculum design, pedagogical innovation, assessment and life and career planning involved are far beyond the capability of any individual schools. Their concerns just highlight the inadequacies of the present system.
All teachers need training in special educational needs, not only for a paradigm shift concerning how best to view students as individuals and their diverse learning needs, but also to acquire specific teaching skills. Training on such a big scale can only be handled at the system level.
The inclusive education policy is only one piece of the social inclusion puzzle. The government should have a wholesome and long-term view of how to integrate special educational needs students into society and put in place diverse learning and career programmes to equip them for the future.
Academically more able special educational needs students need help in advanced studies, and teachers in tertiary institutions need special training to handle them too. To support schools that have to educate more of these students, more resources, more funding and more professional help should be provided.
Robin Cheung is a retired school principal