Can Hong Kong’s inclusive education marry non-local curricula?
When it comes to educating children with special needs, parents and schools have many strategies to choose from to ensure their youngsters get the teaching that suits them best
Integrating students with special educational needs (SEN) into mainstream classrooms has been the official policy for more than a decade. But how does it work, and what is on offer for non-local parents?
As of September 2017, 61 schools appear on the EDB’s list of aided special schools. Under its umbrella are schools for children with visual or hearing impairment, and physical or intellectual disability, as well as schools for social development and hospital schools. The Jockey Club Sarah Roe School, run by the English Schools Foundation, is the only international special school listed.
These 62 schools took in 8,060 students in the 2017/18 school year, just over 2 per cent of which occurred in an international setting. This number makes up 17 per cent of some 46,000 SEN schoolchildren in need of vital support services - a figure estimated by local advocacy group SEN Rights Association, based on the EDB’s own study.
The rest of the SEN students are in mainstream classrooms. The EDB has developed a Three-tier Intervention Model in line with its approach to integrated education.
Dr. Liu Duo, associate head and associate professor of the Department of Special Education and Counselling at the Education University of Hong Kong, says this model exemplifies how the teaching approach for SEN students can be inclusive and differentiated at the same time.
If a student is diagnosed with mild to persistent learning difficulties, and identified as tiers 1 or 2, they can be taught in mainstream classrooms with add-on interventions such as pull-out programmes and small group teaching. However, tier-3 students with severe special educational needs require a tailor-made curriculum or other kinds of “intensive individualised support”, as the EDB puts it.
SEN students entering public sector mainstream schools are taught under the local academic structure, with the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) as the final stage before university education. On the other hand, for those favouring a non-local curriculum, there are numerous options available, and the whole object is to make an early start.
For example, Small World Christian Kindergarten, in Mid-Levels, uses a collaborative and inclusive approach in supporting young children at different learning levels through their Individual Needs Programme.
“We spend a lot of time learning to know and understand the child and his/her needsthrough ongoing discussions with the people who know the child well – family, caregivers, former teachers and therapists, if any,” principal Tess Baguio says.
The Christian pre-school’s Early Years teachers receive regular and up-to-date training about ways to address the different needs of children, in order to lay the groundwork for a welcoming and nurturing learning environment.
External agencies are also part of the equation. Under the Social Welfare Department’s two-year pilot scheme “On-site Pre-school Rehabilitation Services” (OPRS), multidisciplinary NGO teams offer on-campus services to participating kindergartens and child care centres as a relief measure for SEN children placed on the waiting list for other government-funded pre-school rehabilitation services. In Small World’s case, teachers learn from the specialists’ specific intervention programmes such as occupational therapy, speech therapy and SEN training.
This support fits perfectly with the International Early Years Curriculum, the school’s main curriculum. “The curriculum is written for children aged two to five and it has differentiated provision for children who may be slightly slower in development, as well as those children who may need to be challenged,” Baguio says. She observes that children who thrive in a mainstream classroom often enjoy a seamless transition to primary school.
Baguio says that in her school’s experience, children who are advanced in their learning in areas such as maths and literacy usually require differentiation. Often, she says, the curriculum needs to be adjusted so that these children can stay challenged, focused and motivated in the classroom. “These children usually have challenges with their social skills, a short attention span and disruptive behaviour - sometimes [because] they are bored,” she says.
Apart from their frequent association with “giftedness”, SEN students are often pigeonholed as having low intelligence, although in fact several special needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia have nothing to do with intellectual problems.
This is only one of many stigmas attached to inclusive education in Hong Kong. According to Liu, the need for society as a whole to cultivate a positive attitude towards inclusion is a basic one albeit the hardest hurdle to jump.
“Such an attitude is influenced by many social factors, such as limited resources, a competitive environment and the preferences of an elite society,” he says. “An inclusive education can only be genuinely realised when inclusion is part of society’s core spirit.”
Hong Kong still has large strides to make in its inclusive education. Liu outlines two other areas where urgent improvement is needed. More resources should be allocated to the families of SEN students, he says. With an ever-growing queue for subvented services, they often have to shoulder the financial burden for necessary therapies. “We may need to think about how to optimise existing resources, and at the same time [attract] more resources into inclusive education,” Liu says.
Other than that, he adds, frontline teachers must be equipped with the knowledge and skills required for inclusive education. In some programmes in Liu’s department, students visit special schools and learn how to support SEN students in real life, while some conduct honours projects to learn about the research-based problem-solving skills necessary to understand these children.
Technology has come into play in inclusive education in recent years, with researchers attempting to use augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) to help SEN children. At the same time, Education University has introduced eye trackers and EEG/ERP machines.
“Eye movement is closely related to cognitive and psychological activities. We can then infer the cognitive processing of psychological status based on the eye movement data recorded by the eye tracker. The EEG/ERP machines help us ‘read’ brain activities more directly,” Liu says.
These devices then help identify the fundamental factors associated with mental disorders and diagnose deficits. They can also evaluate the effectiveness of training programmes, and examine whether they are effective in improving children’s performance at a more fundamental biological level. Before this, only behavioural changes could be assessed.
What should parents do when they discover signs of SEN in their children? The experts give their advice.
- Seek intervention as early as possible. “This is the best way to manage children’s individual needs, as parents and a supportive school try to seek support to help bridge the child’s developmental gaps promptly and teach specific strategies tailored to their specific needs,” Baguio says.
- Talk to the professionals. Educational psychologists and clinical psychologists are great sources of precise and timely advice. “Once a child is diagnosed, parents should actively cooperate with professionals to allow the child to receive therapies, which may involve medication in some cases,” Liu says.
- Stay optimistic. “Be positive, and focus on your child’s strengths - they can still lead a colourful life,” Liu says.