Ill-planned ‘inclusive education’ endangers our children

I notice the phrase “inclusive education” has become fashionable these days. From parents to politicians and a fair few of us in the field of early childhood education, everyone seems to be smitten with the idea of achieving equity in education through the supposed magic pill that is mainstreaming “special needs” children.

Let me first state that education is a fundamental human right. The United Nations (UN) has codified it as such in its charter, and anyone with an ounce of intellect cannot dispute the starring role of education in raising the quality of life for individuals and society.

Yet, I fear that in our missionary zeal to pursue inclusive education, Malaysians specifically and Asians in general risk distorting what constitutes equity and diversity, and grossly underestimate the groundwork and indeed sheer grit needed to implement it.

Instead of reducing discrimination that special needs children face at school, such a plan in its present shape and form may, in fact, backfire and intensify it.

Before I explain why, let us first establish what inclusive education is, since there seems to be much confusion over the definition.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) describes inclusive education as removing “the barriers limiting the participation and achievement of all learners; respect diverse needs, abilities and characteristics;  and eliminate all forms of discrimination in the learning environment”.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, meanwhile, narrows the definition of special needs to students “with visual impairment, hearing impairment, speech difficulties, physical disabilities, multiple disabilities and learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia”.

There are two glaring problems here. First, lumping the above variety of physical and mental handicaps into one umbrella category is in itself discriminatory as it equalises the learning ability of all within. This is ludicrous.

A child with a physical handicap could be at par with his so-called “normal” peers in terms of keeping up with the coursework, something that may be impossible for those with ADHD, autism and especially dyslexia.

How will a blanket policy for special needs children address their highly diverse needs? If the popular notions of inclusive education are made real, will there be multiple streams to the “mainstream”? And if learning methodology, timelines and schedules are stratified for those within the special needs domain, then what is “inclusive” about the system?

Second, I am of the opinion that we have a naive understanding of inclusivity in the educational context, driven perhaps by our feverish desire to mimic the West. What we perceive as “inclusive” is integrative at best, something writ large in the education blueprint that maps out the closure of special needs facilities and merges their students with the general body.

Besides bringing everyone under one roof, as the “combined classrooms” envision, there will plainly be separate clusters of students that are physically together yet galaxies apart in terms of academic and support requirements.

Nevertheless, there are positives to inclusive education as an ideal that makes it worth fighting for. I recently read a well-argued piece by Dr York Chow Yat-ngok in the South China Morning Post where he wrote that teething pains aside, combined classrooms will promote empathy and acceptance among all children and additionally raise the self-esteem of those with special needs.

He added that the foundation of a “truly inclusive society” is built on diversity and accepting differences. Those who align with his views routinely cite Finland as a shining example where special needs children have been steadily routed to regular public schools with great success after the government decided to close down all “special education” facilities over two decades ago.

While Chow and his ilk hold admirable positions on inclusive education, their arguments could go both ways. If we agree that young children absorb information like sponges and are in the process of building personalities, there remains the risk that even one distressing episode with a special-needs child, say an autistic one, could internalise in them negative stereotypes about that group for life.

As humans, our concept of “normal” is often far removed from the scientific benchmarks that policymakers use to establish educational guidelines. And young children, especially, judge normality through the adequate participation in social rituals as minor as sharing toys during playtime, or napping together peacefully.

Also, when comparing Malaysia’s preschool system with developed nations, we must keep two very important things in mind: numbers and attitude.

First, the current teacher-to-student ratio in Malaysian preschools is very taxing on educators. Here we have one teacher for 15-20 children whereas the ratio is six-to-eight in the West, excluding the support staff like medics and mental health professionals. And given young children can have wildly diverging personalities, it requires an enormous amount of patience and physical energy simply to teach the “normal” ones.

Therefore, before attempting to consolidate special needs and mainstream preschools, the government must first bridge this gap in terms of teacher numbers and skill-sets, or risk pandemonium and even class-action lawsuits by parents if the new school environment endangers their children.

Next, the graver problem of attitude: the majority of Malaysian early childhood educators never wanted to enter the profession. I hear this every day at universities and in the field.

But because of the quota system in public universities, many settled on a major that was not even their second or third choice simply to attend a prestigious college. And as working professionals, many regrettably do not care.

The greater irony here is how the pecking order of public education programmes cheapens early childhood education. Don’t have the grades to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer? Just go teach preschoolers.

The bottom-line is the roadmap to inclusive education in preschools must be put away until both state and civil society awaken to their responsibilities. We cannot keep gambling with our children’s future, nor frustrating the few teachers who actually care about them.

Jerrica Fatima Ann is an early childhood educator and editor of

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.