Providing Equitable Opportunities for all Students
I feel compelled to write this month about inclusion, as I feel this has been front and centre lately in the news about education. Inclusion by its nature signifies an important shift in our approach to teaching, learning and society in general, as it represents an acceptance of all people, regardless of their intellect, social and cultural backgrounds, or physical challenges. This means all of us. Education reflects what we as a society believe, and as such the education system in Nova Scotia has implemented a policy of inclusion since 1996. This policy originates from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms enacted in 1982. Canada was the first country to instate such a Charter, and this reflected a respect and welcome for diversity.
However, even though we were leaders in 1982, we are still struggling in terms of day-to-day equality. We in Canada may feel we are leaders in children’s rights, but in fact we are in 21st place according to an international ranking (www.humanium.org). This is partly due to the effects of poverty and racism. We are less divided economically than some other capitalist countries, but we still have definite divisions between have and have-not families. Parents with the intellectual, monetary and social capital know how to navigate the educational and healthcare systems in Canada. They are able to procure more equitable treatment for their children just by knowing their rights and whom to call when they need support. Parents who have had difficult lives, including their school experience, are far less likely to engage with their children’s schools, especially if there is an issue.
Inclusion as a system of education is supposed to provide equitable opportunities for all students to succeed. We know that everyone has their own learning styles, interests and strengths. It is a huge responsibility for schools to address all children’s needs simultaneously. We do not give educators the respect they deserve in addressing this challenge every day. Many suggestions have been made to schools to address issues which are not inherently theirs to solve. Many issues derive from health, community, and family concerns. Schools want every student to come to school every day, yet many are unable to reach their full potential due to outside issues. Schools today are more than places of learning- they feed, clothe, counsel, and support students and families in a variety of ways. Educators use their flexibility and limited resources to provide support in schools that may not have adequate resources. Often teachers reach into their own pockets to make the learning difference for their classes and to provide support to individuals who need it.
Because inclusion often pertains to children with complex needs, these children are seen as the problem. Yet there has always been a variety of children, just as there has always been a variety of adults. The frequency of complex needs may seem to be increasing, but this has more to do with better identification and understanding, and the fact that schools are no longer able to exclude children. Educational research provides approaches such as Universal Design for Learning, Response to Intervention, differentiated instruction, and other means for government to organize and allocate resources so that all teachers have the skills and materials to teach diverse students. Governments have not put the required monies into education to provide this training and support. We need more Schools Plus schools to provide wrap-around services for children. We need to train more teachers to be school psychologists, resource teachers and other specialists.
Pointing to inclusion as the problem in education in Nova Scotia is using the same strategy that inclusion aims to avoid–giving the blame to vulnerable students, families and teachers. Diverse needs are not fixable, avoidable, or the fault of their owners. Accepting the challenge to include is to accept everyone as they are, and work together toward providing an example to the rest of the world in treating our most vulnerable with the most care. I have seen this in First Nations communities in Cape Breton, as well as in the Francophone school system, where “care” is not even a word but an assumption for a school that sees itself as a community. We must return to seeing schools as the communities they are and treat their caretakers – our educators – with the respect and support they need to teach and guide all of our families toward the future. This is the responsibility of all of us, and we need to voice this rather than fragment our society.