Transforming Educational Systems – Lessons from New Brunswick
There is global recognition of the importance of inclusive education, not only in ensuring that every young person enjoys their right to quality education but also as a means of building more inclusive 21st century societies. Yet despite more than 30 years of promising educational innovation, it remains the case that rather few jurisdictions have […]
There is global recognition of the importance of inclusive education, not only in ensuring that every young person enjoys their right to quality education but also as a means of building more inclusive 21st century societies. Yet despite more than 30 years of promising educational innovation, it remains the case that rather few jurisdictions have implemented a comprehensive system of inclusive education. One of those which has is the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Here we tell the New Brunswick story and offer a framework for transforming public education systems so as to provide inclusive education for all.
Gordon Porter, as a teacher, school principal, district leader and state policy adviser has been an integral part of this story. In discussion with David Towell, he identifies important features of a 30 year journey towards creating educational environments where all children learn with their peers in community schools.
In New Brunswick, there were three major factors at work as the movement toward inclusion began in the late 1970s. First, many families were unhappy with the outcomes of segregated schooling for their children. Parents were becoming vocal and increasingly their voices were being heard. Second, there were legislative and policy factors setting new directions. Specifically, Canada included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in its constitution in 1982, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Third, a cohort of teachers and school leaders developed a commitment to providing instruction to all students, based on the simple proposition, “All students can learn”. Building on success, one teacher at a time, then one school at a time, New Brunswick’s educators found there was a path forward that provided both quality instruction and inclusion for all students.
Of course, this transformation took time. In the district where I worked, it took us 2-3 years to fully define our approach (from 1982), then a further 3-4 years to institutionalize it. We were not alone since several other school districts welcomed the change to inclusion and invested in the training and capacity building needed to give teachers, principals and support teachers what they needed to succeed.
At the provincial level, the Ministry of Education provided a policy framework as well as funding to support the change. There were province wide seminars and training events over the course of several years. We accepted that if we waited until everyone in the system was ready for inclusion to begin, we would fail to progress. The focus was on moving forward and solving problems as they emerged.
One of the strategies we found most effective at the school level was to identify the most challenging situations faced by teachers and provide as much support as needed to make the situation better. We also invested heavily in developing a cadre of “support teachers” who could provide direct assistance to teachers as they worked to make inclusion a reality in their classrooms.
All these things happened in the context of planning at the school, district and provincial level. The Ministry of Education fostered partnerships with districts, and districts developed cooperative initiatives with each other. Parent/family advocacy organizations, universities and professional groups were also part of the partnership efforts. Moreover the provincial leadership throughout this thirty years has been committed to regular reviews, always seeking to identify ways in which we could do better. Success is always a work in progress.
In New Brunswick, the evidence is that every investment made to make a school inclusive is an investment in making the school a better school for all the students.
In New Brunswick, systemic change has not relied on small scale successes in independent-minded schools; still less on ‘grafting on’ inclusion to traditional educational practices without tackling the inherent contradictions this generates. Rather they have recognised that inclusive education requires transformational change in public education so that inclusion becomes an intrinsic dimension of policy, culture and practice at all levels from the classroom to the government.
Reflecting on this and other examples of radical change, we have identified ten keys to this transformation (see box). Critical here are an enriched conception of quality education as preparation for life, coupled with a commitment to making inclusion work for everyone. Also essential is leadership which promotes the active participation of all the stakeholders in education and sustained investment in learning from experience as change proceeds.
The Transformational Change Matrix
This table lists the ten keys to inclusion which have to be entrenched at all three levels of school/classroom, district and state.
- Educating for life
- Promoting inclusion
- Encouraging transformation leadership
- Developing partnership
- Investing in equity
- Tackling barriers to participation
- Strengthening inclusive pedagogy
- Prioritising professional development
- Learning from experience
- Plotting the journey to inclusion
A fuller version of this article, identifying the actions required at the levels of the school, the local education authority and the education ministry is available here.
UNESCO has produced a complementary set of materials, Reaching Out to All Learners.
Gordon Porter and David Towell