Inclusive education during a pandemic: A collaboration between two countries
Dr Victoria Bamsey and Dr Suanne Gibson, lecturers at the University of Plymouth, explore the development, roll-out and impact of a new model of Inclusive Education (IE) practice they co-created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and consider what the new tool can add to the international debate.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on daily lives for families across the world with many children, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), falling further behind their non-Disabled peers in their learning. National lockdowns and the interruption of traditional education relationships and practices along with the pressures on families to home educate has meant that many children have not been able to access education either in the classroom or at home.
Whilst the option to home educate worked for some, it presented a significant challenge for many and raises a question on the practice of Inclusive Education during the pandemic. The crisis in location of, and resource for, inclusive education provision was further compounded with increasing numbers of young people and families developing mental health challenges and needs over this period, high levels of which remain.
Inclusive education means all children (Disabled and non-Disabled) receiving their education together as a part of equitable and fair provision. Whilst we know that in certain situations inclusive education may present as individualised, we believe in the need to continue pushing forward for full, fair, effective and free inclusive education for all our learners. This project and the inclusive education tools that developed, emerged from that shared philosophical and political position.
For many years inclusive education has been widely debated by policy makers, practitioners, academics and campaigners, dependent on context and time. As a discourse, inclusive education emerged from the international disability rights and other related equality movements in the 1980s and 90s such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sources such as the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education place the emphasis and practice of inclusive education with that of human rights and equality. Where there are barriers preventing the integration of Disabled children within schools, the ideals and policy of inclusion emphasise the need for change. Inclusive education is now key to developments in equal access and social justice for minoritized groups in education and society and in relation to SEND.
Whilst the role of families in inclusive education is core to inclusive provision, such as within English policy, the practice and impact of providing effective and meaningful responses to parental voice and to the development of fair and full provision is debateable and inconsistent. Meanwhile in Malaysia the launch of a ‘Zero Reject’ policy in 2019 has made inclusive education a relatively new phenomenon and for the first time mainstream schools are expected to create an inclusive learning environment for everyone.
Of interest is the focus on education within schools neglecting to consider the education that takes place in homes, communities and during school closures. Many families feel that they have been failed by the education system and this is leading to increasing numbers of families choosing to educate at home.
The pandemic has further exacerbated this trend with national lockdowns in many countries forcing school closures and shifting the role of educator from teacher to parent, and to take on wider social issues. Evidence on a global scale, highlights the negative impact on children’s learning in terms of their friends and thriving.
Despite a family’s desire to support the educational needs of their children at home; capital, working commitments and routines present regular barriers for parents. For many online education during school closures was hindered by infrastructures, with barriers including inaccessibility and unavailability issues and digital exclusions. These matters have all contributed to international concerns regarding the changing place and impact of inconsistent inclusive education for Disabled learners and their families. The impact of the pandemic and the move to home education brings into question what inclusive education looks like in practice outside of the school gates with families asking: how can we best meet our children’s learning needs? How do we ensure their effective development and success? What tools can be provided for us at this time?
Enabling learning at home (ELaH)
By May 2021 the impact of the pandemic on families with Disabled children in England and Malaysia was significant. In Malaysia children under the age of twelve had been unable to leave their homes, and for several months, parents became responsible for their child’s education at home without the specialist support they had been used to. The support they were able to access varied depending on the educational setting a child attended, their locality and culture. Even where schools provided online lessons or sent home worksheets not all families were able to access learning in this way. In practice the educational disparity gap between the rich and the poor, Non-Disabled and Disabled children widened and in England this was by as much as 36%. The right for Disabled children to have equal access to education is set out in Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), yet the pandemic brought barriers to education for Disabled children and young people that had not been foreseen and were not addressed in many organisations.
In response to these increasing concerns, researchers in England and Malaysia collaborated to develop a pilot home learning pack for primary school aged children in partnership with educational settings and families. The aim was to make home education accessible for all in a way that complemented any school learning transferred home, and to support the transition back to school after lock-down.
The project started with a consultation to gain insight into the potential barriers and enablers for home learning, with three educational settings in England and Malaysia, 14 practitioners, 11 parents and 6 children. Of note was the similarity between English and Malaysian responses: a need for easily accessible materials that could be completed at home and that would support children’s development across four broad areas of need:
- Communication and language
- Social and emotional well being
- Physical and sensory needs
Drawing on this baseline evaluation a home learning pack was developed that could be accessed online or via a folder of pdf ‘cards’. The areas of need provided a structure whilst recognising that learning aimed at one area of need would inevitably support a child’s learning in other areas. Everyday materials and activities became an opportunity for learning from socks to kitchen utensils, shopping and cooking. Each activity was carefully designed to consider cultural differences between England and Malaysia (the cat as a favoured pet in Malaysia, avoiding yellow as this was a colour for royalty). In total 18 activities were designed and families were encouraged to choose activities that followed the child’s interests and developmental stage.
After the home learning packs had been trailed a further evaluation highlighted a particular interest in activities supporting social and emotional wellbeing as well as physical and sensory needs. While all of the activities were designed to be fun and engaging those that provided the most enjoyment were the sock puppet activity, tracing game, family tree, playdough and ‘what comes next’; the activities that gave the parents the most confidence in their role as home educator were ‘what is important to me’ and ‘printing with food’.
Whilst this was a pilot project, the home learning pack provided a rich source of activity for children supporting their learning at home with the use of familiar resources. Parents and children felt more confident and empowered in their learning, able to recognise what they could do rather than what they could not. Home learning became playful, enjoyable and above all accessible providing a bridge between learning at home and learning in school.
Shifting the landscape of inclusive education
This collaboration between colleagues and families in England and Malaysia adds to the growing academic field of inclusive education in exploring educational choice, user empowerment and what this means for families, practitioners and policy. The pandemic has raised an important issue for inclusive education that extends beyond the classroom to include the community and the family home. Families that are not able to access school still have a right to an equitable education, and to uphold their right educationalists need to reach out beyond the school gate. This home learning project has highlighted the importance of empowering parents and children in their learning at home, the need to value the knowledge acquired outside of school in spaces and places not traditionally thought of as educational. It is only by doing this that we can begin to make all education inclusive for all children.