Cheerful pupils, playing in the playground, taking turns on a swing, in the shelter of pre-fabricated buildings currently used by several classes until new buildings under construction are operational. At the school in Bempt, in the Brussels Region commune of Forest, the enthusiasm for a school focussed on the inclusion and total involvement of children with disabilities is immediately obvious!
On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, celebrated every 3rd December, my attention turned to how this school and its teachers operate. They are absolutely dedicated to making the right to education a right guaranteed to all children, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Concerning children or youth with disabilities, there is a European text which says that we cannot deny them the right to free education in Belgium and in all the countries of the European Union”, says Sophie Charlez, the head teacher.
In addition, the Pact on Teaching Excellence (le Pacte pour un Enseignement d’excellence), currently being negotiated between the unions and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation authorities aims at inclusion in all schools.
A School Work Plan educators want
How can a teaching team be helped with its special needs pupils? “By making available staff to help them in their daily tasks, by working together on the well-being of the child, his/her development, or even having parent-teacher meetings three times a year with the Special School”, explains Charlez.
“If there is a problem, the teachers come along and seek a solution. With the resources we have in the commune, we try to put things in place or re-organize certain classes.”
It is all about “reasonable accommodation”, which is now part of the legislation. Such accommodation is not only equipment; it can also be people. At the school in Bempt, arrangements have been made to accommodate pupils with special needs, such as ramps to make classrooms and toilets easily accessible.
“After the parent-teacher meetings”, adds Charlez, “there is feed-back to be given to the parents to explain what has been put in place, we offer our comments. Above all, the teacher is there to talk about his or her daily experience with the child, and it is at this point that we explain what can be done or what the teaching team thinks about ensuring that the child is better integrated into the school.”
An increase of financial resources is necessary
However, Charlez regrets that the funding, which comes from the organising authorities, namely the commune of Forest and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, is not nearly enough.
Inadequate financial resources are also an obstacle emphasised by Miguel Lopez, a Science teacher. “This plan is wonderful, but give us the resources! Because as regards helping special needs pupils, we are only allowed four periods a week (a period is 50 minutes long). It is not enough! However, we want to accommodate them in the best possible conditions, both for them and for us.”
Lopez says that, for this school year, “We have chosen a speech therapist for the two special needs children. For the third, there is external support from a teaching colleague.” Last year, a special education teacher came to the school.
A second speech therapist also comes along to observe what the teachers in Bempt are doing, and give them “a few tips”.
In French-speaking Belgium, teachers are also supported by two associations which help parents who have children with disabilities; outside of lesson time.
The role of the parents: important and complementary to that of the teaching team
Moreover, Lopez emphasises that the parents have a huge part to play in the child’s development by supporting the work the teachers do outside the school and the academic field. To develop their full potential, pupils with special needs, just like other children, must be monitored continuously, from school to home.
“What can slow things down”, Lopez continues, “is the number of special needs children in the same class. The School has chosen to accommodate a total of X special needs pupils every other year. This year, there are three.”
He admits, “Fortunately that we practice active learning, which means that we have the special needs children every other week. I believe there is enrichment in this. But I also believe that if I had a special needs child every day with my other pupils, I couldn’t take it for long.”
What about training for teachers? “Basically here in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, there are three years of study”, explains Lopez. Next academic year, it will go up to 4 years.
Lopez regrets, however, that “in the studies at the school of higher education, there is no module dedicated to this approach to special needs pupils in schools, so we, the teachers, also follow training courses organised by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.”
He continues: “We have discussions with a “Special School” so as to be able to have the tools to put in place, to be on the right track, because in the team at the school in Bempt, nobody has the specific training to work with pupils with disabilities. Thanks to the links with the Special School, we have been able to take turns for an afternoon’s visit to several classes, to see how things work, how classes are organised, so as to adapt tools to the special needs pupils in our classes.”
Inclusive education is a benefit to all
A disabled pupil is a pupil like any other? “Personally”, notes Lopez, “the special needs pupil in my class is just like every other. I do not see the child as disabled, even though I am aware that he or she is slow mentally and physically. In principle, I find the word handicapped pejorative and when I speak about pupils, I always use their first name. When we speak of pupils’ learning development, this encompasses the whole of the class. The child is part of the group.”
He is also adamant: “Integration is a two way benefit, as I always tell the parents, whether it’s for the disabled pupil or for the other pupils. There are discussions, a relationship, a wonderful development every level.”
“Teachers who want to come and work at our school, given that ours is a school which recreates itself each year, must sign up to this integration project, otherwise they are not accepted”, he says. “And some want to come to our school rather than others because of this project, they’re interested in it”, he suggests, not without a certain tone of pride in his voice.
Repeating that “it’s a really wonderful project, but once again, one which lacks resources”, Lopez says that “the working conditions, in relation to the number of pupils, are also important. For example, this year, my colleague and I only have 16 pupils to teach, which is paradise, but this is not the reality experienced by other schools. So we have an incredible opportunity, and this plays a part in the development of our special needs pupil.”
Unions can help with the inclusion of disabled pupils
Furthermore he notes that, for the majority of the teachers at the school in Bempt, which is unionised, fighting for good working conditions is one of the main functions of trade unions.
This member of the Centrale générale des services publics–Enseignement (CGSP-Enseignement), an organization which is a member of Education International, also considers that the trade unions must, in order to support inclusion and the education of disabled children, “make our ministers and government officials who decide of the budgetary restrictions aware of the situation and suggest they visit the field more often to understand everyday reality.”
For him, the union can also be vigilant as regards the application of the school work plan in which the inclusion or integration is well documented. “I think this is its role, because last year, we had a different leadership which put the brakes on this plan. Fortunately we, the teaching team, put up a fight and we never gave up. Here we have new leadership which from the outset has been aware of this project, and there is no other choice.”
EI and its affiliates take action
For its part, EI and its affiliates operate throughout the world to ensure the right to education for all, including disabled children, and to promote the employment of educators with disabilities.
The Resolution on the rights of disabled children and teachers, adopted in 2015 at the 7th World Congress of Education International, “is concerned that for most of the last 15 years the focus on Education for All has meant that the specific measures necessary to include all disabled children in education have not generally been put in place. These include access, reasonable accommodations, personal support, differentiation of teaching and learning, flexible assessment, disability equality, challenging attitudes on disabilities and harassment, building relationships and self-esteem and access to, for example, Braille, sign language. It is also vital that more disabled teachers are employed within the education system.”
The text condemns the fact that “children with disabilities are often ‘left behind’ in advocacy campaigns related to literacy and numeracy, education in emergency, girls’ education, education financing and vocational training, and so on.”
Consequently, the Congress instructed the EI Executive Board to “enhance its efforts to get all children around the world, including all disabled children, into education, to successfully complete their primary education and to significantly increase numbers transitioning to secondary, higher and further education and/or community-based or assisted living programs; and to actively promote recruitment and employment of disabled teachers and furthering the global research on the situation of disabled teachers.”