Here for all the children

| September 11, 2010
Independent Education chats to Professor Roy McConkey

“At some point in their education one in six children will have special needs. There is a high price to pay for ignoring that one in six,” cautions Roy McConkey.


In Johannesburg recently to address the national annual general meeting of the Southern African Association for Learning and Educational Differences (SAALED), McConkey is Professor of Learning Disability at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

In the field for over 30 years and author, co-author and editor of over 15 books and 100 book chapters and research papers, this kindly gent with a lilting brogue has worked around the world, and seen the same thing in many different contexts: “All children stand a much better chance of learning and developing if there’s an authentic
relationship between schools and families.”

Parents and schools should work together

While that sounds obvious, McConkey says that, time and time again, no matter what the socio-economic context, a stand-off exists between the two parties. “Sometimes it’s schools trying everything they can to engage families who just don’t seem to be interested, and sometimes it’s families who say schools don’t seem to want any input.”

Wherever in the world he’s worked with families and schools, McConkey’s seen evidence that a child’s educational performance can be directly traced back to the level of involvement of the family in school matters. “In so-called modern societies like Britain and America, often the amount of support the child gets from the parent with regard to school is actually very limited.

They’re told to go online, or to go and play. In poorer societies, uneducated families may feel they have nothing to contribute. “Bringing families and schools together has been my challenge for the last 30 years, in the context of children with significant disabilities.”

Better understanding of special needs

Today people understand educational challenges better, says McConkey. In the past, children with severe disabilities may have been called mentally retarded, or handicapped. A congenital abnormality like Down’s syndrome, resulting in lower-than-average intelligence scores, usually excluded these children from mainstream education.

“As we have come to understand that a range of challenges exist, we have moved away from the term ‘special needs’ to ‘additional needs’. One in six children will need help
coping with an additional pressure at some point. It may be the impact of a divorce, or the onset, say, of a visual difficulty in the classroom. “But no matter what the challenge, now we know for sure that all children are educable, and that education systems must adapt to include their needs. Increasingly in countries like Scandinavia and England, even those pupils with significant disabilities are included in mainstream schools.”
That inclusion could be in the form of a specialised unit that children visit for a period of time in the school day for augmented lessons, or it could be in the context of a mainstream class where children in need benefit from a teacher’s aide. At a secondary level, where there is more differentiation of subjects, there may be a widening of the curriculum and assessment structures.
“In northern Ireland, whether they are in special or mainstream schools, all children will ultimately leave with a certificate to confirm what they have learned. It may be for a fairly basic skill like using the telephone efficiently, but it’s still a recognition of learning. “The idea is to normalise the situation as much as possible for the
benefit of everyone in the classroom.”

Case studies from around the world provide examples of inclusion

It’s no longer acceptable to assume that any child will be a slow learner, or a potential drop-out, says McConkey. “I’ve seen some excellent ‘special’ schools, and I’ve seen some impoverished rural schools where there’s very little attention given to children with special needs, but I’ve met with teachers in both of those contexts, and time andagain I’ve seen an enthusiasm to really help the children. It’s that willingness that we have to harness.” In most countries, observes McConkey, education is bound to be the longest established statutory service.

This often means that reform is slow to happen. “The system just keeps replicating itself. But that’s where partnerships with families and communities can play a big part. We have to grow community and parental leadership to effect real change.” McConkey has plenty of success stories to tell. He’s particularly excited by a programme he saw in Zanzibar. Despite widespread poverty, a pilot programme in 20 schools proved that communities can make valuable contributions to schooling. “An interest-in-education committee was created in each village.
They raised funds, built classrooms and organised training courses for parents and teachers.” That kind of effort expands the idea of school ownership to include the entire community. McConkey also observed that it affected profoundly the attitudes of the principals and the teachers. “They were much more concerned with the children’s
overall well-being, and with trying to accommodate their special needs.”

Establishing a common values base

A close look at belief systems can provide a useful framework through which to reflect on how schools and families can become closer for the sake of all the children. McConkey elaborates: “We can begin by examining the values held dear by a school, and by families, in an attempt to discover their common values. In most cases, they will discover that they are actually working towards a common endeavour.

“Another way that so-called different cultures like teachers and families can draw closer together is by designing education plans around their children’s particular learning goals. That way of working has succeeded in many African countries.”

Start small and create opportunities for all

McConkey’s observations are relevant for every community member around the world. As he says, it’s all about building relationships based on a shared
humanity rather than titles like ‘teacher’ or ‘parent’. For communities unsure of where to start, he advocates informal coffee and chat sessions, or the creation of a designated parents’ room on campus. Another way in is to include parents as volunteers in significant ways.

“Another possibility for schools is to develop a crèche, and to say to mothers, ‘this is your facility, but you must take your place on the roster taking care of the children’. Once you make that personal contact, you develop opportunities for agency and change. Mothers know how to care for their children, and when they are included in the teaching of basic language and numeracy skills, they expand their own skills base and acquire opportunities for income generation as well.
“These are some of the things I have seen work around the world, and some require that both families and schools shift their expectations. If they can do that, then the gains can be significant in terms of academic attainment and school efficiency. Moreover, schools can become more than just learning centres, but drivers of change and the heart of their communities.”

Three common complaints

McConkey’s equally familiar with resistance, citing three commonly heard complaints from schools. “The first is that they don’t have the time to include families, but the reality is that, if schools do less of what they’re currently doing and more of what they could be doing, they will do better! Primary schools will be full of children who are
doing better in reading and Maths, and secondary schools will have more children better equipped with a solid foundation, which means they will attain better grades.”

The second complaint – that the inclusion of children with special needs will drag academic scores down – is equally fallacious, says McConkey. “Our research tells us that, in schools that include these children, the teacher must rise to the challenge. Improved teaching then rubs off on all the children in the class, and average academic attainment should rise.”

The third, related excuse often proffered by schools is that official policies demand, yet make it difficult to include all children effectively. “Politicians want to wring the maximum efficiency out of schools. But we have to create workable situations on the ground, initiated by the principal, where learners, teachers and families all
feel valued and motivated. “It’s about making a fundamental daily choice that we are here for all the children.”

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