The measures agreed to at the recent meeting between teachers’ unions and government officials addressing disruptive behaviour and violence in schools will undoubtedly help alleviate the current crisis. Supporting vulnerable families, having more guidance counsellors and social workers in schools, as well as providing alternative options for students whose behaviour is the most extreme will reduce behavioural problems and be appreciated by teachers.
However, it will not solve the basic problem that has led to increased disruptive behaviour and violence in schools, since at the core of this, is the outdated education system which is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st Century and needs major restructuring. One element in this restructuring is getting rid of the 11 plus examination that is used to allocate students to secondary schools and replacing it with geographical zones, as discussed in our article published in Barbados TODAY on May 15.
Another element of the restructuring required is the development of a policy for educating children with special educational needs and disabilities, since this is lacking in the Barbados education system. The absence of a comprehensive policy, and effective procedures to implement it, means that many children with special needs in Barbados do not get the help they need and therefore become frustrated. For many of them this results in their disaffection with school and often leads to disruptive, aggressive or violent behaviour.
My guess is that this is the case with many of the young people whose disruptive and sometimes violent behaviour has led to the recent crisis in education. Support for my views come from meeting with the Governor at Glendairy Prison when I was working as a consultant on special needs education for the Ministry of Education in the late 1990s. The Governor had two questions for me. First, why was it that nearly all the inmates were unable to read and write? Second, why was it that the majority of inmates came from a small number of the newer secondary schools? In my opinion, the selective secondary education system and the lack of special needs policy and procedures were responsible for this situation then, and this continues to this day. So, the issues of secondary selection and special needs policy need to be addressed together.
Surveys in many Western countries have found that around 20 per cent of the school-age population have special educational needs or disabilities, and there is no reason to believe that Barbados would be any different from this. Most countries in the Western world now have in place well-established policies for the education of children with special needs, underpinned by national legislation and implemented through national guidelines issued to schools. In contrast, there is currently no published government policy, legislation or guidelines for schools specifically focusing on the education of children with special educational needs or disabilities in Barbados.
There is, therefore, an urgent need to develop and implement effective policy and procedures within the Barbados education system for educating children with various levels of special needs, learning challenges and disabilities. The White Paper on Education Reform: Each One Matters… Quality Education for All, published over 20 years ago, provided a useful vision for the education of children with special needs in Barbados, but was not backed up by national legislation, guidelines for schools or any recommendations for the provision of resources to implement these.
These things are needed to create conditions to provide effective education for children with various learning challenges. These include those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, intellectual disability, sensory impairments and physical disabilities, as well as those who are gifted but are underachieving. The various aspects outlined below should be included in the policy in order to have effective education for children with special educational needs and disabilities in Barbados.
National Policy for special needs education
The Barbados Government needs to have a published policy on the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities. This policy must reflect the current reality in Barbados that the vast majority of these children are educated in mainstream schools, with only a small minority, those with more severe and complex needs, being educated in special schools or special units attached to mainstream schools. The policy should require special education teachers and mainstream school teachers to liaise and collaborate in order to meet the wide range of special needs within a flexible and inclusive model, like those in Finland and the Australian state of Victoria, which allow children to be educated in the mainstream or in special facilities that will best meet their needs, transferring between the two when necessary.
Legislation for children with special needs
There is a need for specific legislation on children with special needs and disabilities that divides responsibilities for meeting special needs between the Ministry of Education and schools. For example, in the US, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act specifies six principles providing assurance of an appropriate education. First, mainstream schools accept students with special needs or disabilities and provide needed services. Second, it is a requirement that children are formally assessed and that parents receive guidelines about the services available. Third, schools are required to set up Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for all children with significant special needs. Fourth, schools are required to educate children in mainstream schools to the maximum extent possible. Fifth, parents must be fully involved in designing programs. Sixth, safeguards to ensure children’s rights are maintained are included.
Guidelines for schools on children with special needs
The Ministry of Education should provide guidelines for schools that must be followed, for example, using IEPs for those children with more severe needs, and support from teacher-aides for those with less severe needs. For example, the Code of Practice for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in England sets out detailed guidelines of the procedures to be used and the resources that must be provided by schools. These include a three-stage process for assessing and planning programs for addressing special needs. The first stage focuses on using classroom resources, including teacher-aides. The second stage focuses on school-wide resources such as input from a special needs teacher within the school. The third stage involves using resources from outside the school, such as educational psychologists, in designing IEPs and specifying resources that are to be provided for the child.
Special Needs Coordinators in all schools
Every school, primary and secondary, should be required to have a special needs trained teacher to coordinate the schools’ special needs area, identify children with special needs or disabilities, provide support and guidance to teachers, and liaise with the Ministry of Education, other agencies and parents. Special Needs Coordinators should be qualified special education teachers, or be expected to complete training within three years of being appointed. It is expected that Special Needs Coordinators in secondary schools and large primary schools would be full-time, while those in smaller primary schools will be part-time. Special Needs Coordinators are an established part of education systems in many countries, including England and Finland, and are essential for effective special needs provision.
Initial and in-service training for all teachers on special needs
Essential training on teaching children with special educational needs and disabilities should be provided for teachers in all mainstream schools through input into initial training and in-service training. Advanced training should also be made available for teachers in special schools and units, and for Special Needs Coordinators. This can be provided by Erdiston College and the UWI School of Education, using on-campus and on-line courses such as are used in many other countries, such as New Zealand.
Educational psychologists for assessments and program planning
The Ministry should establish an educational psychology service to give guidance to schools on how to provide effective education for a wide diversity of children. Besides conducting assessments of individual children with special educational needs and disabilities, psychologists can help schools set up programs aimed at building positive learning environments, such as social and emotional learning programs in primary schools and anti-bullying programs in secondary schools. An important focus will be facilitating higher levels of academic achievement for all children through the establishment of evidence-based practices such as cooperative learning, formative evaluation and parental involvement. Educational psychology services that support schools are well established in many countries, including the USA and England.
Guidance Counsellors and Social Workers in schools
All Barbadian secondary schools now have guidance counsellors and primary schools have access to social workers. These staff need to work closely with teachers, educational psychologists, other professionals and parents to ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities are identified as early as possible and their parents supported in working closely with schools.
Partnership services for families of children with special needs
The Ministry of Education should establish a national Parent Partnership Service with coordinators who work with parents of children with special needs and disabilities to help them access the most appropriate education and other services for their children, as well as offer parent education and support. Parent Partnership Services have been developed in many countries including the USA and England and are found to be invaluable by parents of these children.
Developing and implementing the elements of policy and procedures outlined above for educating children with special educational needs and disabilities is essential to provide effective education, and bring about a significant reduction in disaffection, disruptive behaviour and violence in schools. This will not be cheap but it is much less expensive than providing places in specialist schools for teenagers with disruptive behaviour and later, criminal court time and prison places that will be needed for those young people who go off the rails at school. Having effective policy and procedures for children with learning challenges at school will significantly reduce disruptive behaviour and violence and enable many more children to learn the skills needed to have a productive life and make valuable contributions to our society.
Emeritus Professor of Education Garry Hornby