Inclusion report demands action now
When children are afraid to go to school because of the violence they see or feel there, public education is seriously undermined.
That’s a rare understatement in the report of the commission on inclusive education, released this week and broadly accepted by the provincial government. Successful implementation of the audacious plan detailed in the report’s 124 pages will test the government like nothing in a generation.
The social and economic inequities of the province, the gaps in its mental health services, the dysfunction and disintegration of families, all walk through the doors of Nova Scotian schools every day, along with comportment that comes from a sense of entitlement, pubescent hormones or youthful rebellion.
Some will say, ‘you can’t expect schools to deal with all those problems,’ to which this commission has responded, ‘Why not? It’s got them.’
Teachers can’t teach, and students can’t learn when their classrooms are evacuated due to the threat of aggressive student behaviour. A self-evident observation shrewdly made.
This is a report that grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. It clearly articulates the problems in our schools and provides specific recommendations to respond to each one. The stakes are the future of at least a third of the kids in Nova Scotia, probably more.
Now its over to the provincial government, and not just the education department, but health, community services, labour and advanced education, the health authorities and others who need to work together effectively to get this right. And there be dragons.
The commissioners know that some of the most powerful and entrenched barriers to success are the so-called silos that exist in the government and they almost plead with politicians to force, and bureaucrats to do a “better job of protecting the best interests of children and youth instead of protecting the policies and procedures of government departments and institutions.”
This three-women commission knows its organizations.
The commission also knows there is a hefty price-tag attached to its plan – north of $70 million annually when it is fully implemented – but that’s for a complete overhaul of public education. The Glaze report was an opening act. This is the feature attraction, and if the province gets it right the benefits are difficult to overstate. If it fumbles, Nova Scotia could lose a generation to schools paralysed by its poor execution.
If you’re saying, ‘hold on, isn’t this just about inclusion, as in special education?’ you could read the report, or take it from here that all students’ are affected, and making schools inclusive requires addressing social inequity, valuing and promoting diversity, breaking down barriers, “and creating welcoming schools and classrooms that support the full membership, participation, and citizenship of all learners.”
Nova Scotia finally has been a report that recognizes, and explicitly states that education is about more than finding a job someday. The commissioners didn’t bold-face “citizenship” for emphasis but bless them for saying it.
In 1996, when inclusive education came to Nova Scotia, it was not designed to accommodate the volume of overlapping academic, behavioural, and social-emotional challenges experienced by many students today. The growing volume, complexity, and severity of these students’ needs are overwhelming schools and teachers.
Right now, a third of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 school kids have what the report unfortunately calls “exceptionalities” which require some degree of special attention. Six per cent of students are on individual program plans and another 26 per cent require adaptive measures to cope and learn. That number has been growing steadily over the last five years.
The commission told the government to waste no time and have measures in place by September to address behavioural and mental health issues.
Let’s up the ante. The report recommends the establishment of an arms-length governing body to lead implementation and provide oversight of the new inclusion model. Enabling legislation to allow the appointment of this body – a ninemember Institute for Inclusive Education – should be introduced and passed before the legislature adjourns this spring. Surely a government that can abolish school boards in the blink of an eye can move as quickly to get the positive agenda moving.
This report, modestly and accurately titled Students First, makes no mention of the fact that, at some point, Nova Scotia had to face facts. It may be too late for some of us, but it’s not to late for any of our kids.
Schools have the capacity to change lives and, by so doing, change the economic and social trajectory of the province. Now there’s a plan to make it happen.