x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mainstream pupils with special needs

Mainstream schools should create room for all students, including those with disabilities.

Children with special needs face many difficulties coping with life challenges, from social interactions to self-sufficiency later in life. But in the UAE they face an additional battle: finding seats in the classroom.

Georgina Corley, a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome, is a case in point. As The National reported yesterday, Georgina's parents, like many other parents with special needs children, are struggling to find her an appropriate programme that will not only help her develop, but that won't reject her. At present she attends a special-needs centre in Dubai that provides no social interaction with mainstream children.

"Mainstreaming" is an educational philosophy that groups students of all abilities together, to help each other learn. If applied properly, the practice can have a positive impact on children's academic and social performance. Grouping children of varying abilities and skill-sets can also improve academic performance, and children with special needs who attend regular classrooms show better social and communication skills than those who are segregated.

Unfortunately, finding space for special needs pupils in the UAE is made difficult by exclusionary admissions policies. According to Dubai's school regulator, schools that rank in the highest category for quality are often not accepting children of all abilities.

The rationale for these schools is to maintain a high level of academic success by not admitting potentially poor test takers. That may make sense to school administrators, vying for pupils in a predominantly for-profit school environment. But children are needlessly paying the price.

Regulators can help ease this burden. Measures like overhauling inspection programmes so they do not rely exclusively on test results, or rewarding schools with higher grades if they admit special needs students, could push schools to reform voluntarily.

Mainstreaming children with special needs is not easy, or cheap. To expand the offerings for these children, regulators must consider a range of options, from quotas to programmes that encourage creation of more community schools.

When policies are in place that exclude capable students, it's clear that the entire educational system needs a makeover.