x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Special needs centre to introduce new curriculum

A centre for children with learning difficulties will introduce new curriculum and teaching methods to give pupils a better chance of integrating into mainstream schools.

Students in class at the Future Centre for Special Needs.
Students in class at the Future Centre for Special Needs.

ABU DHABI // A centre for children with learning difficulties will introduce a new curriculum and teaching methods in January that aims to give its pupils a better chance of integrating into mainstream schools. The Future Centre for Special Needs will use textbooks from the Science Research Association (SRA) series, which are based on a teaching method called direct instruction. It uses explicit instruction to students and has been shown to produce positive results in special needs classrooms.

"It states that every child can learn, if we teach him or her carefully, and all teachers can be successful when given effective programmes and instruction delivery techniques," said Dr Mowfaq Mustafa, the centre's director. The new curriculum will be used from KG1 though to grade six. The schools' pupils in grades seven to 12 will continue using a curriculum geared largely towards vocational studies and learning life skills.

The centre, which has 180 pupils with disabilities ranging from hearing impairment to Down's syndrome, previously tailored lessons to children's individual needs. A decision was taken to introduce a new curriculum after the centre hired an expert from the US to evaluate the school in 2008. "We received very positive results and also some recommendations for standardised best practices for some parts of the centre." Dr Mustafa said.

The SRA textbooks, from the American publisher McGraw Hill, will be purchased with the help of a Dh113,000 (US$31,000) donation from Barclays Bank. Michael Miebach, the managing director of Barclays Middle East and North Africa, said he hoped other schools would adopt the methodology, which was created in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C Becker. There is general consensus among education experts that most children with special needs should be ideally located in mainstream schools alongside their peers.

In the UAE, institutions such as the not-for-profit Future Centre are often the only option for expatriate families, because most private schools in the Emirates do not accept children with severe physical or intellectual disabilities. Victor Pineda, a visiting fellow at the Dubai School of Government who is conducting research on the UAE Disability Act of 2006, said special needs children should be put in mainstream schools.

"They should be held to the same standards as other students," he said. "However, they should also be given the tools and accommodation that they need to equalise their chance." Mr Pineda said this was particularly important for children with physical disabilities. Most children with special needs in the UAE attend special centres that are either run by the state and open only to Emiratis or to privately run centres that are open to everyone. The Government aims to change this the Ministry of Education last year pledged to move children from special centres into 10 regular state schools.

Teaching practices and curricula vary widely across different centres and the curriculum is not always tailored to what a student would be learning in a regular school. "At special needs centres there are a lot of dedicated people that work very hard, but they don't necessarily expect their students to be the next Stephen Hawking," Mr Pineda said. "If they don't have a developmental disability or an intellectual disability there is nothing to prevent an individual for achieving really high success if they are given the tools.

"We should really empower the regular schools to be able to also address a variety of learners. "Now that's going to be a process, it's not going to happen right away. What I would like to see is more partnership between special schools and the regular schools so they could be sharing experience." Mr Pineda, who has advised the UN and the World Bank on disability policy, said a successful overhaul of the system would also depend on sound public policy.

"Will there be a policy structure set up so the special education department at the ministry can become the inclusive education department and have enough support to really oversee this throughout the whole country?" he asked. "Otherwise you are just doing a project that runs the risk of burring people out, the teachers, the principals, and most importantly, the students who have the right to go to school but don't have the right set up."

Dr Mustafa said he hopes the new curriculum will allow more students to integrate into mainstream schools. Since the centre opened nine years ago, Mr Mustafa said, roughly 50 pupils had been integrated into regular schools. klewis@thenational.ae