How can countries in the Middle East ensure that children with special educational needs aren't sidelined? Teachers in Lebanon and Yemen are trying to improve education for all children, including those with special needs, as Nick Walshe explains.
There are huge pressures on teachers in the Middle East
As head teacher in a South Beirut school, Rana Ismail had to console staff, students and parents when a pupil was killed in a bomb blast recently. Lebanon is riven with tensions, and the influx of refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Syria has created extra pressure.
It might seem a stretch for teachers in countries dealing with political turmoil to focus on children with special educational needs (SEN). But Ms Ismail is one of a growing group of Lebanese teachers, representing all communities within the divided country, who are pushing to change how Lebanon’s education system treats students with disabilities.
‘Good education is special education,’ she says. ‘In meeting the special needs of a child, you really capture the human spirit of education. Every child has special needs in one way or another.’
What’s happening in Lebanon for children with special educational needs?
Since last year, 3,500 Lebanese teachers, policy makers and parents have taken part in a programme of training, conferences and workshops, run by UK experts and teachers. The Lebanese teachers were inspired by study visits to the UK where they saw some of the ways that the needs of children with disabilities are met. The National Inclusion strategy has been developed by the Ministry of Education, the curriculum department and experts in private networks of schools.
‘It has added strength to our arguments when we have faced opposition,’ says Rana. ‘When we were told that our recommendations were not practical, we were able to speak from the experience of having seen them working in a country with an international reputation in education.’
The teachers in Lebanon have developed a full national inclusion strategy covering new laws and policies; job descriptions and training; curricula; the school environment; assessment and admission policies; and awareness programmes for schools, parents and communities. They want to get this strategy made law, but it hasn’t been easy.
Why is it so difficult to change the law for Lebanese schools?
Lebanon’s beleaguered government is assailed on many fronts. This slows down the law-making process, and education is under particular pressure. The influx of Syrian refugees has meant swelling class sizes, as a state system designed for 275,000 pupils suddenly has to find another 100,000 places.
Yet Ms Ismail and her colleagues have made remarkable progress. British experts have worked with Middle Eastern teachers and policy makers on issues such as autism, and specialist teaching for the visually and hearing-impaired, dyslexia, and behavioural issues. In Lebanon, 140 schools took part in a National Awareness Day this year to raise the profile of special needs education and highlight children’s achievements.
Higher education is also changing the status quo. The Lebanese University’s new Masters in Special Education produces 22 graduates a year, and all teachers studying at Bachelor level take a 42-hour special needs module as part of their degree.
Small adjustments can make a big difference
Lebanese teachers visiting the UK said they noticed how British schools have integrated children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms. They said that simple, inexpensive but effective equipment and training for teachers seem to make a big difference. They were also interested by the techniques used to assess pupil progress, and by the redesigned curricula and teaching plans to help teachers support children with special needs.
Local teachers and special needs education experts want to get in touch with Lebanese public schools which haven’t yet tried to improve inclusion, and spread the message that it will help all children in all corners of the country.
In Yemen, things are changing too
Yemen is one of the Arab world’s most under-developed countries, with a per capita income of just over $1,100 a year. It’s hard to estimate the challenges facing those seeking educational reform in a country where internal conflict and political instability have affected the education system. The country’s security situation means SEN trainers from abroad can’t work in the country.
Despite this, a campaign to raise awareness of educational inclusion is gathering pace among Yemeni teachers and pupils. Fatima Mohammed Nasser, from the Southern seaport of Aden, is one of Yemen’s heads of inclusion, charged with improving SEN provision in her own administrative region.
Together with five Yemeni colleagues and the British Council team in Yemen, she has run training and awareness programmes across Yemen for the past three years. They have campaigned, staged exhibitions, and appeared at school assemblies. They have trained nearly 1,500 teachers and 30 head teachers and introduced more than 1,500 Yemeni schoolchildren to the importance of respecting SEN at school assemblies. ‘We have to do something, even with the minimum facilities we have’, she says.
How much support is already available for Yemeni children with special needs?
Thanks to non-governmental organisations working in the country, there’s some specialist support in Yemen already: 200 schools are trying to include pupils with special needs in all classroom activities, and 80 schools have resources and equipment to help visually and hearing-impaired children. In some of these schools, children with special needs receive an hour a day of individual tuition, spending the rest of their time in class with their peers. But they are a tiny minority in a country with nearly 17,000 schools.
Lack of money doesn’t mean nothing can be done
Many Middle Eastern education professionals are frustrated at the lack of funding, support and even recognition of the need for SEN training in their home countries.
‘It depends on effort rather than money, and we can do that’, says Ahmed Al-Hadramy, another Yemeni SEN advocate. ‘Although the gap is big, we can still provide something in Yemen because we have the human resources. But we need to provide them with proper support and training.’
Things are slowly getting better
This year, the highest-ever number of hearing-impaired students graduated from the private Yemen University. And separately, at least 30 students with disabilities are at other universities, studying subjects including psychology, media, IT and, perhaps not surprisingly, special education — the highest number ever.
Those pressing for change hope that soon, the achievements of SEN students will not be seen as unusual. Yemen desperately needs all the talent available, and that means all its young people, whatever their needs, are equally important to help it develop.
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