Focus on Policy Development, Sri Lanka

Padmani Mendis

Sri Lanka has paid particular attention to the education of children who have disability. The first School for the Deaf and Blind was started in 1912! In the early 1970s the Ministry of Education started increasing educational opportunities for children who have disability through integration. Since the adoption of the Salamanca Statement, however, the emphasis in Sri Lanka has been on inclusive education.

The majority of children who have disability attend mainstream classrooms in government schools. Small numbers attend Special Education Units attached to government schools and non-governmental special schools. In 2001 children who have disability in mainstream classrooms represented 2.37 per cent of the total student population of just over four million.

Primary school reforms, introduced in 1997, provided a boost to the inclusion of children who have disability in mainstream classrooms. Competency-based curricula and continuous assessment replaced end-of-semester and end-of-year examinations. Changes were introduced in classroom teaching towards a learner-centred approach, with group and activity-based teaching of practical and technical skills. Co-curricular activities, counselling and career guidance, and new strategies for teacher education, all benefit children who have disability in inclusive education.

Assessments are made by a medical officer and class teacher when a child enters primary school. Parents are also involved. The assessment enables the teacher to practise child-centred teaching methods that address each child's particular problems. It requires however, effective, appropriate and relevant training of all teachers, on a continuous basis. Assessments continue until the children complete primary school.

Teacher training for inclusive education has also seen advances in recent years. The National Institute of Education provides preliminary and continuous education of 'Master Trainers' in inclusive education and in primary education. A three-year course to produce resource teachers for inclusive education has been established and special education teachers are trained on two-year courses. Continuous education of teachers is provided through an islandwide network of teacher centres. Inclusive Education Zonal Officers are trained to prepare curricula and teaching-learning materials for the training of all these cadres, as well as for mainstream teachers and for resource teachers

In August 2003 a National Policy on Disability was approved, and legislation is presently being drafted to put this policy into effect. The National Policy on Disability contains a special sectoral policy on school education based on inclusive education. This inclusive education policy took into account two things: many children who have disability are still not starting school, despite a national primary school enrolment rate of 92 per cent; attrition (drop-out) rates of children who have disability are exceptionally high.

The high attrition rate may be one reflection of the inadequate quality of education children who have disability receive. Very few children go beyond primary level and only a handful proceed to college level.

In December 2003 the National Education Commission in its 'Proposals for a National Policy Framework on General Education in Sri Lanka' included, within the subject 'Educational Opportunity - Equity and Excellence', a separate area, 'Education for Children with Disability'. This encompasses the policy and strategy recommendations from the National Policy on Disability.

The use of the term 'children with disability' is significant. A recent review of inclusive education for children who have disability found that teachers very rarely identified these children as being within the 'special educational needs' group. Identifying disability in children is necessary so that their particular needs can be met, and so that mainstream teachers will acquire knowledge and skills to deal with them. The term does not emphasise difference but is used in a social context, describing a particular situation.

Primary school reforms have provided the required strategies for improving the quality of education, but we have yet to see results for children who have disability. When the policy and strategy recommendations to strengthen inclusive education are given their due place in both the National Policy on Disability and the proposed General Education Policy, it is hoped that children who have disability will enjoy their right to education.

Padmani Mendis has worked as an international consultant in disability for 25 years, with extensive involvement in special needs education. She can be contacted at:
17 Swarna Road
Colombo 06
Sri Lanka
Tel: 94 11 2587853
Fax: +94 11 2587853
Email:


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