Often our editions of Enabling Education Review have a definite theme. This year’s edition contains a fascinating variety of articles. At first glance they seem to have no over-arching theme, but various sub-themes, including: funding, managing and sustaining inclusive education; engaging and beneficiaries in finding solutions; facilitating parental and child involvement; and early childhood education.
However, for me there is a message emerging from many of the articles – the importance of collaboration in developing inclusive education.
This is not a new issue. EENET has published many articles that focus on diverse education stakeholders working together – as implementers or advocates – to build more inclusive education systems.
Globally, we can see some of the results of disability and/or education activists collaborating on advocacy efforts. Two examples are the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has made a clear call for inclusive education; and the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals, which contain more references to inclusion and people with disabilities than previous global commitments.
But are we seeing enough collaboration on the ground?
Perhaps in order to answer that we should understand why we need a culture of collaboration at the heart of inclusive education. We do not need it because collaboration is a development trend or bandwagon, but because without it we are unlikely to be able to truly succeed with inclusive education.
Inclusive education developed as a rights-based alternative to special and segregated education. It focuses on changing policies, cultures and practices to make a united education system that is welcoming and supportive for all groups of learners together. In recent years there has been criticism that the strong focus on system-level changes in inclusive education has led to the special needs of some individuals (particularly children with disabilities) being forgotten. For instance, it has been argued that while lobbying for and implementing systemic changes to infrastructure or teaching practices, implementers have sometimes ignored the fact that some children still need assistive devices or rehabilitation in order to benefit from an improved system.
In response, the notion of a twin-track approach to inclusive education has gained focus: developing initiatives that manage both to achieve systemic changes and deliver special, individual support to learners.
However, the twin track approach is potentially quite daunting. Implementers who primarily focus on advocating for or implementing broader system-level changes may feel frightened at having to develop the expertise to provide technical support to children from special groups. Equally, (disability or other stakeholder) specialist organisations may feel under-prepared for bringing changes to an entire education system, rather than just supporting special children in special school communities.
On the surface the answer seems quite simple – system-change experts and individual support experts need to work together to create a fantastic ‘big picture’ − but of course it is not that simple!
Collaboration in inclusive education seems to be hindered by the same barriers to collaboration that other development initiatives face. Despite their missions to deliver improved lives and uphold rights for the most vulnerable, the reality is that NGOs and UN agencies exist in a highly competitive environment that does not encourage collaboration and sharing. They need to access scarce funding before another organisation gets it. They need to become the ‘go-to’ organisation for the government before another takes the lead.
Of course, there are examples of organisations working successfully together on joint initiatives. But there are as many or more examples of countries where multiple organisations are supporting multiple inclusive education initiatives – sometimes complementing each other, sometimes duplicating work, or sometimes even delivering contradictory work. Initiatives often focus on narrow aspects of inclusion (e.g. supporting girls, or children with hearing impairments, or street-connected children) and fail to address the multiple layers of disadvantage that individual learners can experience.
Based on EENET’s global information sharing and consultancy work, the questions that have been frustrating me the most in the last few years are: “why are mainstream NGOs and specialist NGOs not working together more in developing and supporting inclusive education? Why are they not coming together to deliver a twin-track vision?”
I am not sure that I have an answer to these questions yet. Is it simply because of the competitive funding environment? Is it because of a lack of historical relationships between mainstream and specialist organisations? Is it because of fear; for instance, fear of being exposed as not knowing as much as the other organisation knows (about development generally or about disability specifically)? Or is the lack of collaboration simply because mainstream and specialist organisations have not realised its importance, are not aware of twin-track ideas, and therefore have not built collaboration into their project plans? We would certainly welcome your thoughts on this debate!
If you were to ask me what I would most like to see in the next 5 years, in terms of inclusive education development, I do not think I would simply wish for more money to become available (although that would be nice). I would wish for greater collaboration between all organisations and stakeholders, at all levels, because through collaboration and participation all of the other challenges (including scarce funding) stand a much better chance of being solved.
EENET Managing Director