This article has been published in Enabling Education Review – Special Issue 2015 – Inclusive Education Advocacy
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Local-level advocacy: Enabling Johan to stay in mainstream education in Indonesia

Dante Rigmalia

In this article, Dante shares the story of one student, Johan,1 who had challenges with his learning. Dante, Johan’s primary school teacher, and his parents wanted him to stay in mainstream school when he moved to high school, rather than go to a special school. This article highlights the successes and challenges in one teacher’s advocacy efforts to convince the education department to allow Johan to stay in mainstream education. Dante’s story also shows how important it is to combine advocacy with practical action and support.

I am a primary school teacher with the additional responsibility of being a co-ordinator for the implementation of inclusive education in a primary school in Bandung, Indonesia.

Johan is the youngest child from a modest family. His father is a sport education teacher at a junior high school and his mother is a housewife. Johan had trouble concentrating while studying; he could only sit for a relatively short time, always moved and got up from his seat. He often got angry and was unable to control himself when he didn’t get what he wanted.

Johan had challenges with his learning and I realised that he needed some special assistance. I tried to find different ways to help him learn better, both inside and outside the classroom. With approval from the principal, his classroom teachers and parents, I also looked for a volunteer to support this process. I found a student from the Indonesia University of Education who was then assigned to accompany Johan. Through this assistance finally Johan could learn better.

The learning process ran smoothly until the time came for the primary level final exam – our national examination. I convinced the principal and classroom teacher that Johan could join the national exam alongside the other students. I also explained that academically Johan had been able to follow the learning, but he just needed guidance when reading the questions and writing down the answers.

I managed to convince the school supervisor, principals, classroom teachers and parents to give him the same opportunities as his friends for the national exam. During the exam Johan was put in a classroom with some students and I was there too, to assist him. Johan passed with adequate scores, so he could attend a regular school, as opposed to a special school.

His parents wanted to send him to a higher grade, but I knew there were not many regular junior high schools in the area willing to accept children with special needs.

Finding a school for Johan
I recommended to Johan’s parents that he attend the junior high school next to my school. Johan is familiar with the neighborhood and the school is not far from his house. I strongly agree with the Salamanca Statement which highlights “that every child has the right to attend the school closest to their homes” and “the child should learn together with other students in the regular classroom”. I notice that going to school far from their homes is challenging for students, because physically they are not ready to make the long journey like adults. Children who learn in their neighbourhood school are learning in a context they know well. Having children study together in regular classes also has a positive impact on their development. Placing Johan in the regular class in his local school would help him to develop gradually, especially his social skills, and he would be better able to communicate and understand social situations.

I went to the junior high school, met the principal and started the conversation by introducing myself and expressing my purpose. The principal told me that personally he wanted to accept Johan at his school, but the decision could not be taken by him alone. He needed approval from the school’s teachers, because they would be responsible for supporting Johan in the learning process. He also needed permission from the district education department.

The principal suggested that I should visit the head of the district education department. He explained that he did not have the authority to accept children with special needs in his school because the school didn’t have a decree from the district education department to be an ‘inclusive school’ – at this time only two schools in the district were officially designated as being ‘inclusive schools’. The principal was worried that he could be sanctioned for such a decision. Such a top-down, bureaucratic culture works against implementing inclusive education in this country.

The implementation of inclusive education in Indonesia, especially in West Java Province, follows certain steps. First, the education department provides a decree for schools which are appointed as ‘inclusive education schools’. Although this decree supports the implementation of inclusive education in some schools, it means that access to schools remains limited because many schools do not have such a decree.

I believe inclusive education should become a strategy to improve the quality of education generally. The presence of the students with special needs in school encourages teachers to learn and innovate continuously so they better meet the learning needs of all students.

Meeting to the district education department 
I went to district education department. I eventually met the head of the department, although this took a long time as I was referred to many different people first, both inside and outside the education department. But I didn’t give up.

The head of the district education department and I had a long discussion about Johan and his education. The head asked me, “Why are Johan’s parents reluctant to send their child to a special school, are they ashamed?” I explained that Johan’s parents were not ashamed, but they (and I) felt that Johan would develop better if he studied together with his friends in a regular school. He would have an opportunity to learn to interact and socialise with a wide range of children, and his special needs could be accommodated.

At the end of our discussion, the district education department head referred to the Ministry of Education regulation on the implementation of inclusive education, which states that: “A school which implements inclusive schooling must have at least one teacher with a special needs education background”. He stated that almost all schools aren’t ready for this.

The selection of a school for Johan
The junior high school we had originally chosen for Johan (we’ll call it school X) does not have any teachers with a special educational needs background, I offered my support to work with the school if they accepted Johan as a student. However, the head of district education suggested Johan should go to a different school (we’ll call it school Y) which was officially assigned as an ‘inclusive school’.

I was disappointed, and so were the principal of school X and Johan’s parents. However, our efforts were not totally in vain. At least I had been able to raise the issues of the lack of opportunities, need for justice and education rights for children with special needs in attending regular schools. And at least Johan was not being told to go to a special school.

School Y is a good school, but it far from where Johan lives. I had previously worked with school Y to support them in accepting a student with a visual impairment. This had been a long and difficult process, but I saw that over time the school learned much from including a child with special needs. As the proverb says, “Experience is the most valuable teacher”.

Johan’s parents and I finally, reluctantly, agreed to register him at school Y, but I knew my role could not stop there – after the advocacy stage I needed to be available to offer practical support, if Johan’s case was to have a successful outcome.

The principal asked to see Johan’s parents and asked for his previous learning records. I had prepared the records before the registration process began, so was able to provide everything needed. I convinced the principal that I was ready to support and assist with Johan’s education, as well as education for other children with special needs in this school, and the principal was happy and welcoming.

The school asked me to assist in making a learning programme and recommendations for Johan’s inclusion. I told them that for the effectiveness of Johan’s learning, I would also prepare a teaching assistant to collaborate with the homeroom teacher, and the subject teachers, so that the classroom can be space that is conducive for everyone’s learning.

Preparing to support Johan in a regular school
Preparing everything before Johan started attending school Y was a challenge. My first step was to discuss his situation with my friend, a psychologist who helps me with developmental screenings and making learning recommendations for students at my own school. My relationship with the psychologist is a non-formal relationship (but non-formal relationships (allies) can be a valuable resource in doing advocacy work).

The second step was designing the individual learning programme with Johan’s previous teaching assistant. The third step was to choose a new teaching assistant and discuss Johan’s assistance needs with them. The final step was to meet Johan’s new homeroom teacher, some subject teachers, the curriculum advisor, and the school academic department to discuss Johan’s individual learning programme. We made sure this was a friendly, informal meeting.

With support from many parties, Johan finally could fully participate in the learning process, but there were many challenges during his first days in the new school. He got angry a few times, and made his classmates panic with his aggressive behaviour. And one teacher refused to teach him. The role of the teaching assistant is very important in dealing with such situations. The teaching assistant maintained continuous communication with the teachers, parents, and other students to build awareness and foster good relationships. The teaching assistant and I discussed how to best support Johan and encourage an atmosphere that ensured the whole school community would benefit from Johan’s presence at the school.

The advocacy efforts didn’t stop. We approached the vocational school, before Johan moved to the third grade in junior high school. We did this so that when it was time for him to leave junior high, he would be accepted in the vocational school. This worked out well and Johan is now studying at the vocational school.

Lessons learned
I learned many things from Johan. He taught me how to be patient, and kept me thinking constantly about how to improve my support strategies – an understanding which enriches my experience in dealing with all other students.

Meeting the various parties in my advocacy effort to find a school for Johan helped me to learn about the characters of different people and how to communicate effectively and efficiently. I realised that my personal approach determines others’ responses, requiring me to become more professional. I also became more familiar with education bureaucracy, which will help me in any similar advocacy challenges in future.

Wider advocacy
Of course, it is not effective for me simply to be advocating for inclusive education on a case-by-case basis. There needs to be wider efforts to bring about change too. Awareness about inclusive education should be raised among all education departments, and government officials should have a clear and common vision for quality inclusive education that supports all children. We need to lobby for teacher training that prepares every teacher for working in diverse, inclusive settings. We also need to push for the ideas, experiences and perspectives of all stakeholders to be considered in education decisions – at the individual level up to the national level.

Dante Rigmalia
Yayasan Dante Rigmalia
Perum Cijerah I Blok 1 No. 43 Cijerah
Bandung – 40213
West Java – Indonesia

1 Name has been changed