Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Questions The MacKay Inclusion Review Did Not Ask

In a previous post I commented on the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of mainstream classroom inclusion for all children including autistic children. The emphasis on putting all children together in the mainstream classroom is based on the belief, unsupported by evidence, that all children benefit from being placed full time in a mainstream classroom. Some autistic children are overwhelmed by the stimulation of the mainstream classroom resulting in some cases in self aggression, disruptive behavior and failure to learn. Governments like mainstream inclusion for a number of reasons. Inclusion is such an appealing concept it is easy to sell to parents. Mainstream classroom inclusion is cheap, much cheaper than providing separate locations and specialized assistance for those children for whom alternatives work better. When the MacKay review was commissioned it was assumed that inclusion works and that some minor tinkering was all that was required to keep it running smoothly. The MacKay review terms of reference did not ask whether inclusion works for all. Because it was based on the premise that inclusion is wonderful the MacKay review did not ask whether alternatives to the inclusion model might work better for students, parents and educators. The MacKay review did not ask whether some children, including some autistic children, have actually suffered from being placed full time in a mainstream classroom. The MacKay review did not ask these difficult questions.

The Inclusion Summit which followed the issuance of the MacKay Report on Inclusive Education was organized to prevent discussion of these important questions. It was organized to prevent discussion of issues affecting children with particular disabilities such as autism. Autism representatives were told at the outset that we would not be permitted to discuss specific disabilities; that the discussion would focus on general themes. In the first workshop that I attended I was actively discouraged from asking these difficult questions by one of the government participants who informed me that "you people should be thankful for what you've got". At another session when I tried to talk about the need to provide autism specific training to Teachers' Assistants who work with autistic children I was told by a School District Superintendent to "get serious". As the second day of the summit was rapping up a press conference had been scheduled at which a summary of the summit was provided at a press conference before the the summit had even ended.

The process of ignoring dissent, of painting a pretty picture of inclusion in NB schools and ensuring that the difficult questions are not asked continues today. In November the Department of Education and the New Brunswick Association for Community Living will co-host a two day professional development event for New Brunswick teachers. The NBACL has done a lot of good work improving the lives of all persons with disabilities and their work is appreciated but they have consistently promoted the philosophy that all children benefit from being placed in a mainstream classroom. This belief is not supported by evidence or study and in practice has hurt some children including my own severely autistic son. ASNB requested the opportunity to address the teachers at this event but that request was rejected by the Department of Education and the NBACL. The event was planned entirely by the Department and the NBACL and the list of speakers and topics reflects their jointly held beliefs in mainstream classroom inclusion for all students. The questions that were not asked during the Mackay Inclusion summit will not be asked in discussion with the teachers of NB. Dissenting voices will not be permitted to be heard by the teachers who form the backbone of the NB Education system. The ASNB evidence based approach that NOT all children should be placed in a mainstream classroo, that there should be flexibility in placement and that a child should learn in a setting where they learn best, by the methods that work best for that child, will not be heard by NB teachers.

The MacKay review process consumed a lot of time, money and human resources but it did not include a critical review of the current system. The old system with all its flaws is still being promoted at important events such as the professional development days for NB teachers. An opportunity to truly rethink, re-examine and improve NB's approach to inclusive education may well have been lost for another generation of students.

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