Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Special action for special children with special needs - A bouquet for the Department of Examinations

Things are bad…

Children with special needs...or those who are disabled or  perhaps, differently abled.  Kids who face more than the average challenges of school goers are called various things. That is, if they are called anything at all.

In Sri Lanka, any impairment in children that is physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional or developmental or a combination thereof is by default, left unacknowledged, ignored or wished away.  Those disabilities that cannot be hidden are reluctantly acknowledged via embarrassed silences on the part of both caregivers and those the kids come into contact with. Few, very few, will look at these children and see potential, identify excellence, determine possibilities or understand equal-or-better societal relevance. This in turn, creates both physical and attitudinal barriers that simply results in compounding problems for these children.

Quite a large majority of parents primarily and teachers secondarily have been guilty of this ostrich act to the lifelong detriment of the variously challenged children they either bear or guide.  While these attitudinal negatives rooted in cultural and social astigmatism hurt kids in many areas of engagement, in the world of academic endeavor they can be disastrous.

Under exam conditions in a free education system that is geared to eliminate students from it, the academic challenges are universally acknowledged to be daunting. Put a mentally, physically or emotionally impaired child up against such a system and the perfect enabling environment is created for disabled children to give truth to the lie that they are unable.

Actually, things are not so bad… 

Very fortunately, the National Evaluation and Testing Service of the School Examination and Results Brach of the Examinations Department of the Ministry of Education seems to think so too.  A little known fact is that for quite a few years now, they have had a strong, fair, transparent and very inclusive system in place to support impaired children to do their very best at the national examinations. Expert panels are set up every year in urban centers island wide to assess children with special needs and determine the best way in which to mitigate the negative effects of the additional challenges that they face.

Additionally, and unexpectedly, quite a few government and semi-government schools have taken it on themselves to pay serious attention to the requisites of special needs children. Their commitment is long term and seems to be driven by strong buy-in to the fact that such children have a very important and significant role to play in society. While some, such as Ladies’ College and St.Thomas' College have full-fledged learning support centers or special needs units, many have the capacity and the process in place for early identification of such requirements and the ability to channel the children to institutes and individuals who can bring out the best in them. Further, as far as I am aware, no child who requests admission to a local school is penalized for disabilities or refused admission based on such disabilities.

I cite this as a reason why local schools have a greater grasp of the larger, more inclusive environment of the learning universe as opposed to international schools where, apart from Alethea College which has a special needs unit that supports impaired children including those with Down’s Syndrome, most others actively refuse admission to such children or, pay lip-service to their needs if they are diagnosed after admission. Many consider such children an irksome additional burden. This underscores the widely held view that international schools give admission to children who are capable of achieving high academic goals regardless of the system or the quality of education and rejects those who need to be engaged with significant effort in order to ensure that their best abilities are recognized and developed. Even the few committed special needs people working at international schools find it tough to obtain even the smallest concessions for children with impairment.

Well actually, things are brilliant… 

Here is my personal experience of this system and I am going to name a few of the names I know because I think it is very important that excellence is acknowledged.

My child had a significant attention disorder related to absence seizures resulting from a traumatic birth that caused loss of school time during the crucial primary school years when fundamental concepts are taught.  Development of both academic and social skills was impaired as a result. Luckily, she was at Ladies College where their learning support unit (LSU) was constantly on her case ensuring that she had minimal negatives resulting from her condition. A series of exceptional teachers such as Ms. Wyomi, Ms. Joanna and Ms.Avanthi worked with her over the years, gradually managing to wean her completely away from the LSU. Most importantly, Mrs. Alawwa, the sectional head at Ladies College who knew her medical condition told us about the efforts of the Examinations Department to help students such as my daughter even out the playing field at the upcoming O/L exams; the school got us the forms and we sent in our application through the school and parents and child were called in for a personal interview to their offices.

There were about seventy families and we were lead into a specious hall. The kids were treated like little princes and princesses by the staff and served with refreshments and tea. Sharp on time, the Commissioner General of Examinations Mr. Pushpakumara and his senior staff addressed the families, outlining the program, with the Deputy Commissioner Mr. Jayasundra explaining the rationale and the case-by-case treatment of each applicant and the need to understand that they were merely removing additional barriers to sitting the exam and not helping them to pass and the fact that there was no need to compare the concessions given to one child with those given to another. One got the feeling that meticulous planning had gone into the execution of the interviews.
The interview process - driven from the top with the most senior officials taking the lead

  • The children were given a brief writing task and then four expert panels, each with either a deputy commissioner or higher, a special needs expert and two other staff members conducted the one-on-one interviews. The Commissioner General himself headed up one of the panels. 
  • The most severely impaired children were taken first followed by those who had come from a little distance away from Colombo (having missed their appointments at the regional interviews). 
  • The entire proceeding took place in full view of every applicant. No time limit was set for each applicant and everyone was allowed as much time as needed to state their case in as much detail as they wish to with as many supporting documents as they wanted to share. 
  • Those who needed specific types of equipment were provided with it and those whom the panels determined needed readers or scribes were identified. Many of the children were granted extra time. Some were even allowed to have the parent sitting next to them at the exam.  If a request by a parent was deemed to be irrelevant or unrequired, matters were explained patiently and thoroughly so that the issue was clear in their minds and the request revoked by mutual consent. In comparison, for London exams for example, it would be difficult if not impossible to obtain even the slightest concession for an impaired child. Even a bit of extra time would be a tough ask and getting a reader or scribe a near miracle. Allowing a parent to sit with a mentally traumatized kid is never going to happen.  Proof yet again that the international system is simply overrated and even more skewed towards competing for exclusion than set up for inclusion where challenged kids have to perform despite the system under conditions that would wipe out a normal child. 
  • The rigor of the review process and the experience of the panels were such that anyone who was there to obtain an unfair advantage for a child was very quickly identified and gently but firmly rejected.
  • Clear instructions were provided to us on how to make use of the facilities offered to the children on exam day and we were informed that the invigilators at each center would be informed prior to the exam on each special needs student and the particular requisites for them. Oh, by the way, that won’t happen at a London exam. We were also told that the scripts would be marked by a special team who are experts in special needs and understand capabilities regardless of any aberrations in the specific answers provided. Once again, at international exams, this won’t happen and people who have no clue about challenged students mark the scripts presuming they are part of a supposedly equitable knowledge testing environment where in fact, the opposite is the case. 
  • Through the four hours that it took to conduct the personal interviews, the entire staff, from the lowest to the highest gave us the feeling that they were there to make sure we were in the best possible frame of mind, constantly weaving in and out of the seating area to attend to our slightest need.

Quite apart from the fact that the program was at worst equal to the best such programs in the world and at best was probably far far superior to most of them, that which struck the strongest note in our minds was the remarkably human touch of these senior officials and the lack of even the slightest high handedness in the way in which they engaged the children and their parents. The children, especially, were treated with respect and addressed as equals. None of the international systems have given me even the slightest indication of similar treatment despite all of the brouhaha over equal and inclusive treatment that they tout to any who care to listen. Given what we saw at the exams department, since my wife Manju teachers at a leading international school, we felt that all of that was so much gas.

Phrases such as “පුතා දැන් A නවයක්ම අරගෙන එන්න ඕනේ හොඳද” or “දුවට දැන් බයවෙන්න කිසිම හේතුවක් නැහැනේ? අම්ම ලඟින්ම ඉඳගෙන ඉඳියි ” or “බලන්න පුතා, මේ light එක වෙනුවට අනික් එක පාවිච්චි කෙරුවොතින් වැඩිය හොඳට පෙනෙයිද කියල?” were heard regularly coming from the highest of officials throughout the interviews. None left without a grateful smile on their lips and as the day went on (we were among the last few), I could scarcely believe my senses that such an exceptional program could exist within the echelons of officialdom or that such insightful, competent and committed officials were still to be found within the state machinery. Having been touched by their concern, their care and their meticulous attention to detail, we came away feeling proud to be Sri Lankan.  In a system that shuts children out, they are doing yeoman service to bring children in. These are exceptionally enabled human beings and they do our nation proud. Salute!

…and yet, things could be better…

There were only about 70 children there. In Colombo, I believe that this is but a fraction of the number that could have made use of the world class services provided by the department but as mentioned earlier on, the larger percentage of parents and teachers refuse to open these doors to their children. Teachers like Ms. Alawwa of Ladies or the teacher from St. Thomas’ who I saw at the interviews accompanying the families to better explain their cases before the panel are in a minority. Perhaps greater media exposure could be given to the program and even parents could play a part in spreading the news as Mr. Jayasundara pointed out.

I am trying to do my bit….

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