Understanding special education

Muhammad Fida Hussain Fida

In Pakistan, special education means giving education to the children with disabilities i.e. visually impaired, hearing impaired and physically and mentally disadvantaged. Sadly, Pakistan does not have sufficient institutions providing special education to the ones needing it.  In March this year, Alif Ailaan released Punjab Education Profile that suggested that Government must establish at least one fully functional school capable of catering to an array of special needs in every union council in the province.

We should be clear about what does special education and special needs mean? In Pakistan we often refer to special education as the “education of disabled”. The word “disabled” stigmatises and undermines the abilities of a child. The education of those with ‘special needs’ sounds better as it doesn’t stigmatise the person. ‘Special Needs’ is about the educational needs and support the children with learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems and physical disability.

In Finnish schools, special education is for every child based on the fact that at some stage of our life we all need help and support to move forward. In Finland, special education is termed as to address the learning needs of all the children i.e. in writing and reading, in science and mathematics.

The Finnish School identifies the special needs as early as possible. In 2012, almost one third (1/3) of the total enrolled students in Finnish Comprehensive Schools (K-9) were part of special education as stated by the Pasi Sahlberg (Finnish educator and Harvard Professor) in his book ‘Finnish Lessons 2.0’.

Since 2012, the Finnish Ministry of Education has changed ‘special education’ to “Learning and Schooling Support”.  This support is further divided into three categories: 1) General support; 2) intensified support; and 3) special support. The first refers to the school and teacher differentiating instruction according to the abilities of students and coping up with the student’s diversity.

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The second one is often called remedial support and is provided by the classroom teacher co-taught by the special education teacher or individual or group learning with part-time special education teacher.

The third category is provided by special education services from full time general education to a placement in the special education institution. In this category children have ‘individual learning plan’ which is based on the learning support and need a particular student have.

Aren’t these Finnish strategies impressive? Shouldn’t we also adopt them in our education system? What else can we do in order to remove the label of ‘disabled’ from the children with special learning needs?

“We should fulfill learning needs of these students, and provide them support in the learning process, if they are not provided with the learning support, they will be left behind. Finland has done a remarkable job in providing learning support to every child who needs it, and special education support is one of the factors which have contributed in closing the achievement gap among the performance of Finnish 16-year olds,” said Dr C.J. Dubash, the Dean, Faculty of Education, FC College, Lahore, told me.

“The children with special needs should be supported and ultimately should be brought into mainstream schooling to ensure equity and inclusive education,” he added.

We should learn these lessons from Finland, and should start supporting the children with learning needs rather labeling them. A similar suggestion has been made in Alif Ailaan’s Punjab Education Profile in the section ‘Focus on Children with Special Needs’ that the development and expansion of a separate department and ministry to address the needs of children with special needs is hampering the provision of the schooling they deserve. This issue needs redressal in the five years cycle beginning in 2018 by ensuring that the Education Sector Plan takes into account needs of all children with respect to their right to education.

The writer is CEO of Ilm Rohi, an organisation committed to quality education for all

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