Building inclusive schools has been a high priority for Canada’s provincial school systems for the past two decades. It is now generally agreed that public schools should embrace an overall philosophy of inclusion which supports the right of all children to the best possible education. “Full inclusion” — the idea that all children, including those with severe disabilities, can and should learn in a regular classroom has also taken root in many school systems, and most notably in the province of New Brunswick. Since the 2006 adoption of Halifax law professor Wayne MacKay’s report on Inclusive Education, New Brunswick has aggressively pursued the “everyone must be educated in the mainstream classroom” model of inclusive education. http://www.gnb.ca/0000/publications/mackay/mackay-e.asp
A full Provincial Review of Inclusive Education is now underway in New Brunswick, co-headed by Dr. Gordon L. Porter, a leading Canadian advocate and consultant on inclusive education. Five years after its official adoption, the review is definitely being undertaken by a commission stocked with “friendlies.” While awaiting its release, a few critical questions need to be asked: Will the Provincial Review actually examine whether “mainstreaming” is “the most enabling environment” for all special needs children? Will the Review yield longitudinal, validated research demonstrating the superiority of “full inclusion” for students with with all types of learning disabilities? And how are students with “complex and severe needs” actually faring under the current system?
Dr. Porter’s recent commentary, featured on the Canadian Education Association Blog, suggest that none of those questions will be squarely addressed in the forthcoming review. http://www.cea-ace.ca/blog/gordon-porter/2011/12/3/are-we-star-gazing-can-canadian-schools-really-be-equitable-and-inclusi For an education consultant with such a mandate, he sounds more than a little biased in favour of “full inclusion” for everyone. His main preoccupation, in his own words, is advancing his 30-year struggle for “”equity and quality” in “an inclusive education system.” He expresses deep disappointment over the ‘back-sliding’ over “the last ten years.” Some of our largest Canadian school districts, Porter notes, “are not only maintaining the number of students in self-contained special education, they are actually increasing it.”
The New Brunswick review is firmly in the hands of the so-called extreme inclusionists. Professor MacKay and Gordon Porter are not only the leading proponents, but they have friends in high places. As head of the NB Human Rights Commission, Porter successfully enshrined inclusion in the provincial code. He was a key member of the Transition Team when David Alward and the Conservatives came to power, and Krista Carr, Executive Director of the NB Association for Community Living, is the the spouse of Jody Carr, currently the Minister of Education. The NBACL is, without a doubt, the most zealous organization promoting full inclusion for all kids.
Full inclusionists tend to be deeply committed to defending “human rights” but rather inclined to dismiss research and evidence contradicting their perceptions. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) and one of its founders Yude M. Henteleff continue to claim that the “fully inclusive classroom” is “only one of the right ways to meet the best interest of the special needs child.”
A November 2005 LDAC policy on Educational Inclusion confirmed their support for “the availability of a continuum of education services” from regular mainstreamed classes to “a small class setting” and ” an even more intensive program such as those offered by a special school.” http://www.ldanl.org/ldanl/pdf/LDACPolicyStatement-Inclusion.pdf More recently, an independent review of best practices research in Learning Disabilities Education, conducted by Dr. Anne Price of the Calgary Learning Centre in 2009 for Nova Scotia Education , confirmed the wisdom of a more flexible approach offering a variety of service options suited to the needs of the child. http://www.studentservices.ednet.ns.ca/sites/default/files/Tuition_Support_Program_Review_2009.pdf
Full inclusion continues to be controversial as a “one-size-fits-all” special education policy, even in New Brunswick. For the past decade, Fredericton lawyer Harold L. Doherty, has fought a determined fight for his son, Conor, and hundreds of other parents of kids and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. His Blog, Facing Autism in New Brunswick, < http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/> gives voice to the voiceless and serves as an incredible source of information on the limits of New Brunswick policy and makes a compelling case for a change in policy direction. After years of advocacy, Harold secured a “self-contained class” in Leo Hayes High School for his own son, but he’s continuing the struggle on behalf of autistic children, youth and young adults. http://www.theaq.net/2011/what-resources-are-available-when-youre-growing-up-with-autism/-5325
The New Brunswick government, like a few other provincial authorities, is now wrestling with the challenges of educating students with “complex special needs” and “youth-at-risk.” A visionary 2008 report, Connecting the Dots, by former Youth Advocate Bernard Richard, pointed that province in a better direction. His recommendation for a Centre for Excellence garnered most of the attention, but his report also made a strong plea for “children with complex needs who are no longer in the mainstream” and called for the creation of a new education authority to support children “marginalized” in the New Brunswick system. http://www.gnb.ca/0073/PDF/ConnectingtheDots-e.pdf
Why do Canadian education ministries have so much trouble “connecting the dots” in the field of special education services? In the case of New Brunswick, has “full inclusion” become such a powerful ideology that students with “complex needs” who do not fit-in get left by the wayside? Why are the advocates so reluctant to survey teachers and parents with a simple, clear set of questions — is it working for everyone? If not, what would work better for the kids who need learning support the most?