Inclusive education in Canada has found its most ardent champions in New Brunswick, in the Canadian Association for Community Living, and in a number of faculties of education. From his perch in New Brunswick, Dr. Gordon Porter, has played a prominent role, most recently as the Director of Inclusive Education Canada. That is why the recent report on New Brunswick’s inclusive education system, co-authored by Porter and Angela AuCoin, attracted so much attention from both the inclusionists and their critics.
New Brunswick Minister of Education Jody Carr hailed the release of the report in his June 5, 2012 announcement that New Brunswick was reversing its cost cutting course and spending $62 million more over the next three years on implementing inclusive education. http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/news/news_release.2012.06.0494.html It amounted to a ringing endorsement of the long-awaited report which recommended that the province forge ahead with its 25-year struggle to “transform the thinking of school leaders” and to make the regular classroom the focus of student support services. http://www.gnb.ca/0000/publications/comm/Inclusion.pdf
The Strengthening Inclusion, Strengthening Schools report, produced by the well-known inclusion theorists, may not be the final word on the subject. Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the publicly-funded school system is a most worthy goal, but the report’s findings reveal that it is still more of an illusion than a reality in today’s New Brunswick schools, especially for those students with severe learning disabilities or complex needs.
One in ten Canadians reportedly suffers from some kind of learning disability and between 2 % and 4% of New Brunswick’s public school students, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200, are struggling at school with serious learning challenges. The Porter-Aucoin report also acknowledges that a mixed bag of alternative school programs continue to exist, across the districts, serving some 1,000 or so students with significant learning challenges.
Serving growing numbers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will require flexibility and out-of- the box learning. Some 1,238 of New Brunswick’s 74,579 Anglophone public school students have now been diagnosed with autism and many already require significant learning supports. It’s fast becoming the biggest challenge facing the province’s regular Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.
Since the adoption of Wayne MacKay’s 2006 report on Inclusive Education, the province has pursued “full inclusion” in regular classrooms with dogged determination. The Education Department, working closely with Gordon Porter’s Inclusive Education Initiative and the New Brunswick Association for Community Living (NBACL) has become the leading proponent of the “one-size-fits all” regular classroom model. More recently, the Department has become closely aligned with the NBACL, to the point where their websites virtually mirror one another.
Vocal critics of the current model, like Fredericton autism advocate Harold L. Doherty, charge that the province’s current regime is “philosophy-based” and turns a blind eye to students with “complex needs” who are being marginalized and eventually left by the wayside. http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/2012/06/building-bigger-tent-is-badly-needed.html Classroom teachers, lacking the expertise and resource support, according to the NBTA’s Heather Smith, can be overwhelmed by the growing numbers of “students in difficult situations.”
New Brunswick’s full adoption of Inclusive Education since 2006 has certainly tested the limits of the “all-inclusive classroom” as the answer for all K-8 students and the vast majority of high schoolers. Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia have all responded to shifts in the composition of the student population by offering more self-contained classes and viable alternative school programs.
The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. There a small number of private, independent Special Education (Grade 3-12) schools have emerged since the 1970s to fill the gap by providing a vitally important “lifeline” in the continuum of student support services. Demand for such schooling grew after 2000 to the point where the Nova Scotia Education began looking at implementing a provincial tuition support program serving students with more acute learning difficulties.
The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, provides an option for students with special needs who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system. The TSP provides funding which covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) and any public alternative education centres that might eventually be established in Nova Scotia.
My AIMS research study, Building a Bigger Tent, provides a detailed cost-benefit analysis of New Brunswick’s implementation of inclusion, identifies a significant hole in the system, and examines the pent-up demand for a full continuum of service, from mainstreaming to self-contained classes to special needs schools. It rejects the findings of the Porter-Aucoin report and calls for a truly independent, arms-length review, seeking to assess the unmet demand for better alternative “lifeline” programs, meeting the needs simply unable to cope in a regular classroom.http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/Building%20a%20Bigger%20Tent.pdf
New Brunswick would benefit from taking a closer look at Nova Scotia’s service delivery model, including Special Education schools and the ground-breaking Tuition Support Program (TSP) rendering them more accessible to families with severely learning challenged children.
The Porter-Aucoin report may have produced more funding for student supports, but without “lifeline school programs” do not expect significantly improved outcomes for severely learning disabled kids. It’s high time that New Brunswick stepped back with a wider lens, started listening more to those currently locked in a system designed by theorists, in the interests of promoting a better educational environment for teachers and students alike.
Who is being ‘left out” or falling by the wayside in the New Brunswick model based upon “full inclusion” for all in a regular classroom, whatever the severity of their needs? What happens to students who cannot cope or thrive in the all-inclusive classroom? Why do existing special programs and alternative education centres fly so much below the radar in the province? What can New Brunswick learn from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta when it comes to support for kids with severe learning disabilities and complex needs?