Classrooms at the coalface of society’s inclusivity challenges
In my opinion... Antoinette Nic Gearailt
The concepts of educational diversity and inclusivity are not new, though the language pertaining to them has changed over the years. In reality they have been part of educational discussion since the establishment of the first comprehensive schools in the late 60s and the first community schools in the early 70s.
The first comprehensive schools - St Patrick's, Shannon, St Aidan's, Coothill and Scoil Chuimsitheach, Ceathrú Rua - were charged with, and committed to, the provision of a comprehensive curriculum open to all students of the catchment area irrespective of race, colour, creed or ability; the then Education Minister, George Colley, said it was "of paramount importance that we seek out and develop the talents not just of the few who are intellectually gifted, but all our children".
The recent debate on divestment at primary level and the school Admissions Bill has brought diversity and inclusivity into sharper focus and has led to considerable debate. Since the establishment of those first comprehensive schools, Irish society has changed considerably.
Religious vocations have declined, as has religious involvement in schools. The student population has increased in diversity, reflecting diversity in society. The school curriculum has changed, as has subject content. Technology has become a universal tool for self-directed learning as new skills are required to manage a more complex world.
From the beginning, community and comprehensive schools were well placed to meet the changes and challenges as their boards of management reflected the communities they served and were inclusive of parents, teachers and community members.
While it has sometimes been asserted that boards of management were controlled by religious nominees, it must be remembered that these religious nominees numbered three while there were seven other non-religious positions on the board, reflecting the diversity of society.
The Deed of Trust was very careful in protecting the rights of those who did not belong to the majority faith. Until recently, numbers of students withdrawing from religious education were quite small. As demand for withdrawal from religious education grows, schools will be challenged to provide alternative arrangements, courses, etc, for the relevant students.
Research suggests that religious provision, or not, for students is but one aspect of diversity. There are other concerns that must be considered in order to broaden the debate on diversity and inclusivity. These include but are not limited to: issues of ethnic and linguistic interest, socio-economic background and status, integration of students with special needs and equality of access to a comprehensive curriculum.
The 2009 UNESCO publication 'Policy Guidelines on Inclusion in Education' sees inclusion as a process of "strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners, of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all children through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing and eliminating exclusion within and from education".
Our society is not homogenous and neither are our schools. Our classrooms are not populated by students identical in ethnic origin, ability, interest, socio-economic background and status. Consequently, it is at classroom level that the issues of diversity and inclusivity are most keenly appreciated. Delivering an inclusive education means that schools must be engaging and supportive centres of learning for all students, not just the select few.
In real terms, it demands that every day, in every classroom, all students learn and achieve in a safe, supportive, inclusive and disciplined learning environment, according to their ability and interest. In order to achieve this, schools are charged with embedding inclusive practices in all their policies and practices, and with providing a high quality education for all students.
Furthermore, schools need to be empowered and enabled through DEIS initiatives to respond constructively to the needs of the educationally disadvantaged and, as communities of learning, they must recognise, celebrate and respond to diversity so that students not only feel safe but are free from discrimination and prejudice.
Antoinette Nic Gearailt is president of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) whose annual convention this week is devoted to inclusion and diversity