Commission finds that Nova Scotia’s inclusive education is largely failing students

Report finds that Nova Scotia’s inclusive education is failing students
A new report says inclusive education is largely failing both students with special needs and their peers in Nova Scotia. Marieke Walsh has the details.

Inclusive education is largely failing both special needs students and their peers in Nova Scotia, a new report says.

The independent commission on inclusive education, struck three months ago in the wake of a bitter labour dispute between the provincial government and 9,300 public school teachers, released a scathing interim report Thursday.

While the commission said there is widespread support for having all students regardless of needs share the same classrooms, it found the current model is broken.

READ MORE: The unspoken issue in N.S. teachers’ dispute: inclusion of special-needs students

“It’s clear to us that neither students with special needs nor their peers appear to be well served by the existing model,” commission chairwoman Dr. Sarah Shea said. “Many parents have expressed concerns that their children’s needs are not being satisfactorily met.”

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The commission is calling for wholesale change to inclusive education, noting that just tweaking the existing model won’t go far enough.

“We are the latest in a succession of provincial committees struck to examine inclusive education and we are finding the same problems that others have reported for more than 15 years,” commission member Monica Williams said. “Clearly, we need to move from describing problems to solving them.”

The report makes 15 recommendations to overhaul inclusive education, including developing a new provincial policy.

READ MORE: Why one Nova Scotia teacher voted ‘no’ to the contract, and what she says needs to change

In 1997, inclusive education was adopted in Nova Scotia, requiring classroom teachers to become responsible for all students, some of whom were previously in separate classes or special schools.

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“It’s a human rights issue as well as an education issue,” Williams said. “Research clearly demonstrates that all students benefit from learning alongside each other and learning about their respective differences and how to collaborate together.”

However, the model has remained largely unchanged despite the increased number of students with special needs in recent years and the province’s often poor math and literacy scores.

“For the first time in two decades we actually have a government that has the courage to take on the question of inclusion. No one has been willing to touch it,” Education Minister Zach Churchill said.

“We are now in a position to have a frank, open dialogue with parents and teachers and the public about the challenges that the model of inclusion has presented in our system for our kids and for our teachers and make those transformative changes that are going to make this system better for everybody.”

READ MORE: Report calls for expanded class caps and more teachers for NS

The three-member commission said the rising frequency, severity and complexity of student needs has led to a gap between student needs and the capacity of schools and teachers to meet them.

“The landscape of the classroom has changed,” commission member Adela Njie said. “When we talk about class composition, I can have a gifted student, a student with a learning disability, a few students with behavioural challenges and a few with social-emotional challenges.”

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One of the report’s recommendations is to create a working group to examine teacher preparation and learning.

Njie said there will be no “quick fix,” and additional resources will be needed to make improvements.

Classroom conditions were a major sticking point during the protracted contract negotiations that ended in February when the government imposed a contract.

“The current model is not working,” said Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union president Liette Doucet. “The interim report is quite promising but we need action. We don’t want this to become another report that sits on a shelf like others have in the past.”

READ MORE: Province to implement 8 recommendations by N.S. classroom conditions council immediately

The commission’s full report, due in March, is expected to include fully costed recommendations to improve inclusive education.

Churchill said he has “full confidence” that the provincial government will “find the money” to implement the final report’s recommendations.