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Including children with disabilities in Colombian Escuela Nueva schools



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Hayes, Julia 


Like many countries in the Global South, Colombia has committed itself to providing quality, inclusive education for children with disabilities. However, while there is general agreement on the principle of inclusive education as something to be pursued, its meaning and nature is contested. Furthermore, a growing body of literature has questioned the relevance and application of models of inclusive education that have been generated in countries of the Global North, and subsequently, exported to Southern contexts. Moreover, there is a notable absence of literature that engages with how to operationalise inclusive education in a way that acknowledges, and is responsive to, the differing realities and priorities of rural contexts in countries of the Global South. Colombian educators have developed and implemented a successful child-centred model of rural education, called ‘Escuela Nueva’. As a learner-centred approach for multigrade classrooms, its design includes elements that could support the education of children with disabilities: children of different ages and abilities learn at their own pace, working in teams through the provision of self- instructional learner guides; participatory tools build class cohesion; and student committees contribute to decision-making in the school. In contrast to traditional models of teacher training in Colombia, teachers are trained using the same principles and materials as those that they will use in the classroom and learn how to facilitate, rather than direct, lessons. However, there is very little research that has explored teacher practice and children’s experiences in rural contexts, whilst none has examined both Escuela Nueva and disability. Consequently, my research aimed to explore how the school staff, parents and children of five rural Escuela Nueva schools in Colombia, understood and addressed the educational needs of children with disabilities. Adopting a qualitative case study approach, I conducted 46 interviews and 15 non-participant classroom observations across the five rural schools of Las Colinas, over a period of eight months. This included interviews with 11 school staff, 14 parents and five senior staff from Foundation Escuela Nueva. To seek the views of children, I i used a multi-method visual participatory approach with 53 children aged between 7 and 11 years, of whom, 26 were children with disabilities. My findings suggest that, while Colombian legislation advocates for a biopsychosocial understanding of disability, all participants understood disability as an individual deficit, thus reflecting the medical model of disability. Consequently, the impact of intersecting factors, such as poverty and rural location, on parents’ ability to support their child with a disability were often not recognised by teachers. Moreover, the bureaucratic disability diagnosis and support systems are designed for urban populations and do not recognise the challenges that rural parents face when trying to access them. Thus, multiple disconnects were observed between state systems, schools and parents. Challenging deficit accounts of rural teacher practice, my research into how children’s needs were addressed in EN classrooms revealed that the majority of teachers delivered high quality, inclusive teaching using the EN approach. Nevertheless, the findings problematised some elements of the EN model in terms of the extent to which they were able to support children with disabilities. My research revealed how the capacity of an EN teacher to deliver inclusive education is affected by a range of factors at multiple levels, of which the EN materials and tools are just one. Emphasising the role of context, teachers located in small, single-class schools had increased demands on their time, but less access to support from colleagues, than those in multi-class schools. Moreover, no teachers had received training on disability and the Escuela Nueva microcentre support structure for teacher practice had not been sustained. Consequently, I argue that, not only should state and school processes address the needs of the child, but also, the needs of those that are implementing them. Teachers require ongoing, situated, support that addresses not only support for their practice, but also, includes processes that build upon local strengths to address the disconnects and dilemmas that teachers and parents are facing within their context.





Singal, Nidhi


Escuela Nueva, disability, inclusive education, Colombia, children's voice, rural


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1926930)
Economic and Social Research Council (1926930)