Practising inclusive education in an Indian context: Taking the agenda forward
Despite widespread interest in education for children with disabilities, research in India has predominantly been focussed on issues around access, attitudes of teachers towards students with disabilities and challenges to implementing inclusive education. However, there is a need to move away from focusing solely on issues of access and challenges towards a deeper understanding of how inclusive educations systems are developed. My research addresses this crucial gap through a study that critically explores how inclusive education is perceived and practised in a set of government schools that have an explicit mandate to focus on inclusive education. These schools are operated by an NGO called Muktangan under a public-private partnership with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) in Mumbai, India.
Adopting a qualitative case study approach, I conducted 140 interviews and 21 classroom observations across three schools, over a period of 10 months. Through deep immersion in the field, I gathered perspectives and observed practices of various members in these schools, including teachers, students with and without disabilities, teacher trainers, and members of the school leadership team. I analysed the empirical data thematically and applied the 3E framework of Entry, Engagement and Empowerment by Singal (2004; 2013) to discuss the complexity in the development of inclusive education systems in these schools.
The empirical findings show that there has been a conscious effort to embed inclusive practices in their teacher training, the curriculum, and pedagogy, thereby developing and sustaining support for diverse learners, including children with disabilities through their whole school approach. They implement regular capacity-building, subject specific strategies and classroom management using flexible furniture, timetables etc., activity-based teaching and learning, individualised attention, peer learning as well as customised assessments aimed at including diverse learners in the classrooms.
The foremost enabler identified by members of the school for including children with disabilities and difficulties in learning is their special education department called the Learning Resource Group (LRG), which comprises two special education teachers in each school. Additionally, teachers listed that receiving structured support, and having access to socio-emotional support created a sense of community that enabled them to include diverse learners. Members of the schools reported time constraints, the need to expand the role of LRG, teaching students with ‘behaviour problems’, lack of training in Braille and sign language for supporting children with significant sensory disabilities and lack of physical access for some students due to the schools being located within inaccessible government school buildings as challenges to implementing inclusive education.
Students reported strong friendships with their peers and close relationships with their teachers that created a sense of belongingness, on the one hand, whilst also reporting incidents of ‘teasing’ due to their disabilities or personal circumstances, on the other. The data highlighted that the wider school culture embraces inclusive education in a holistic manner that takes into account the intersectional identities of the students, teachers, and other staff in these schools.
Finally, drawing on the findings, a roadmap for including diverse learners in teaching and learning within mainstream Indian schools and more widely at the Indian policy level under the ambit of the Right to Education Act, 2009 and National Education Policy, 2020, is presented.
Keywords: inclusive education, disabilities, mainstream schools, India, whole school approach