Inclusive Education Vital for Social Cohesion in Diverse Societies

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Public debates on the need to ensure more inclusive education for children and young adults who face social exclusion in diverse societies have recently rekindled in Europe. Evidence shows that in many European states the dropout rate of children coming from migrant families or minority groups, such as Roma, is at least twice as high as that of native or ethnic majority students.

In many countries, children with disabilities and Roma continue to be educated separately, though adequate support would permit their full integration into mainstream education. Poverty, persistent discrimination and social marginalisation are the main underlying reasons for this inclusive education deficit, which needs to be reversed by determined and systematic action by all European states.

Exclusion from or divisions in education along ethnic and language lines have a devastating impact on social cohesion and reconciliation in multi-ethnic societies struggling to come to terms with a violent past. In Bosnia and Herzegovina generations of young people have been educated in mono-ethnic schools or in segregated “two schools under one roof”.

Regrettably, there appears to exist no political will to change this system despite a national court ruling that found it discriminatory. Segregated education is also a reality for many Serb and Croat children in Vukovar, Croatia. I have also been concerned at the adverse effects of segregated education in “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” on pupils’ life and relationships as well as on this country’s social cohesion.

Everyone has a right to quality education

Inclusive education, as defined by UNESCO, is a process that addresses and responds to the diversity of needs of all children, youth and adults through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing and eliminating exclusion within and from education. It is a principle that places the responsibility (a ‘positive obligation’) on states to educate all children without any discrimination within the mainstream system.

As noted in 2014 by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, schools must become places where priority is given to teaching young people to live in harmony in an environment which respects freedom of thought and conscience, encourages learners to open up to others and develop a critical mind, while providing adequate support to those who need it.

Every child’s right to quality education ‘on the basis of equal opportunity’ is firmly enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is intrinsically linked to inclusive education and consists not only of one’s cognitive development but also of the inculcation of values and attitudes of responsible citizenship, and is a fundamental pillar of democratic societies.

In addition, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires the provision of quality education in a mainstream, inclusive environment to children with disabilities, establishing this as an international legal obligation. In fact, it has been estimated that non-inclusion of persons with disabilities in Europe and Central Asia has cost a loss of 35.8% of these regions’ GDP.

In its landmark 2007 judgment in D.H. and others v. the Czech Republic the Strasbourg Court’s Grand Chamber concluded that segregation of Roma in education was discriminatory and noted that discriminatory barriers to access to education for Roma children are present in a number of European countries. Similar judgments have been rendered in respect of Greece and Hungary. Regarding minority education more generally, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities requires states to promote equal opportunities for access to education at all levels for persons belonging to national minorities.

The Revised European Social Charter guarantees the right of persons with disabilities to independence, social integration and participation in the life of the community, including in education. The European Committee of Social Rights has upheld these principles in decisions on collective complaints concerning the lack of access to inclusive education, for example those concerning France and Belgium.

Inclusive education benefits all learners. It is not limited to integrating children with specific needs into mainstream education, but has a positive impact on all children, the school institutions and the community at large, as noted in a 2006 General Comment by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Inclusive, inter-cultural education is supported by the Council of Europe programme on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, which includes a specific programme on South East Europe: “Regional Support for Inclusive Education”. This project promotes the concept of inclusive education as a reform principle that respects and caters for diversity among all learners, with a specific focus on those who are at higher risk of marginalisation and exclusion, such as members of national minority groups.

Ways forward

Inclusive education requires a mentality shift at state level, from seeing children or adults as a problem to identifying the existing inadequacies and improving the education systems themselves. It should target any child who may be excluded from mainstream education programmes. Particular attention needs to be given to members of vulnerable groups, such as migrants and national minorities, especially Roma, who often find themselves, or risk ending up, in situations of poverty and social exclusion.

Drawing upon Article 30 of the European Social Charter, effective measures are required in order to promote these persons’ access to quality education. These should include positive measures to increase children’s presence in all education levels, as well as the recruitment and promotion of education professionals with migrant or national minority backgrounds.

There are good practice examples, like the Czech and Slovak Roma pupils who have been successfully integrated in primary or secondary mainstream education in the United Kingdom, after having attended special or de facto segregated (Roma-only) schools in the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

As regards in particular Roma and Travellers, school mediators and/or assistants recruited from Roma and Traveller communities should be employed to facilitate the relations between these communities and the teachers and schools. They should be provided with adequate training and support and be accepted as far as possible as full members of the schools’ professional teams.

Much needs to be done for the true inclusion of children with disabilities as well. In my country reports, for example those on the Czech Republic and Romania, I have often highlighted the need for accepting inclusion as a fundamental principle and as an enforceable obligation on mainstream schools which must become accessible and, where necessary, provide the individual support needed.

A worrying tendency I encountered in this respect in some countries is the perpetuation of segregation while using nicer-sounding concepts such as “appropriate education” (the Netherlands) or even by labelling special schools “inclusive education centres” (Romania). True inclusion requires adequate resources – austerity budgets can never justify sub-standard education for children with disabilities, as I have stressed in respect of Spain.

Inclusive education needs to be clarified in national contexts and its principles promoted and reflected in national legislation and education policies and practices all over Europe. To this end, the schools’ capacity to create an inclusive environment needs to be increased, notably by improving teaching practices to prepare teachers for diversity in the classrooms. Inter-sectorial and inter-institutional cooperation in this field must be strengthened in particular between education, health and social protection bodies.

Furthermore, it is necessary to develop systems of support in inclusive education including by making enrolment policy flexible and inclusive for all disadvantaged students. Monitoring and evaluation of school inclusiveness also need to be developed. Last but not least, parents’ involvement in these processes should be increased and their capacities strengthened.

Data indicate that each additional year of schooling raises the average annual GDP growth by 0.37%, thus helping to alleviate poverty and to eradicate social exclusion and marginalisation. European states can no longer afford to ignore modern societies’ need for inclusive education. Equitable and efficient budgetary allocations to promote inclusive education are needed. It is a necessary investment for the long-term development and social cohesion of all European states.

Useful background documents

  • UNESCO, Policy Guidelines on Inclusion in Education, 2009
  • The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)13 on ensuring quality education
  • The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment N° 9 (2006) on the rights of children with disabilities
  • European Council conclusions of 12 May 2009 on a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (‘ET 2020’)
  • CM Recommendation CM/Rec(2009)4 on the education of Roma and Travellers in Europe
  • Migration Policy Institute, Europe, Migrant Education and Community Inclusion – Examples of Good Practice, Brief, 2015
  • Index for school inclusion, Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, 2002

U.S. Will Soon Stand Alone in Failing to Ratify Rights for Children with the United Nations

In recent news, Somalia became the 195th country to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  The CRC is the most widely ratified international human rights document in history and was officially adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1989.

l-61-Hands-with-unicef-logoThis landmark treaty includes the promises of civil, political, social, economic, cultural rights and freedoms, including the right to health and healthcare, education, leisure and cultural activities, and numerous special protection measures for children.

When a country ratifies a UN convention like the CRC, it can be held accountable by the Committee on the Rights of the Child to its terms.  Countries then use the treaty as a measure to assess and also improve its policies and programs to better support children and their families.

To date, there are just two UN member nations who have not yet ratified the CRC – South Sudan and the United States of America.  It should be noted, however, that South Sudan only became an independent country and joined the UN less than five years ago and it has since passed a bill to move toward ratification.

While the United States was one of the primary contributors toward drafting this document, it has never made efforts toward ratifying it.  Soon, the United States will be the only UN member country who has not ratified this child and family focused human rights treaty.  The only one! Years ago while campaigning, President Obama said this was embarrassing and that he would review this, but there’s been no momentum toward doing so.

Why should we care?

The U.S. is a world leader and what we do affects other countries.  Ratifying the CRC would send a strong message across the globe that children’s rights should be primary.  Also, how can we promote children’s rights in other countries when we have not yet made this commitment?

This documents clearly enumerates the many human rights specifically relevant and meaningful to children.  At a national level, ratification of the CRC can be used to help strengthen families’ and children’s human rights within our own country.

Using just one example from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 24 of the treaty recognizes:

“the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health,” “to diminish infant and child mortality; to combat disease and malnutrition,” through the provision of adequate nutritious foods,” “taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution;” “to ensure appropriate pre-natal and post-natal health care for mothers;” “to have access to education and are supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition, the advantages of breastfeeding, to develop preventative health care…”

This article refers to a basic foundation required for children to be raised in an environment that protects their dignity and supports their physical, mental and emotional growth and potential.  Yet, from birth, the United States violates children’s human rights and fails its children and their families.

Research shows that infant mortality rate (IMR) is valid indicator of the overall health of a nation.  According to a CDC report, the United States ranked behind 25 other countries in IMR; this, despite the fact that we spend more money per person than any other country on healthcare costs.

Sadly, we do lead the world in many things that violate the human rights of our children, such as:

  • Production of GMO crops and relatedly,
  • Exposure to Glyphosate (the world’s #1 pesticide/herbicide)
  • Global Warming Contributions
  • Youth Offenders Servings Life Sentences Without the Possibility of Parole
  • Relative Child Poverty Rates Among Economically Advanced Countries

It’s time for us to rethink the United States’ record on human rights, especially when it comes to children and families.  Establishing a commitment to the ratification of the CRC would be a step toward doing so.  We must remember that the articles within the CRC layout “human rights,” not needs or wants or ideals.  Using a rights-based perspective is a more powerful way to engage individuals, groups, communities, and even governments to increase accountability and force change.  A human-rights approach empowers children, parents, families, and communities to better understand, advocate, and demand their rights be realized.

You can join the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC and the sign its petition asking President Obama to send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the U.S. Senate for ratification.

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