Their needs first: Children play in the sensory garden at West Pembroke School. *File photo by Nicola Muirhead
Their needs first: Children play in the sensory garden at West Pembroke School. *File photo by Nicola Muirhead

Mr. Speaker, I would like to move the following motion:

That this Honourable House take note of the Discussion Paper entitled “Inclusive and Special Education: Getting It Right For Every Child.

Mr. Speaker, 

“To educate a child, any child, is an awesome responsibility – to that child, her family and Bermudian society.

“My child has a teacher that makes his heart sing! I want him to have that with all of his teachers.

“We don’t just need a policy, we need legislation. It is my experience that unless it is in the law, it won’t happen.”

These are the words of parents expressed during the development of the Inclusive and Special Education Discussion Paper.

Not only do they open the discussion paper, but they illuminate the context in which the document was developed, which was one of significant, but not universal discontent with inclusive and special education.The context was also one of hope and desire for the diverse needs of all children to be met within Bermuda’s public school system.

Mr. Speaker, the advocacy and aspirations of parents and community members inspired the proposed new vision and direction for inclusive and special education in Bermuda, a visionwhere we get public education right for every child.

I am therefore very pleased on behalf of the minister of Education, to lead the debate onthis discussion paper, which is in many ways, the launch of a transformed public education system.

The development and dissemination of this discussion paper, with its frankness, is seen as a first for Bermuda. The term first in this instance originates, not from me, but from passionate and dedicated parents and community advocates for children.

For some who have expressed dissatisfaction, there is a growing sense that something is different.There is a feeling from some who have struggled to be heard, that they are now being listened to.And this is because they are being listened to.

The Ministry of Education conducted a 360 degree consultation that included meetings and other interactions with students, parents, educators, school counsellors, paraprofessionals, health therapists, community groups, service providers, and others who have an interest and stake in both the current system and the future of public education.From this consultation, an understanding developed of what was working well and what needed to be dramatically improved.

And so, the voices of those consulted are embedded within the tenor of the discussion paper.Their views, suggestions, and solutions, which haven’t previously taken hold, along with leading research now form the proposed policy direction that the Government of Bermuda would like to take.

What is also different, as I hope this debate will illustrate, is that the discussion paper is significantly more than a traditional consultation document.

It is an acknowledgement that real and radical change is needed to improve the quality of inclusive and special education.

It is a dynamic and ongoing commitment to making that change happen.

It is a mechanism to consult with the public – students, parents, service providers, community members and businesses on the future of public education.

And of course, it is designed with the best interest of children at heart – so that all children, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, background, aptitude or ability are given the opportunity to excel!

Mr. Speaker, the discussion paper is consistent with the One Bermuda Alliance platform and was developed within a rights framework created and promoted by the United Nations.

It is based upon the universal right to a high quality education for all, and is consistent with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Now, I would like to provide some background on where we, as a Government, and the public education system are headed in the next few years.

Members should recall that traditional inclusion – that which was developed in Bermuda in the 1990s, was a moral imperative.It was about giving students opportunities to be better integrated into mainstream schools and eventually adult society.It was successful in helping to develop a culture of understanding around disability in Bermuda.

But reflecting back on traditional inclusion, as it was implemented, the truth is, that Bermuda and the public school system moved to inclusion without becoming truly inclusive.While the intensions were good, this traditional approach didn’t achieve its ultimate goals.

Beliefs didn’t change entirely, and still haven’t.Not everyone wants “those” children, in their classrooms.The Ministry of Education did not ensure that all staff were equipped to meet the needs of all children, nor did it adequately organize the system to do so.

Policies and procedures were lacking, and overall, the system did not have the capacity to keep up with growing and diverse demands for appropriate supports and services.And we know, that when problems did occur, there wasn’t sufficient responsiveness or adjustment made.

Retrospection is relevant because we do not want to make the same mistakes going forward.One of the greatest compliments given to the discussion paper is its honesty. In plain language, it acknowledges what hasn’t worked well and what needs to change.

Mr. Speaker, so why does the discussion paper centre on inclusive and special education? It is because we want all children to grow up to become productive and contributing members of our society.We want them to be prepared through education, home and community life to find their passion, potential and succeed to their true ability.While not everyone will achieve conventionally defined success, we want to equip all of our children to reach their full potential.So, think about the graduating class of 2027. It began with just over 500 children who started primary school this past September.We know that within this group of children are future global citizens, parents, innovators, leaders, humanitarians, and ordinary workers. And I can’t leave it unsaid, that within this group are also children who may not grow up to always do the right thing.

But regardless of what they will do or be in life, this discussion paper proposes that we have an obligation to give them all the opportunity to achieve to their full potential.

So this discussion paper is about inclusive and special education because it is about all children.And we know that all children do not come to school at the same starting point.Although all children can learn and achieve, some are at risk for lower achievement.

We know that this is especially the case for boys, children living in poverty, children who have been abused, and children who have special education needs – including those who are gifted.

This discussion paper is about inclusive and special education because any child can be born gifted or with a disability – or both.Any child can become at-risk for lower achievement or experience barriers to learning at some point in their school career. Any child may need guidance in order to help them do the right thing and make the best decisions for their future.

This does not change our responsibility to provide high quality public education.In fact it raises the bar even higher.

Mr. Speaker in summary, while some changes were made to inclusion, repeated calls made over several years for a radical overhaul have not been adequately acknowledged until now.While there have been a number of concerns raised over the years, reviews and consultation revealed some of the most significant issues that needed to be addressed in order to bring Bermuda’s approach to inclusion into the 21st century:

 

  1. There isn’t a shared educational philosophy and understanding about inclusion and special education within the public education system;
  2. There are no comprehensive legislative or policy documents that set out the framework for inclusion and special education;
  3. Inclusion was largely implemented as mainstreaming, so students with various special education needs were put in regular schools, even if the school was not geared towards meeting their needs;
  4. There are unclear and sometimes inappropriate criteria and guidelines used to place children into special education; 
  5. There are significant gaps between research and evidenced-based best practices and many local teaching and learning practices; 
  6. There is no regular internal or external evaluation of inclusion and special education programmes and services;
  7. Co-ordination of special education programmes and services and inter-agency collaboration is inadequate;
  8. There isn’t a consistent or effective means of addressing the concerns of parents; and
  9. There has been poor planning and budgeting for special education, and a lack of confidence that special education provides sufficient value for the money being spent.

 

These issues have impacted the quality of the education provided to students by the Ministry of Education and schools, and must be addressed to improve the achievement of all students.

Mr. Speaker, now that I’ve set the context for the discussion paper, I’d like to focus on its approach.

The philosophy proposed for the public education system is an inclusive one where all children have the right to enroll, access and participate in a high quality education that meets their needs.

The discussion paper sets out a definition for inclusive and special education as topics which haven’t been particularly well-defined or widely communicated within public education in Bermuda.

Drawing on the United Nations’ definition, inclusive education is a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning cultures and communities and reducing exclusion within and from education. Process being the operative word, meaning that it isn’t a one-off project, but an ongoing effort of continuous improvement to get it right for every child.

Special education refers to specialised education particular to students who have been diagnosed and/or identified and who require specialised programming and services to meet their individual needs. As I’ve noted previously, this does include students who are gifted. We know that we need to do a better job of meeting their needs, and we will do that with parental and community involvement.

The discussion paper also:

  • Focuses on the early years to give infants and young children the best start in life so that they have a good chance of success in school;
  • Focuses on prevention and early intervention;
  • Pays specific attention to children at risk for lower achievement; and
  • Proposes that all children with special education needs, including those who are gifted receive an education that is appropriate to their individual needs.

These key areas and others are embedded within 16 proposed policy priorities that reflect some of the greatest areas of concern and challenge. They were developed on the basis ofresearch as well as local and international consultation.

We believe all 16 policy priorities are key; however time does not permit me to go into each one in detail, and so I will highlight 8 of them.

Let me start with the first three priorities, which are foundational in nature. They are intended to be the springboard for the successful development and implementation of truly inclusive and effective special education.

The first priority requires that we “Change beliefs and practices to improve student achievement.” Quite simply, our vision for inclusive and special education cannot be achieved without changing the beliefs and practices of persons who work with and for children.

We all know of people, with great potential, some perhaps within this very House who for whatever reason were told that they would never achieve success or greatness. We want to develop an education system where everyone believes that all children can learn and we want an education system where we do not sell any child short. We want school staff who believe in the capacity for greatness of every child, and who will make a difference in the life of every child.

The second priority is to “Dramatically improve the legislative framework for inclusive and special education to 21st century standards.” Our intentions must be based upon the right of universal access to high quality education for all, including those who may be at risk and/or have special needs.

The current legislation is weak when compared to international standards, and therefore we propose to strengthen the Education Act 1996 and where necessary develop ancillarylegislation.We want high quality public education to be a right in both name and in practice.

Priority 3 focuses on the early years.Both science and conventional wisdom are consistent when it comes to the benefit of early intervention for young children.The economic value ofearly education is sound because investments made when children are young pay dividends throughout their lives.The benefits are not just for the child, but for their family, and Bermudian society.

Something as simple as getting a child’s eyes tested can make a difference in whether or not a child learns to read.

Mr. Speaker, we should also know that a child with a speech-language delay is at greater risk for reading difficulties. One of the first questions that speech-language pathologists from the Child Development Programme ask parents who have concerns is, has your child’s hearing been tested?

For example, a 2 year-old girl was flagged for speech-language therapy, and was found to have a preventable hearing loss, that was corrected with surgery.With therapy, she went from a severe language delay, to moderate to mild. She now has no language delay and is in fact thriving in the public school system.This is an example of early intervention at work, where time, effort, and dollars were saved in the long run, by not allowing the problem to get progressively more complex and debilitating.

And there are countless other examples that can be given. 

We propose that early childcare education and development must be high quality and sit within a larger framework that includes parental, community and cross-ministry support. It must consist of programming that ensures the safety and health of all children.It should also balance physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development and be individualised for differing abilities. 

We also want to ensure that no child falls through the cracks, and so a full-fledged early years strategy that crosses all Government Ministries with responsibility for young children is a key focus of the discussion paper. Such a strategy would be augmented bysupporting policies that reflect cohesive and aligned approaches to giving children the best start in life.

Priority 6 requires that the Ministry of Education diagnose and identify exceptionalities and special education needs.I understand that the new Commissioner of Education has already taken the initiative to eliminate a practice, whereby the Ministry of Education did not diagnose learning and intellectual disabilities.

This priority, once fully implemented, will help to empower students, parents, and schools because it will provide more accessible information about what learning challenges students have and how they can be appropriately supported. It will help the Ministry of Education and other partners plan for short, medium, and long-term support for children. 

This information is not only valuable for children of school age, but is needed so that students with special education needs who go on to college and university, can self-advocate and receive the needed support in post-secondary education. 

Using the words that come with diagnosis will eventually increase our comfort level and help to create a better culture of understanding around exceptionalities.

Priority 11 speaks to the development and implementation of mediation and dispute resolution processes for parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s education, and for whom serious issues remain unresolved.

We want parents to have positive interactions and a high level of satisfaction with their children’s schools and the Ministry of Education. A number of parents have expressed frustration that their issues and concerns remain unaddressed.

This priority builds on an existing, but underutilized complaints process within schools and the Ministry of Education and proposes to give parents the opportunity to engage with third parties to help use compromise to solve significant problems.

Priority 12 is to “Encourage, facilitate and be responsive to increased parent, family and community involvement and advocacy.” The Ministry of Education has already begun significant work on priority 12. 

This is evidenced by the introduction of this discussion paper, and the resulting consultation. As implied earlier, the voices of parents and community members are embedded throughout the discussion paper. Many of the ideas and proposals for action that fall under each priority come from parents, families and the community.

We want parents to be involved in processes to support their children, and we know that we can do a better job by providing them with information on how the system works, how it can be navigated and what can be done when things don’t work as they should.

Therefore a parent guide to inclusive and special education will be introduced.Consultation has already indicated that this particular resource will be welcomed by parents and service providers.

Priority 13 focuses on the budget for public education.Quite simply, we will measure value-added results to help improve investment in inclusive and special education.While all priorities are important, this one in particular should receive special attention because we need to ensure the resources are available to pay for our new vision for inclusive and special education.

The move to inclusion, as previously stated, has been fraught with difficulties, and budgeting challenges.For example, there has been a heavy reliance on one-to-one paraprofessionals for many children with special education needs. Not only is this not sound educational practice for all children, but it is quite expensive.Historically, the Ministry has spent money that it did not have on special education, and in many instances, it did not plan ahead or make sufficient adjustments when the money wasn’t there.And in fact, it sometimes expanded programmes, without sufficient funding, without regard to their effectiveness and sustainability.

That era is ending and the Ministry has increased scrutiny. Money will not be allocatedwhere it is not being well spent.Instead, we will make some tough decisions to eliminate waste and programmes and services that aren’t working for students. We will take those savings and invest it into programmes that are working.

Mr. Speaker, the last priority that I’d like to highlight, Priority 15, will address a central question in public education.What does accountability look like?

Although accountability is embedded within each priority, this priority gives the community the opportunity to help make public education accountable.

Priority 15 is to “Increase knowledge, transparency and accountability for results in general and special education.” This is not accountability for its own sake, but for results for student achievement.Information on student results, as well as the programmes, services, and policies and procedures that help support schools and the Ministry get results for children will be made available as a matter of course.

The Ministry of Education has historically been afraid to share too much information.In this instance, releasing information will assist the public to hold those who work with and for children more accountable.

Mr. Speaker, that concludes my overview of half of the proposed policy priorities in the discussion paper.

I would now like to talk briefly about the consultation process.This debate takes place at an opportune time as the public consultation on the discussion paper will conclude next Friday on December 13th, 2013. I sincerely hope that those with a stake in the future of public education will take the time to share their views on the proposed future direction of inclusive and special education with the Ministry of Education.

This is because consultation works. It makes people part of the process.It gives people a voice and an opportunity for the Ministry of Education to hear what people are thinking and what they want.It also is a chance for us to demonstrate that that we are responsive to those voices. The ultimate aim is to have the best policy for children and for society.

This consultation is also different from others traditionally run by the Ministry of Education.It was designed in partnership with the Coalition for Community Activism in Bermuda (CCAB) in order to ensure that consultation would be accessible and responsive to the public.

With CCAB’s help, the Ministry of Education held information sessions, which gave members of the public, educators and school staff, as well as (some) civil servants, the opportunity to hear first-hand about the discussion paper.During these sessions, participants were able to ask questions and give feedback on the policy direction that the Government would like to take in this area. CCAB has also conducted individual dialogue sessions with smaller groups of parents, educators and community members to help inform the future of inclusive and special education.

To date the consultation has confirmed much of what parents have expressed over the years, that they want improved programming and services, and educators who are appropriately equipped to meet the needs of their children.There is a significant interest in having specific issues resolved, and to have them resolved urgently.

The consultation also revealed that we must do a much better job communicating to parents and the community about what is offered, how it should be offered and what should happen when things aren’t working as well as they should.Many persons consulted were hungry for additional information so that they could in fact better advocate for children.

The public meetings and submissions received thus far show a great deal of support for the overall policy direction that the Government proposes to take. However, as expected there is a degree of skepticism, and a sentiment that a policy is long overdue.There were also numerous requests for more detail on where the Ministry of Education will start, and how and when the change will actually occur.

Mr. Speaker, in the November 2013 Speech from the Throne, His Excellency announced that within this Parliamentary Year, a White Paper on Inclusive and Special Education would be developed which will set out the Government’s plans and a clear framework for the provision of inclusive and special education.In keeping with the Government’s commitment to ongoing consultation, the White Paper will allow parents and the wider community the opportunity to provide their views and insights on the specific changes that will take place for Bermuda’s children.

But before a White Paper can be published, the Ministry of Education will use the remaining week of consultation to seek out as many submissions as possible, from key stakeholders, including parents, non-profit organisations and other community members.

Each submission, whether received in writing or orally will be reviewed and analyzed. Together the submissions will be considered on their merits and used to inform the policy direction that the Government of Bermuda will take.I should also say that the Ministry is building capacity every day through higher expectations, talent development and increased accountability, so the future direction and how it will be developed and implemented will also reflect its improved capacity. 

In early 2014, the Ministry of Education will come back to the public to communicate the results of the consultation, how the policy will be moved forward, and the specific actions that will be undertaken to continuously improve the provision of inclusive and special education to 21st century standards.This communication will precede the upcoming White Paper.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of those who have helped put the consultation in place. I would like to thank CCAB’s Joann Pully for the time and skills support that she provided. Additionally, CCAB’s steering Committee of Dr. Janet Ferguson and Margaret Hallett should be commended for their leadership in providing advice and support to the Ministry of Education.

Whilst there are many other partners who have played a role behind the scenes, I would like to especially thank Mr. Jose Lopez and Ms. Erica Fulton of the Bermuda Special Needs Network, as well as Ms. Cathy Sousa and other members of the Learning Disabilities Association of Bermuda. On their own initiative, they funded and held a public meeting on the Inclusive and Special Education Discussion Paper.

Mr. Speaker, I must also thank Ministry of Education Policy Analyst Ms. Kimberley McKeownfor her excellent work on this document. This Discussion Paper is the result of countless hours of research, discussion and dialogue. Ms. McKeown has worked diligently over the last two years to bring it to fruition and one only needs to have a conversation with her to realise that this has become her passion, and the process is better for it.

Mr. Speaker, this discussion paper is the first major step in the development of a meaningful policy and action process to get public education right for every child.

In conclusion, we recognize as one parent said, that educating a child, any child is an awesome responsibility, we also want all children to have teachers that make their heart sing, and we understand that while policy is needed, so is legislation and fidelity to that legislation.

I would also like to remind my colleagues that this process is one that affects all of us. Inclusive and special education is as much about ensuring that we give every child the opportunity to succeed, as it is about creating the kind of Bermuda that we want for our children and for ourselves. And through this process and its ongoing development and implementation, it is my hope that we will do this together as one Bermuda.

Mr. Speaker, I look forward to the input of Honourable Colleagues.

Thank you.