‘Special’ education goes to new level in govt. schools
Door opens for autistic kids
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
The classrooms are full of light and brightly painted. Educational toys are on the shelves. Building blocks of multi-coloured elephants sit on a desk while the old-fashioned slates hardly seen these days also have the heads and legs of elephants. A beautiful sea horse sticker looks down from the wall.

A song is being played and some children are swaying to and fro. Suddenly there is a shriek and one little boy darts away from the others and runs to the next room. Sparkling eyes wide open, he rushes back again, jumping up and down and attempts to climb the grill covering the window, until a teacher gently leads him back to his seat.

Another montessori? Looks like one, but the five children present on the day The Sunday Times visited the classes range in age from 6 to 12. The door grills are fixed in such a way that they have to be opened from the outside by an adult by putting the hand through. There are no glass window-panes accessible to the children and careful thought has been given to the minutest detail.

It is a first and revolutionary step for Sri Lanka in its path to give an education to all in keeping with international trends. Ten little ones are the “guinea pigs” who will pave the way for the development and education of children with special needs who have hitherto been neglected by Sri Lankan society.

The far-reaching plans include the setting up of a national programme for special education and the National Resource Centre for Special Education set up in the premises of the Teacher Training College in Maharagama is the first step. The centre opened its doors to autistic children on July 7.

“There is an urgent need to conduct research, gather data from within the country, train teachers and also make people aware about these children who have been neglected to some extent,” stresses R.S. Medagama, Consultant to the Education Ministry stressing that it is important to dispel the stigma attached to children with special needs.

According to him 10% of the people need special education programmes because they fall into the categories of: visually handicapped, deficient in hearing, physically handicapped, mentally impaired, multiple disabled or those with learning difficulties. “There are different degrees of mental retardation and about 30% of the people have learning difficulties. Autism is a field we have not looked into,” he explains.

Adds Non-formal and Special Education Director H.P.N. Lakshman that even though from the 1960s, 1,200 schools, both national and provincial, have had special education units and there are 25 special schools that are state-assisted, like the Ratmalana Deaf and Blind School, the requirements of certain specific categories of children with special needs have not been addressed. “The special education units and state-assisted institutions cater to about 15,000 students with about 1,200 teachers trained in special education. However, if you take autism, such children have just been integrated into the special units, though their intellectual level, in most cases, is higher and they may need a different teaching method.”

In keeping with the vision of expanding special education, Ministry Secretary Dr. Tara de Mel and ministry officials last year held a round of discussions with those in the Health Ministry and the psychiatry faculties of both the Colombo and Sri Jayewardenepura Universities. That was when the need for a National Resource Centre was identified, The Sunday Times learns.

“As a start, ten autistic children who were already in special education units in schools in the Western Province were taken so that the Resource Centre could train teachers here to be sent all over the country. Already, 30 special education teachers have been trained there,” says Mr. Lakshman adding that once the children come to a certain standard they will be re-integrated into mainstream schools and another batch brought in. “At the National Resource Centre autism will be one prong of special education.”

Stressing that the modern world trend is “inclusive” education for children with special needs, Mr. Medagama says the Resource Centre for Special Education in Maharagama is to be developed as a model. All primary teachers, more than 55,000, need to be able to identify whether there are any special children in their classes, as some of the problems encountered are not very perceptible. Then they will be able to direct them to the special services they need including medical help. Identifying such children would be the first step in assisting them to cope with their special needs, he added.

Has a new and brighter era dawned for these often stigmatized children in Sri Lanka? With the opening of the National Resource Centre in Maharagama, hopefully, time will prove so.

Many whys?
All is not calm, however, at the Maharagama Teacher Training Centre, with the lecturers and students being up in arms against the National Resource Centre for Special Education.

“They took the best building and there are rumours that they will close this training college which celebrated its centenary in 2003,” laments a lecturer while the others echo her thoughts. This is because the National Resource Centre has been set up here, she alleges.

The teacher trainees are also upset, The Sunday Times learns.
“The Maharagama Training College will not be closed,” stresses Chief Commissioner of Teacher Education Mallika Dharmalatha. “We have only about 3,000 in-service teachers who have not been trained and we advertised and took in about 2,000 this year for a two-year training. The others are undergoing a distance learning programme conducted by the NIE.

Therefore, in 2007 when this large batch finishes, we will be re-organizing the Maharagama Training College. Maharagama will then train teachers who are handling special education and also hold short term training programmes for all other teachers during school vacations. This is for continuous teacher training.”

Referring to pre-service teacher training, she said that when teachers are recruited now they go straight into the 17 national Colleges of Education, so when they join schools they are already trained.

The National Resource Centre located at Maharagama will only have a “demonstration and observation class” of children, specifically for the teachers to learn the techniques of handling such children, she explained, adding that the centre is being developed, with World Bank and UNICEF help, as a research centre of excellence in special education not only for this country but also for South Asia.

Special education is a compulsory component of teacher education. “Teachers will observe the children with special needs and learn how to teach them. There will also be training of teacher trainers themselves. We have established a Braille printing machine there now, so that all aspects of special education would be covered.”

What of gifted children? They too fall under the “special” category and their needs too will be looked into at the centre. With regard to fears among the Maharagama lecturers that they would be transferred out, she says only the excess staff would have to go to the other training colleges.

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