Every child has the right to an education, writes Marytina Osuchukwu and Janice Ireland.
According to UNICEF, the Right to an Education is one of the most important principles in becoming a UN Convention Respecting School. Yet UNICEF estimates there are 93 million children worldwide with diverse learning needs, and they are amongst the most likely to be out of school, often facing barriers to education stemming from discrimination, stigma and policymakers decisions. UNICEF reports that ‘nearly 50 percent of children with disabilities are not in school, compared to only 13 percent of their peers without disabilities.’ (UNICEF, 2021). The long-term consequences of exclusion can be devastating, leaving children marginalised, and families aspirations for the future out of reach.
Six years ago, RA International School (RAIS) recognised that children in the local area with diverse needs contributed to the unacceptably high number of global exclusions. The school began an ambitious journey towards inclusion with a simple aim – to provide all children, regardless of their needs, with a right to an education. Year on year, this move has literally transformed lives and been the catalyst for outreach work which removes barriers and changes perceptions of physical and neurodiversity.
Education Consultant Janice Ireland and RA International School Deputy Head Teacher Marytina Osuchukwu reflect on how this UN Convention Respecting School has embraced inclusion in a remote setting with limited resources.
From exclusion to inclusion
RAIS is situated on Bonny Island, in the Rivers States of the Niger Delta. The school provides education to around 700 children between 3 and 12 years of age whose parents work in the Nigerian liquefied natural gas industry. The school is central to a close-knit community within a gated residential area. The nearest city is Port Harcourt, a boat ride or short flight away.
Until 2015, cultural sensitivities and stigma around physical and cognitive differences, coupled with a lack of specialist provision on Bonny Island, had created a group of children unable to access life outside of their homes. The RAIS leadership team acknowledged that change was urgently needed and mapped out a route to inclusion involving awareness raising, upskilling staff, and employing experts in the field of Special Education. Crucially, the school needed staff with compassion, resilience and adaptability, as well as a commitment to the project until it was firmly established and flourishing.
Initial small steps, involving less than five children with complex needs and one specialist teacher, has grown into a thriving Learning Support Unit within the mainstream setting. Today, the Learning Support Unit has 24 children between the ages of 6 and 11 years on roll, with approximately the same number in the mainstream benefiting from the unit’s expertise. The unit has four rooms, six specialist teachers, nine learning assistants, a speech and language therapist and is currently in the process of recruiting two additional specialists.
A respectful culture that challenges negativity and prejudice
The school’s respectful approach to inclusion ensures there is a balance of time in the Learning Support Unit for one-to-one and small group learning, alongside mainstream provision tailored to individual needs. Inclusion at RAIS means each child’s unique contribution is valued within a system where everyone learns and develops side-by-side.
Children from the Learning Support Unit are integrated into mainstream lessons such as art, music, physical education and computing, as well as sharing break times and events with peers across the school. School productions are an example of showcasing talent from across the whole school, and children from the unit have played musical instruments such as the violin and keyboards in school concerts. RAIS has a reputation for children excelling in Nigerian and international competitions and everyone is encouraged to participate. Recently a child from the Learning Support Unit entered and won an international art competition.
The school sees first-hand the benefits of inclusion for children and adults alike, and challenges negative attitudes and prejudice towards those with differences. It’s unthinkable that until recently some children were excluded from education and social events.
Learning in Partnership
RAIS works in partnership with doctors and nurses in a small company hospital situated in the residential area. The hospital helps to facilitate additional support from visiting therapists which cannot be resourced on Bonny Island. With limited access to specialists, such as occupational health and physiotherapists, this external support is essential for children with multiple physical and cognitive needs.
Staff are fully committed to their own professional development, with many self-funding courses and workshops led by internationally-recognised experts across the spectrum of Special Education. RAIS teachers believe that by continuously improving their own knowledge, skills and understanding they will help children access the best possible Individual Education Programmes within the local context.
For RAIS, learning support goes beyond implementing a programme during the school day, and helping children gain life skills that can be applied outside of school is a vital aspect of the curriculum.
When COVID-19 closed the school in March 2020, staff knew they would need to work closely with parents so that children were provided with real-life opportunities to use and develop the skills they had learned in school. Teachers offered workshops, supplied resources, and organised virtual meetings with families to ensure that no child’s learning stood still. After a year of remote learning, the results are remarkable and have exceeded expectations. Children are applying life-skills in everyday tasks at home, and parents are seeing their children as capable individuals with varying levels of independence.
Transition from RA International School
With no secondary provision at RAIS, a move to mainland Nigeria or overseas have been the only available options for children transitioning from the Learning Support Unit. This hurdle can sometimes mean leaving one parent working on Bonny Island whilst the other relocates with the child.
Realising the impact this has on families, RAIS embarked on a dynamic outreach programme involving local schools, organisations and families to raise awareness of diverse learning needs, and to demonstrate how it’s possible to provide support on Bonny Island. As Marytina explains, “How can children demonstrate respect and have an awareness of individual needs, if adult role models don’t do this at home, in the workplace or at school?” As a result, RAIS staff have provided workshops to local teachers and children, emphasising that whilst some individual needs can be seen, others such as dyslexia are invisible. Helping the Bonny Island community to embrace diversity and challenge exclusion is slowly reaping rewards.
Green shoots of the trailblazing approach are emerging, with a school on the island now working towards inclusion and offering places to children from the Learning Support Unit.
“We will continue to raise awareness on Bonny Island,” says Marytina, “our outreach work is just the beginning of making inclusion possible beyond the gates of RAIS.”