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Education Minister Promises Changes to Inclusive System

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Times & Transcript, Moncton, June 3, 2006.

Education Minister Claude Williams is promising changes will be made to the province's inclusive education system in time for students to see the effects this school year, but it remains to be seen what those changes will be.

Following a two-day forum with educators and community groups, Williams said a ministerial committee will now develop an action plan detailing how the province should spend the $5 million it allotted in the provincial budget to address Wayne MacKay's report on inclusion.

Williams also pledged to expand that committee to include representatives from community groups and the teaching community.

"I think now we have enough information to develop an action plan, which will allow us to ensure the future of our inclusive education system," said Williams.

In March, the province released Dalhousie professor MacKay's exhaustive 347-page report on inclusion, including 95 recommendations. New Brunswick is considered a leader in inclusion, having supported the practice of integrating students of all abilities in the same classrooms for about 20 years.

In his report, MacKay touches a wide range of issues, such as classroom composition, the need for additional teachers and specialists such as therapists, the mandate of government departments, and the need for smaller classes when possible.

MacKay also stressed that integrating children with disabilities in classrooms doesn't hamper the other students' academic abilities.

The $5 million won't be enough to implement all of the recommendations MacKay listed as priorities.

The report also attached timelines to the recommendations but Williams said the committee will develop its own deadlines.

Following the forum, MacKay said it's now time for the government to take action on the recommendations. "I think the next step needs to be a quick move to action," he said. "I think this (forum) was good but you could discuss these issues indefinitely. "

The committee will also have to try and find a balance between meeting the needs of teachers, who say they are over-worked and burning out, with parents of children with disabilities who are fighting for more services in the classrooms.

Harold Doherty, past president of the Autism Society of New Brunswick, said the views of parents were over-shadowed at the forum by the demands of administrators and teachers. Instead of focusing on financing, the committee needs to discuss the specifics of children's disabilities and how they can be best addressed within the school system, he said.

"There was some frustration, to be quite honest with you," he said.

First, there needs to be a common understanding of what inclusion actually means and a willingness to discuss what changes need to be made, said Doherty.

Inclusion has almost become a "religious principle" that people refuse to question, he added. "The idea that all children, specifically with mental disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism, (should be placed) in a regular classroom and (you can) make it work just by doing that is not supported by the facts, it's not supported by a professional study," he said.

"It's a philosophy, it's a nice belief, everybody's got good intentions, but there's not a whole lot of evidence that it's been working at this point in time."

Indu Varma, president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association, said the forum was positive, but urged the province to act quickly on implementing classroom changes. Teachers are stressed and leaving their profession because of the multiple challenges they face in the classrooms, she said.

More resources are needed to help teachers who are tasked with teaching a classroom of children who vary drastically in their abilities and talents. As well, teachers are struggling to deal with students who are misbehaving and kicking and spitting at teachers, she said.

One solution would be to establish "student services teams", which would intervene when a child is being disruptive. Another idea is to remove children from classrooms and not allow them to return until the behaviour problems are addressed, she added.