We need to invest in inclusive teaching and learning processes and not just changes to school infrastructure
Countries, with both developed and developing economies, need to do more to ensure that children with disabilities not only access education, but also benefit from quality education.
In England, while children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) access school, multiple concerns have been raised in relation to their learning and quality of life in school. The educational attainments of these children are significantly lower than for those without SEND at every level of the national curriculum.
In 2017 the Department for Education reported that, at Key Stage 2 level, only 14% of children with SEND reached the expected level for reading, writing and maths (in contrast to 62% of children without SEND).
Socially, there has been an increase in incidents of bullying and hate crime in relation to children with SEND and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children highlights that they are significantly more likely to face abuse. Official statistics note that children with social, emotional, mental health needs are nine times more likely to face permanent exclusion from school.
The World Health Organisation in collaboration with the World Bank recently emphasised that 15% of the world’s population, approximately 1 billion, live with some form of disability. Estimates for the number of children under the age of 14 living with disabilities range between 93m and 150m.
Across the world, people with disabilities have poorer health outcomes, lower educational achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is partly because people with disabilities experience significant barriers in accessing basic services, including health, education and employment.
Amongst these, education is paramount as it has significant economic, social and individual returns. Education has the potential to lift people out of chronic poverty. Accessing quality education can improve learning outcomes which leads to positive economic growth. The Global Monitoring Report calculates that if all students living in low income countries were to leave school with basic reading skills there would be a 12% reduction in world poverty.
Additionally, education has the potential to create more equitable and healthy societies. For example, evidence shows educating mothers reduces early births, lowers infant mortality rates and improves child nutrition.
Furthermore, inclusive education is integral to creating societies that are interconnected, based on values of social justice, equity of opportunities and freedom. The Sustainable Development Goals have given a considerable boost to this vision of "inclusive and equitable quality education" with significant international proclamations and national legislations being drawn up. Nevertheless, children with disabilities continue to remain the most difficult to reach.
Including children with disabilities in education systems, and ensuring quality education, is a moral and ethical commitment with considerable benefits both at the individual and national level. The International Labour Organisation estimates that the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the work force costs nations up to 7% of the national GDP. Other estimates from China suggest that every additional year of schooling in rural areas means a 5-8% wage increase for the person with disabilities.
While there is a long way to go, there is little question that educational access is on an upward trajectory in many low and middle income countries. According to official data from India over the last five years there has been approximately 16% increase in the numbers of children with disabilities enrolled in mainstream primary schools.
Nonetheless, children who are most like to be excluded, even in states with high enrolment rates are those with disabilities. They are also most likely to drop out before completing five years of primary schooling and are least likely to transition to secondary school or higher education.
Across the globe, learning for children with disabilities remains a significant challenge. In order to address this, we need to invest in inclusive teaching and learning processes and not just changes to school infrastructure. Teachers need better training and support underpinned by principles of inclusion. Significantly, children with disabilities must be respected as important partners in creating better schools for all.
The report has been produced for the World Innovation Summit for Education and will be presented this week at the summit in Doha.