Inclusive Education in Palestine, a Journey for Everyone

Rasha Alshakhshir

Since 1948, Palestinians have faced many constraints because of the Israeli occupation. In addition to the sudden geographical shift and the lack of access to natural local resources, Palestinians face ongoing political and economic instability. Consequently, human resources are even more valuable and the basis for social growth, economic development, and cultural identity among Palestinians. Given these conditions, strong emphasis is placed on education as the most reliable path to human development in Palestine.

The vision of the Palestinian education policy is to provide students with sufficient knowledge and basic life skills needed to break the cycle of marginalization and enable them to become capable individuals. This aim is supported through provision of resources and opportunities for all children, and the policy also ensures that everyone has full and equal access to education services with the appropriate support of society, whether community centers, health organizations, or educational settings. Nevertheless, great challenges must be addressed in order to provide education for all, and providing inclusive education can be particularly challenging.

Why Inclusive Education?

Inclusive education represents the values, policies, and practices that support the right for every child to be included in a classroom, regardless of his ability, and to allow children to participate in all activities. Inclusive education removes barriers and discriminatory attitudes toward disability that can be formed by local culture and school policies. It goes beyond integrating students from special schools into mainstream schools and is more than addressing “special educational needs” emerging from a disability or difficulty in learning. Inclusion is about comprehensive education, equity, and belonging—inclusive education is about all the students.

Inclusive education identifies that students have diverse needs, and have the right to a response to these needs through child-centered education. This right may be supported through changes in curriculum or learning materials and styles, and collaboration from inside and outside schools to ensure equal, effective, and efficient practice of education for all.

As a result of continuous conflict in the region, the number of people with disabilities has increased in Palestine. In 2011, a Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey found that 7% of the overall population of Palestine had a disability, although there is no accurately updated database recording information on children with disabilities.

Palestinian attitudes toward disability can be varied, many taking either the medical or charity model approach. In the medical model, people with a disability are seen as the problem and are expected to adapt to the environment. The charity model portrays people with a disability as tragic figures who need to be helped. They also are perceived as having no active role or power within their own lives. Palestinian people with disabilities are demanding a change from such stereotypes, and seek to be more socially included through removal of barriers to participation in the environment and adoption of an inclusion ethos that emphasizes a more rights-based approach. Such a social model is essential to protect the right to quality education and access, to resources and support, and to real participation in schools.

Is Integration as Efficient as Inclusion?

Functional integration can be easily confused with inclusion, as many of our students have access to educational institutes but do not engage fully with the educational activities, curriculum, tasks, learning methods, resources, assessments, or extra-curricular activities.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) acknowledges that inclusive education requires changes at different levels. To meet international standards and design, policies to change resource allocation, teaching practices, curriculum, assessment, infrastructure, etc., are needed so education/schools can be flexible and adapt to the needs of every learner. Thus, inclusive and child-friendly education has been identified as a current priority by the MoEHE. Improving the quality of education not only refers to the classroom, but also to the whole school, making sure that all students have equal access in school and can actively participate in learning.

The MoEHE policy aims to focus on quality education by providing safe access to education, reviewing and updating the curriculum and textbooks, and enhancing teachers’ own education. While implementation faces many political and economic struggles, the MoEHE, with the support of UNESCO and its branches, plans to implement an “education for all” policy to promote quality education for all students, regardless of their gender, abilities, disabilities, backgrounds, or circumstances.

The term "integration" is used when working in special education and when discussing the development of inclusion. Integration is considered part of the development of a comprehensive community education, and an approach that values the diversity of an individual student within a group. Yet integration can be described as “additional arrangements” within a school system, which may not be sufficient. In contrast, inclusion aims to rearrange a school structure to respond to the needs of all students. Seeking systemic changes alongside providing support on an individual basis, the MoEHE adopted the “twin track” of addressing the barriers of inclusion and defining the specific steps to provide support and resources to children who face the danger of exclusion.

Many rehabilitation institutions showed impressive outcomes in including students with different disabilities, such as the Jerusalem Centre for Disabled Children, otherwise known as the “Amira Basma Centre,” in Jerusalem. The Centre has become a National Referral Centre for Palestinian children from the central and northern part of the West Bank and Gaza. It started as a school that only accepted students with disabilities who received rehabilitation at the Centre, but eventually began accepting many students from nearby neighborhood areas. Over the years, fewer children with disabilities needed to attend, as they either graduated or found access to schools in their own communities. This unique example of rehabilitation provides access and participation for many children, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, and gives opportunities for students to explore their roles as resource personnel to support inclusive education. This is the hope and vision for inclusive education in Palestine and can bridge the gap between existing legislation and current inclusive education plans and projects.

Montessori – Inclusive Approach (Constructive Approach)

The Montessori approach serves as a holistic approach for inclusive education in Palestine. The Montessori method of learning and teaching represents an inclusive ethos and beliefs. Active, hands-on activities that challenge the different kinds of intelligence can illuminate a road to including all people regardless their abilities or disabilities.

Maria Montessori listed characteristics of normalization as the following: the love of order, love of work, spontaneous concentration, attachment to reality, love of silence, freedom of choice, self-discipline, independence, and joy of work. She believed those “normal” characteristics of a child would arise when his developmental needs are met. From its beginnings, the Montessori movement celebrated diversity and differences as positive traits, rather than challenges, and focused on developing concrete strategies to overcome barriers and stereotypes.

It can be said that Montessori changed society’s view of children with disabilities from a medical model to a social one. She attempted to remove barriers by creating a structured environment, changing the curriculum, using interactive resources, and training her teachers. Montessori ensured that everyone was involved in her classrooms and was allowed to participate at their own pace.

Using the scientific method to research, and after several observations in state schools, Montessori moved on to use her methods with “normal” children. In 1907, she opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) for children from 2 to 7 years of age.

In Palestine today, the An-Najah Child Institute (ACI), a specialized institute at An-Najah National University, aims to provide quality diagnosis and management services to children with developmental disorders and provide training for health and education professionals by integrating academic training, research, and clinical services.

One of the units at ACI is the Montessori Kindergarten unit, which represents the first model for a working approach in early childhood education. This approach will be applied with children from differing backgrounds and abilities and plant the seeds of inclusion, which will be nurtured and sponsored by many other schools and institutions through collaboration and exchange of experiences and teaching techniques.

What makes this unit unique is application of the Montessori Approach, the child-centered approach that allows the child to interact with the environment. This environment is carefully planned and structured, with didactic materials to meet the child’s social, emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs, and the teacher’s role is defined as facilitator, observer, and caregiver.

In addition, ACI provides clinical service units that offer assessment, diagnosis, management, and rehabilitation services. The Montessori kindergarten unit is in the same building as other clinical units, therefore maintaining close collaboration with the institute.

Our Future Hopes

The MoEHE’s initiative to apply an ambitious education strategy in the midst of a strenuous political and economic situation is praiseworthy. The achievements in implementing these strategic plans are admirable and show a firm commitment to provide education for all students while responding to their needs. However, further development is recommended in several areas, such as the national curriculum, an inclusive education team, and enhancement of teachers’ capacity in delivering learning to all students.

While Palestinian inclusive education is still in its early stages, its experiences can serve as a model to other countries in the region.

Resources

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Ministry of Education & Save the Children. (2012). Policy for safe and equitable access to quality education: Targeting marginalized areas and groups [Online]. Retrieved from: http://resourcecentre.savethechildren.se/library/policy-safe-and-equitable-access-quality-education-targeting-marginalized-areas-and-groups

FPGUNC. (2013). Foundation of Inclusion Training Curriculm/CONNECT modules [Online]. Retrieved from: http://community.fpg.unc.edu/connect-modules/instructor-community/module-1/Training-Module-on-Early-Childhood-Inclusion

Booth, T., & Ainscow, M. (2000). Index for inclusion. Bristol, England: CSIE.

UNESCO. (2014). EFA package on inclusive and child-friendly education and early childhood development [Online]. UNESCO Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/ramallah/education/inclusive-education/

Montessori, M. (1983). The secret of childhood. London, England: Sangam Books.

Hawwash, M. (1998). Child to child approach to promote inclusive education. Presentation at the International Seminar on Inclusive Education, Agra, India. EENET. Retrieved from: http://www.eenet.org.uk/resources/docs/present.php

Montessori, M. (2008). Dr. Montessori's own handbook. New York, NY: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29635/29635-h/29635-h.htm

McKenzie, K. G. Z. V. S. (2012). A model for inclusion in early childhood classroom and beyond. Montessori Life, 24(1), 32. Retrieved from: http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/74109869/montessori-instruction-model-inclusion-early-childhood-classrooms-beyond

Karlsson, P. (2004). Toward inclusive education for all In Palestine. A follow-up study of inclusive project. Ministry of Education.

Alshakhshir, R. (2015). An appraisal of a Palestinian Montessori kindergarten and suggested strategies for promoting inclusive practice. Unpublished master's dissertation.