Laws and policies determine the framework for achieving inclusion in education. Hence the reason for launching the Profiles Enhancing Education Reviews website, PEER, which contains country profiles of laws and policies on areas specific to SDG 4, starting with inclusion.
Last week we launched the 2020 GEM Regional Report for Latin America and the Caribbean. Analysing laws and policies on inclusion from the PEER website showed us that, in spite of continuing efforts and international human rights law obligations, building inclusive education systems continues to be a challenge in the region. About 60% of countries in the region have a definition of inclusive education, but only 64% of those definitions cover multiple marginalized groups, which suggests that most countries have yet to embrace a broad concept of inclusion. More commonly, countries’ inclusive education laws target people with disabilities or special education needs, rather than applying to all learners. We found similar results at a global level, leading to us calling our Report All means all; inclusion in education cannot be reached one group at a time, it must refer to all learners, no matter their background, identity or ability.
Similarly, mapping out laws on inclusion from across the region shows that many countries have adopted a broad perspective on inclusion, although most tend to focus laws on specific groups. In 95% of countries in the region, for instance, we found that education ministries have issued laws focused on people with disabilities.
Looking at inclusive education policies, meanwhile, we also found that region is relatively advanced. Of the 32 countries in the world that have an inclusive education policy, 7 are in the region. Take Chile, for instance, which created the School Integration Programme to improve education quality for students with special education needs. Admission is based on an assessment by education and health professionals. Interventions depend on the type and degree of disability.
We found that education policies issued by education ministries tend to target disability, gender and ethnicity in particular: covering people with disabilities in 31% of countries, gender in 43%, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples in 56% and home language in 59%, the final two well above the global averages.
In more than half the countries in Latin America, education policies target indigenous, Afro-descendant and linguistic minorities under the labels intercultural bilingual education, self-education or ethno-education. In Peru, for example, the 2016 policy on intercultural and bilingual intercultural education aims to improve access, retention and completion at all education levels, to implement pre- and in-service bilingual intercultural teacher education programmes and to promote decentralized management.
That said, policies also address the education rights of other marginalized groups. The number of policies on the education rights of migrants and refugees in the region has increased, for example, especially since the crisis in Venezuela that began in 2016.
From paper to practice
While the PEER website aims to create a hub of policies and laws on inclusion and education, it does not aim to analyse their implementation. This is where the analysis in our global and regional reports come in. This week’s regional report showed that several countries in the region have not effectively fulfilled their commitments. Country experiences reveal that the realization of inclusive education requires more than sound legislative and policy frameworks.
Governments sometimes equivocate on the extent to which inclusion laws commit them to include students with disabilities in mainstream schools, for example. In 2018, in spite of its inclusive education law, Chile still had more than 2,000 special schools, catering for 5.1% of all students. In Nicaragua, inclusive education is one of the 2017–21 education plan’s strategic priorities, but one-third of about 10,000 students with disabilities were in special schools in 2019.
In addition, laws promoting inclusion may coexist with vague or contradictory regulations. Circular 18-2011 in the Dominican Republic mandates inclusion but does not specify that undocumented students and immigrants must be included in secondary schools. In Colombia, migrant students might be able to take the secondary graduation and tertiary education entry examinations without valid identification documents, but they must have those very same documents to receive their results.
Effective implementation of laws and policies depends on strong governance structures and adequate financial resources, learning environments and materials; trained teachers; and school leaders who work with communities and their organizations, students and their parents, each of which are analysed in the global and regional 2020 GEM Reports. This requires political willingness and commitment to include those furthest behind. It leads to the conclusion that only when all the pieces are in place will inclusive education be realized. It is time for this to happen.