Successful inclusivity is different from inclusivity

In Malta, we have the wrong idea that if a child is in a mainstream classroom we ought to celebrate that because of some inclusion principle

In 2012, an interesting study was undertaken by Jennifer Hunt, a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University. The question was a simple one – what happens to native classmates when immigrant children are introduced into the classroom? Do they drag them down, do they cause them to excel more or is it a case of no negligible effect?

The research didn’t simply go into a broad generalisation but actually looked at different models being used in education systems. The result was as clear as it was predictable. If you have a proper process to introduce the immigrant child into the class, the results are positive for all.

What is a proper process and what do I mean by positive for all?

A proper process is focused on educational attainment and language. Research and, let’s face it, common sense tells us that if an immigrant child is thrown into the classroom without the linguistic skill-set to be able to follow along with his or her classmates then that child is at a huge disadvantage. This brings about a negative effect for all – the educator in class will have to spend more time with the child, or simply shut him or her down. Neither are good approaches. The educational attainment part seems to be more forgiving. If the child is close but not at the same level as his or her peers, there is a good chance they will catch-up but the point remains – they have to have a good grasp of the language to be able to do that.

The net outcome of having proper processes and systems in place is positive for all. Hunt’s research indicates that when these children are introduced into class in a systematic manner, after going through language programmes and remedying educational deficiencies, the result is positive both for the immigrant and natives.

These are challenges that we’re experiencing in Malta for the first time, but they are hardly new in the educational world. In the United States, a lot of work has been done on these themes due to Spanish-speaking children being introduced into English-speaking classes and they’ve learnt from experience how to optimise that process. There is a mountain of research that we can learn from in order to adapt to new realities.

In Malta, we have the wrong idea that if a child is in a mainstream classroom we ought to celebrate that because of some inclusion principle. That is completely misleading. If we have the well-being of a child truly at heart we do what is best for that individual, not what makes us feel good. In some cases, yes, that means a focused educational programme that, in this scenario, tackles language and attainment shortcomings. That child can catch up quickly, and join his or her classmates and learn even more things. How can you truly ask a child to learn about physics, biology and literature if they don’t have at least a moderate understanding of the language the subjects are being taught in? It’s not about inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake. The only inclusivity we ought to be interested in is successful inclusivity – one where both the child and the rest of the classmates are better off. In the inclusivity at all costs scenario both sides lose.

The worst thing we can do as politicians is shy away from these discussions. Whenever immigration is mentioned, people in political circles tend to freeze up, like they’re in court, to make sure what they say is within the cold and hot parameters. But the realities on the ground are begging us for simple solutions that can turn what could be a negative into a positive. These are the challenges we often refer to, and which educators rightly tell us make things more difficult and complicated.

As policymakers it is our job to create the right programmes to fit the needs of schools and teachers.

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