Millions of children with disabilities are missing out on education. Like me, they deserve to fulfill their potential

By Brina Maxino

Credit: Winston Maxino

When I was 9 years old, a psychologist told my parents I had a low IQ because I was born with Down syndrome. 

Seven years later, I graduated high school as class valedictorian. At the age of 20, I received a bachelor’s degree in arts with a major in history. Today, I am a pre-school assistant teacher, a Special Olympics Global Youth Ambassador and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. I am also the 2020 UNESCO Global Champion for Inclusion in Education.

I don’t think about what that psychologist said when I was a child, but I wonder how many children with disabilities are not fulfilling their potential because someone once said they couldn’t.

We can be more — and do more. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The recently released “2020 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report” (GEM) states that children and youth with disabilities are among the most marginalized and excluded people in the world. The same report says they are 2.5 times more likely never to attend school in their lifetime than other children. An estimated 650 million people are living with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region alone — this means millions of children are missing out.

Up to half of the roughly 65 million primary and lower secondary school-age children with disabilities in developing countries were already out of school before the Covid-19 pandemic. No country was prepared for Covid-19, but I feel more could have been done to protect children who were already marginalized before school closures began. 

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Recovery packages ignoring the disadvantaged won’t hold ground

By Stefania Giannini, Assistant-Director General for Education at UNESCO

The arrival of COVID-19 has driven wedges of inequalities to breaking point in all corners of the earth. Already, before the arrival of the pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean was the most unequal region in the world. And if there have been recent gains in poverty and inequality reduction in the region, the ramifications of today’s global health crisis risk sending them into reverse. As we celebrate International Day of Disability, we must also remember the particular difficulties faced by learners with disabilities, who are disproportionately affected by the consequences of the pandemic. Even before schools close, learners with disabilities were 10 percentage points less likely to attend school than their peers. More than ever before, the world needs inclusive education systems, to respond to the pressure COVID-19 has put on learning for all, as much as to build resilience for future major challenges we may face.

© UNICEF/UNI358857/Ijazah

Learning outcomes were low before COVID-19 with only half of 15-year-olds achieving minimum proficiency in reading, and the marginalised particularly at risk of falling behind.  Online platforms have been an obligatory education response to school closures, and have been particularly impressive in Latin America, yet still less than half of households in the region have access to internet or a computer. Most distance learning platforms have not been designed with learners with disabilities in mind. To the pre-existing inequalities already challenging education systems in the region, therefore, the pandemic has brought additional risks of enhanced learner marginalisation and disengagement. Without urgent action, we risk losing touch altogether with the poorest communities, those with disabilities, many migrant communities, and boys, particularly in the Caribbean.

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Children with disabilities are still often excluded from education

Today, December 3rd, marks the annual celebration of persons with disabilities. It is a reminder of the importance of removing barriers to education for all people living with disability, both visible and invisible.

As many readers will know, the latest global GEM Report, and its regional version for Latin America and the Caribbean, focused on inclusion and education, within which the rights of those with disabilities were flagged as a concern. This blog highlights some of its core findings that we hope will be top of policy makers’ to-do lists.

Definitions: When discussing inclusion, most would agree that universal access to education is a prerequisite, but there is less consensus on what else it means to achieve inclusion in education for learners with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities focuses on where children are educated, which helped mark a break away from segregation, but full inclusion involves many more changes in school support and ethos than just school placement. Including children with disabilities in mainstream schools that are not prepared, supported or accountable for achieving inclusion can intensify experiences of exclusion; it can even provoke backlash against making schools and systems more inclusive.

No schools in Burundi, Niger and Samoa, for instance, have ‘adapted infrastructure and materials for students with disabilities’, as per SDG global indicator 4.a.1. In Jamaica, a survey of 10% of schools in the country concluded that only 24% had ramps and 11% had accessible bathrooms. While several countries have made curriculum accessibility a priority in their efforts to achieve inclusion, others still teach students with disabilities a different curriculum altogether.

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School-related gender-based violence impedes inclusive education of good quality

English / Español

By Constanza Ginestra, Nicole Bella and Matthias Eck in the GEM Report team

Today we celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women, something which also takes place in educational settings. Today is also the start of the 16 day campaign against violence against women, run annually from November 25 to December 10 (International Human Rights Day). Earlier this month we also celebrated the first ever International Day against Violence and Bullying at School, including Cyberbullying. To mark these occasions, we share some findings of our recently released GEM 2020 Gender Report on the prevalence of school-related gender-based violence worldwide and measures to prevent and address it.

School violence is complex, multifaceted and highly gendered

School-related gender-based violence involves acts or threats of sexual, physical, or psychological violence occurring online, in or around schools. These categories overlap with each other, and they are rarely developed as isolated events. They tend to be deeply rooted in unequal gender relations, gendered social norms and discriminatory practices.

Girls are more likely to experience sexual violence perpetrated by classmates and teachers. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls reported that male teachers demanded sexual favours in exchange for good grades, preferential treatment in class, money and gifts. In Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique, girls stated it was difficult to decline teachers’ proposals as they feared retaliation.

Boys are more often subject to physical violence. Globally, 45% of male students reported being involved in a fight compared to 27% of girls. In most countries, boys are also more likely than girls to experiencecorporal punishmentperpetrated by teachers. The prevalence ofbullying is even higher for boysin most countries.

Violence is often directed at those whose gender identity does not fit binary gender norms. In the United States, 17% of heterosexual students reported having been bullied, compared with 24% of those unsure about their gender identity and 33% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students Similarly, in the United Kingdom evidence shows that 64% of transgender students were bullied due to their gender identity.

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Education policies and practices continue to fail girls over early pregnancy

English / Español

By Nicole Bella, Matthias Eck and Constanza Ginestra

Early pregnancy has been identified as a critical driver of school dropout and exclusion, especially for girls. Twenty-five years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a landmark blueprint for women and girls’ rights, recognized this, calling upon governments to remove all barriers to accessing formal education for pregnant adolescents and young mothers. As we celebrate the anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, what progress has there been on this issue, and what remains to be done?

Credit: UNESCO/Arete/Victor Jules Raison

Globally, the prevalence of early pregnancy declined by one-third between 1995 and 2020, from some 60 to 40 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. Yet, early pregnancy rates remain high in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where, despite an overall fall over the past 25 years, rates remain at levels higher than the 1995 regional average in countries including Chad, Mali and Niger. Although it is still early to assess the impact of Covid-19 on adolescent pregnancy, restricted access to reproductive health services and increased vulnerability of girls at home due to confinement measures may also threaten the progress made.

The GEM 2020 Gender Report released last month looked at progress on protecting young mothers’ right to education since 1995 in three countries, Argentina, Sierra Leone, and the United Kingdom. In Argentina, the adolescent fertility rate fell from 61 in 1995 to 49 in 2018. In the United Kingdom, this rate has more than halved, declining from 42 to 18 between 1995 and 2017. Similarly, in Sierra Leone, the percentage of young mothers fell from 34% in 2008 to 21% in 2019.

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Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Education for all

By Senator Dr Gertrude Musuruve Inimah, Kenya Parliament, representing persons with disabilities, and co-chair of the International Parliamentary Network for Education

Inclusion, the theme of the Global Education Monitoring Report 2020, is another way of saying ‘Education for all’. Both the connotative and inferential meaning of this theme is that education is mandatory and a right for everyone and no child should be denied of it because of race, gender, abilities or socio-economic background. It is also the principle that I have dedicated my life to achieving as a teacher, university lecturer and author of books on sign language for learners and teachers guides. My latest book, my autobiography, which is yet to be published, titled: From Cancer to Disability to Parliament, is a tale that depicts that, whatever one goes through, education is a social, political and economic game changer. Acquiring a disability as a result of cancer treatment did not stop me from reaching out to the world to encourage, mentor and be there for those who might be going through the challenges and pains I went through.

As a Senator in the Parliament of Kenya, representing persons with disabilities, I have always legislated on inclusion of persons with disabilities in education and the world of work. I have lived in both worlds and I am alive to the discrimination and exclusion that people with disabilities face. I experience societal discrimination as well, despite the fact that I am a parliamentarian.

Image: J. Mcgeown/hi

Parliamentarians in partnership to deliver the promise of SDG 4

It is important to deepen parliamentarians’ understanding of the importance of leaving no one behind. Growing and deepening political understanding of, and commitment to, inclusive and equitable quality education for all will accelerate progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4. Parliamentarians help create policies and laws that could make the promise of SDG 4 achievable after all.

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Les écoles rurales en France : les oubliées de l’inclusion ?

English / Français

Par Jean-Luc Massalon, ex-directeur d’école, coordinateur d’Unités localisées pour l’inclusion scolaire (ULIS) avec la collaboration de Daniel April (Rapport GEM, UNESCO)

L’inclusion n’existe que par manquement ; ce n’est que parce qu’on a au préalable exclu que l’on peut envisager d’inclure. Dans le secteur de l’éducation, d’aucuns sont exclus pour leur sexe, leur origine ou leur obédience religieuse ou politique. D’autres le sont en raison d’un handicap physique ou intellectuel ou par le milieu socio-économique dont ils sont issus. Le lieu d’habitation peut aussi être un facteur d’exclusion et limiter l’accès à des services publics de qualité. Cela peut être vrai dans les zones périurbaines, dans les quartiers délaissés et les secteurs ruraux comme dans le cas à Ponthoile, dans la Somme (France), avec la fermeture de son école primaire en 2018.

Mobilisation autour de la fermeture de l’école de Ponthoile

Ponthoile est une commune française (615 habitants en 2017) située en région Hauts-de-France. Son école primaire a fermé ses deux classes en 2018 à la suite d’une décision de l’Inspection académique de la Somme. La raison officielle de la fermeture était le manque d’effectif, bien que le nombre d’élèves inscrits était en hausse entre 2017/18 (24 élèves) et 2018/19 (30 élèves).

Activité de mobilisation : Les élèves anonymes et uniformisés devant leur classe disparue. Photo : Karine Michaux

Suite à l’annonce de la fermeture, les parents, les élus et les enseignants ont multiplié les tentatives de médiations, déposé un recours au tribunal administratif et mené un travail de revendication à connotation culturelle. Ils se sont mobilisés pour emballer l’école à la manière de l’artiste Christo, avec l’objectif de « cacher pour mieux révéler » et écrire des slogans inspirés de l’œuvre de Magritte. L’ancien cinéma du village renaissait aussi symboliquement pour la projection du film « Cinéma Paradiso », qui met en lumière la disparition d’un espace culturel dans un village.

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Rural schools in France: how inclusive are they?

English / Français

By Jean-Luc Massalon, former school principal, coordinator of Localised Educational Inclusion Units (ULIS) with the collaboration of Daniel April (GEM Report, UNESCO)

Inclusion doesn’t exist by default, it is only when someone is excluded that inclusion becomes an issue. In the education sector, people are excluded because of their gender, origin, religion or political affiliation. Others are excluded because of their physical or intellectual disability or because of their socio-economic background. Location can also be a factor of exclusion and can limit access to quality public services. This is particularly true in peri-urban areas, neglected neighbourhoods and rural areas as in the case of Ponthoile, France, a village whose primary school was closed in 2018.

Mobilisation around the closure of the Ponthoile school

Ponthoile is a French commune located in the Hauts-de-France region. The town’s population stood at 615 persons in 2017. Ponthoile’s primary school closed its two classes in 2018 following a decision by the Inspection académique de la Somme. The official reason given was that there was a decrease in enrolment, although the number of pupils had increased between 2017/18 (24 pupils) and 2018/19 (30 pupils).

Protestors: Students protesting in front of their school. Image Karine Michaux

Following the closure, parents, elected officials and teachers made numerous attempts at mediation, filed an appeal with the administrative court and carried out advocacy work. They wrapped the school in the style of the artist Christo, with the aim of “hiding in order to reveal” and using slogans inspired by the work of Magritte. The old village cinema was also symbolically re-opened so as to screen the film “Cinema Paradiso”, which focused on the disappearance of a cultural space in a village.

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The call for proposals for the 2021 GEM Fellowship is now open

We are pleased to launch the third round of the GEM Report Fellowship programme, which started in 2019, thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundations. The GEM Report Fellowship Programme supports researchers who aim to bring a fresh perspective to comparative and international education. It offers an opportunity to be part of a select group of researchers and scholars who are advancing knowledge in this field, while working with the GEM Report team.

The call for proposals for the 2021 GEM Report Fellowship is now open: applications should be received by December 15. The Fellowships will be expected to start on 1 March 2020.

Credit: zwenzini

Since starting in 2019, seven researchers have been awarded GEM Report fellowships. Each produces a background paper that is either linked to a forthcoming GEM report and its theme or to other projects that support the Report’s objectives. The outputs may also include other deliverables, ranging from databases and programmes to materials to communicate the findings and help reach out to policy makers at the national, regional or global level. Each fellowship lasts between 6 and 11 months. Fellows receive a stipend and are allocated a mentor from within the GEM Report team.

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Why laws and policies matter for inclusion

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.

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