Why special education in India needs ‘top-to-bottom’ reform

Special education: Unclear policies, poor-quality teacher training, lack of funds and monitoring continue to fail disabled children

Special education needs funding and planning. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)Special education needs funding and planning. (Representational Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sheena Sachdeva | February 23, 2024 | 07:36 PM IST

NEW DELHI: In July 2023, Anita Sharma admitted her three-year-old son with autism spectrum disorder to a private school in Ghaziabad, believing its claims of being an inclusive institution for children with special needs.

Within three months, the parents were asked to withdraw the boy from school due to its inability to cater to his needs. “Time and again, Amit was excluded from different activities. At lunchtime, he was taken to a different room where he was supposed to eat alone. He was not treated well by the special educator in the school who constantly pointed out his behaviour. She could not understand children with autism behave differently,” said Sharma. Names of both the mother and the son have been changed on request.

In September 2022, the Right to Education Act, 2009, was amended to prescribe maximum pupil-teacher ratios for children with special needs. The law now mandates one special educator for every 10 children with special needs for Classes 1 to 5 and for every 15 children in Classes 6-8.

The amendment followed a 2021 Supreme Court judgement ordering the union government “to notify the norms and standards of pupil teacher ratio for special schools and also separate norms for special teachers who alone can impart education and training to Children with Special Needs (CwSN) in general schools”.

Despite these, change on the ground has been slow and piecemeal due to the lack of clarity on policy and implementation, poor-quality teachers and training institutes, and slow recruitment processes across states.

According to the Office of Chief of Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, as per the 2011 Census, 54% of disabled children with multiple disabilities and 50% of children with mental illness never attended educational institutions.

Around 1,500 municipal schools in Delhi have hired around 1,900 special educators but proper implementation will take time, said a special educator trainer working with the Directorate of Education, Delhi, asking not to be named. In private schools, even in those claiming to be equipped and inclusive, the situation may actually be worse.

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Special education: Policy confusion

Somya Bathla, a former special educator with the Directorate of Education, Delhi, pointed out that the RTE amendment was not followed by detailed instructions. “There has been no detailed regulation or comprehensive guideline on how to operate based on the revised pupil-teacher ratio,” she said.

The department allocated two special educators as per the strength of children with special needs in a school, but children have varying disabilities. The Department of Persons with Disabilities lists 21 types of disability and finding special educators for all but two of them is a challenge.

“Children have varying disabilities and there has been no consideration of this factor [in policy] and hence, it is difficult for schools to maintain a 1:10 ratio. There has been no consideration of classification of disability, no feedback or redress system. Even if the implementation happens, do the children get attention properly in the class? In practice, implementation is still a concern,” she said.

The Directorate of Samagra Shiksha, Jammu and Kashmir, advertised 69 posts for special educators in December. “According to reports, there are around 5,000 children with special needs studying in government schools in the state. But if there are so many children, will 70 special educators be enough?” asked Zaheer Jan, child and disability rights activist and founder chairman, Save The Destitute Foundation. “Despite all the judgments and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, and Right To Education Act, 2009, implementation is only on paper.”

21 diverse disabilities

While there are diverse disabilities, the sector is treated like a monolith. “There are 21 diverse disabilities accepted across India and each disability has their own requirements. But the issue of disability is seen as one homogenous problem,” said Abhishek Kumar who works in disability rights.

“In a class, teachers are not able to cope with each child’s disabilities and learning is really not happening,” admitted Durga Chandran, a special educator with a Pune NGO. “Majority of the cases we receive are school dropouts. They have been taxed with the education system and by the age of 12-13, the child is frustrated.”

Special educators: Number, quality, training

Bathla said that although the number of good quality special educators in Delhi’s government and municipal schools has increased, the system still needs at least five special educators per school. At present, most have one to three.

However, this may be restricted to Delhi. Experts from Kolkata, J-K and Uttar Pradesh reported a lack of good-quality special educators. “The RTE Act gives a disabled child the right to join a mainstream school and the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 reiterates it. But the problem is teachers are not well-equipped,” said Shampa Sengupta, a disability rights activist.

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Usha S Chaujer, an expert in inclusive and remediation education, former member of focus groups at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), and an expert with the Rehabilitation Council of India which regulates training in special education, echoed the others on the problem of quality. “This problem stems from the lack of good institutes training special educators in India. There are only a handful,” she said, reiterating the need of funding for good quality teacher training institutes and rehabilitation centres. “The implementation has to be done by RCI and NCERT with proper monitoring. The system needs to change, from top to bottom.”

Special education in private schools

Some private schools have been more proactive. Snigdha Shikha Pattajoshi, special educator at Vasant Valley School in Delhi, said that while they already had special educators, the school hired more after 2022. “After the amendment, Vasant Valley has developed its own modified CBSE curriculum in collaboration with the Directorate of Education for children with special needs to make the course simpler and easily understandable, and many private schools have started to use them,” she said.

But again, implementation is in pockets. In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, private schools don’t even have qualified special educators. “Many people pursue degrees and certificates of special education but are not able to deliver properly,” said Mansi Kapur (name changed), who taught in a school in Kanpur. Even private schools advertising themselves as “inclusive” are not, and have no special curriculum or services.

Many even refuse admission to children with special needs. Sanchita Verma (name changed), who teaches at a special school in Pune, said: “In reality, private schools deny admission because they don’t have special educators. Most parents of children with disabilities have to fight a lot for their rights, from admission to inclusion to easy curriculum.”

That fight may leave the children even more vulnerable. “If a child has a disability, he or she is already excluded. Then, when you question the system on the rights of your child, it takes a toll on the child’s education,” said Shameer Rishad, founder, Javed Abidi Foundation.

Rural schools, low pay

The situation is worse in rural India where the lack of awareness is pervasive and disabled children tend to drop out. “Special schools are more of a big city phenomena. In rural areas or smaller tier-two and three cities, there are no special schools. Students hardly have any option,” she added, with particular reference to West Bengal.

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Private schools in these areas pay teachers so little “they eventually lack the willingness or motivation to teach children with disabilities”, added Kapur.

Funds and planning

“After the Supreme Court judgement, education must become accessible for children with disabilities. But in every state, the main thing comes down to the funds aspect,” said Rishad.

Advocate K Paremeshwar, who fought the Supreme Court case leading to the 2022 judgement, said: “We figured out that there were no teachers in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. There is no way states can keep those posts vacant. Every district in the states must have some number of special educators so that the RTE Act doesn’t become an illusion for children with special needs.”

Recruitment requires careful planning. “1:5 is an appropriate pupil-teacher ratio,” said Bathla. “This should be mapped with a review and feedback system.” The type and degree of disability should be recorded first and accordingly, educators must be deployed to schools. “There has to be some mechanism of planning and structure that should be done before implementation,” she added.

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