Many countries have moved towards a more inclusive education system – bringing in and supporting children with special educational needs in mainstream schools – since the 1994 UNESCO Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. The move towards inclusive education has been particularly difficult in developing countries that have other burning issues in their transitioning or stagnating economies and political arenas. Kazakhstan, being one such country, underwent many changes in all areas of life while establishing independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Education was recognized as a vital instrument of nation-building by Nursultan Nazarbayev – the country’s first, and to date, only, president. The prominence of education in the country’s nation-building is manifested through the creation of a network of 20 Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) that provide free education for the brightest students—who will then contribute to further economic development. These schools follow a special innovative curriculum accredited by the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The roots of inclusive education in Kazakhstan can be traced in various national legislative and executive documents listed in the Kazakh Inclusive Education Policy Document Database. Most of the early documents operated with the term ‘disability’ and did not mention the term ‘inclusive education’ as such, though this term has increasingly been mentioned in relevant policy documents since the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan about Education (2007). Almost a decade ago, the Open Society Institute highlighted some achievements in the development of disability support in education in Kazakhstan as well as the challenges to be overcome.
The NIS headquarters created guidelines for the development of inclusive education policies in the NIS network. A school that adopted its inclusive policy at the end of 2018 attracted our interest: we were interested in what the policy document was about as well as what school staff’s responses to it reveal about the state of affairs about inclusion at school in practice. We analysed the school policy document and interviewed six members of staff to gauge their responses: three teachers, the school psychologist, a school senior manager and the school nurse.
According to the senior manager, the school policy on inclusion was developed in cooperation with some members of the teaching staff, following the criteria developed earlier by the NIS headquarters. One of the biggest achievements in the development of inclusive education in NIS is the definition of SEN in the policy document. The definition is focused around learning difficulties and disabilities that impact learning and require special support from the school, which is in line with the meaning of SEN developed in international policy documents based on the UN Salamanca Declaration. In addition, this document briefly mentions gifted students. They are a separate category of students with SEN but it is noted that this category of students also needs special support. Another interesting aspect here is the way the term ‘inclusive education’ is presented in this document. It suggests that this is not only an emerging phenomenon in the Kazakh education scene, but that it is also a foreign idea. The word ‘inclusive’ in this document is not translated into the Russian word equivalent but it is rather is transliterated («инклюзивное»). The document explains the meaning of this term by references to French and Latin words with the same word-roots – including SEN children into mainstream schools.
The policy document lists a range different SEN support available in the school: extra time for assignments; reader’s help; scriber’s help; supervisor’s help; practical assistant’s help; supervised breaks; separate room for supervised work; right to read out loud; right to use a magnifying glass; help with recognizing colours. The document also spells out the process of identifying and recording children with SEN and who is responsible for this. The school principal is the main figure responsible for ensuring inclusive conditions at school. Vice-principals and personal tutors are responsible for coordinating the access of SEN children to education in the school, but basically all school staff are involved in providing SEN support: teaching staff, personal tutors, psychologists, school medical staff (e.g., nurse), the speech therapist, and a professional guidance counsellor. These people also liaise with children’s families and third parties to ensure the effectiveness of their work. Moreover, annual surveys with school staff, children’s parents, and children are a key internal accountability mechanism in the school.
The interviews that we conducted show two things about this policy. First, the policy document seems to be largely an encapsulation of the practices that had been developed by school staff in dealing with SEN long before the document came into force. This is particularly the case with identifying children with SEN, distributing this information among the teaching staff by students’ personal tutors, and providing SEN students with special assistance to ensure their academic progress: using different teaching methods and tasks and making adjustments for their assignments. The second important idea that the analysis reveals is that while all of the interviewees and their colleagues have dealt with students with SEN in their practice, there are differences in the general understanding of SEN and the support that students with SEN need. A couple of examples of such differences include: whether gifted children represent children with SEN or not; whether SEN is only about physical disabilities or also mental health issues. These differences in understanding may be attributed to a small percentage of students with SEN in this NIS – only 2%, as confirmed by the senior manager. Therefore, the school staff have not had a lot of experience of dealing with SEN (apart from gifted students) on a daily basis. Another reason related to this is the short time that has passed after the policy on inclusion has been issued. Awareness raising about inclusion among the school staff would help to develop a common understanding of the issue.
Iryna Kushnir, Leila Kaliyeva, Yuliya Yershova