Integration creates opportunity

October 14, 2013

“Coexistence is best learned in an integrated setting.”

English translation of Nora L. Ritok’s op-ed piece “Esélyt adó integráció” appearing in HVG, 12 October 2013, (no. 41), pp. 72-73

Coexistence is best learned in an integrated setting. It’s not as simple as this, I know. The issue is much more complex from afar, especially when it plays a significant part in a parent’s decision which school to enroll their children in. In [Hungary’s] education system the issue of integration is raised primarily in connection with two groups of students: when considering the unique educational circumstances of so-called “special needs” students, and in issues of Roma integration, where students are coming from severely disenfranchised homes. Each group has its own distinct characteristics and challenges. Both require a unique educator employing custom methods of approach.

When considering the academic integration of students with “special needs” there are examples throughout Europe that have shown the benefits of integration. One such case can been seen in the Hungary-based “Children’s House” alternative schools (Gyermekek Háza alternatív iskolák). The methods employed by such organizations could be utilized on a much larger scale were there willingness to do so and financial backing. However, the same cannot be said with regard to integrating severely disenfranchised students. Coming into the education system from severally disenfranchised social environments the abilities of these students are often underdeveloped.

The state-run Hungarian education system was never known for its ability to provide equal educational opportunities, especially not of late. In the past, so-called Hungarian specialists opposed educational inclusion claiming that it fostered an environment of inequality. Today they argue that inclusion only widens the gap between students.

People tend to think about this issue in the “extremes” as illustrated by the perceived threat of providing an inclusive educational system. However, teachers know that children are open to each other and that a child’s attitude and prejudices are greatly influenced by adults.

Generalizing the plight of these disadvantaged children effectively denies them any opportunity to advance in education and develop vital social skills.

The benefits of inclusion are evident on many levels. Studies performed around the world have yielded results proving the benefits of educational inclusion and its effects on students’ personal development. Unlike students educated in homogenous learning environments students in diverse groups are able to develop their own personal abilities more thoroughly and address their own weaknesses much more effectively. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize the importance of adequately developing child’s social competencies: confidence, tolerance, and solidarity.

To really understand the importance of developing these competencies one must actually work in an segregated community where interpersonal skills and inter-community relations have a profoundly strong effect on personal development. The “negative” traits of this community, that is, those traits that do not conform with the values of mainstream society, are inherited by the children because they follow their parents’ examples. Segregating these communities does nothing to help. Instead, it fuels a vicious circle that only magnifies the problem as time passes. If the circle is not broken its consequences on that community (and society at large) will be unimaginable.

It is important for the children and parents alike of these communities to learn, play, collaborate, and work with the children and parents of mainstream society. These abilities should not be the exclusive preserve of either group, either in theory or in practice. Our experience is that the effect is amplified one hundred times by the mutual sense of accomplishment.

I am reminded of a discussion I had with a friend of mine who is a sports coach and also happens to be against inclusion. While debating the issue I asked: “Do you separate the weak children from the strong, the impatient from the patient, the aggressive from the passive, and the losers from the winners?” “Of course not!”, he responded, “If I separated the children how would they learn to handle a soccer ball, throw, play together, deal with frustration, work together, be a team player? There’s no way to simply explain it. The children will be more successful if they see and take part in the process together.”

It’s important to work with a manageable ratio for inclusion to be successful. According to practicing professionals it is best if problematic students make up less than 30 percent of the class size. This number is optimal for ensuring the development of both groups. This ratio should be matched in social settings outside of school. Giving isolated minorities the opportunity to attend integrated schools by providing transportation on school buses is also possible if circumstances permit. There are examples of this taking place around the world. We should utilize every opportunity to include and involve the segregated minority in mainstream society, and vice versa. Opportunities such as these should be filled with activities and experiences that foster positive relationships – something both groups need.

We should not be constructing two different worlds.  We can’t avoid one another in life. It’s impossible to learn without fostering these opportunities for inclusion.