The 2017 Standards for Inclusive Education define inclusive education as ‘the process of valuing, accepting and supporting diversity in schools and ensuring that every child has equal opportunity to learn’. The 2019 draft National Education Policy has the same definition of inclusive education.
Special education needs
The 2012 National Policy on Special Educational Needs (NPSEN) specifies that children with special education needs include those who need additional supportive services due to difficulty in performing any activities compared to their peers, due to a barrier that prevents or hinders them from making use of education facilities and/or because there are gifted.
Until the beginning of the 1960s, monastic education was the only form of education provision. Based on independent curricula, learning environments, assessment and examinations, and standards, monastic education is still provided to impart spiritual learning and development.
The first special school was established in 1973 targeting children with visual impairments. Special education was expanded in 2001 through a pilot programme based on an integrated school for special needs education at Changangkha Lower Secondary School, Thimphu. In 2003, a school for hearing-impaired students was opened in Drukgyel Lower Secondary School.
As of 2018, there were 20 schools implementing inclusive and special education needs programmes, including two special institutes (Muenselling Institute for the Blind and Wangsel Institute for the Deaf). In addition, there are four non-government organizations working for persons with disabilities (Ability Bhutan Society, Disabled Persons Association of Bhutan, Draktsho Vocational Training Centre and Selwa). Currently, Bhutan has all three types of school organization or educational set-up – separation, integration and inclusion – due to difficult geographical terrain for accessible infrastructure development as well as lack of resources and capacity. More than 80% of the students with disabilities enrolled in school are in the inclusive learning system
Communities located in remote or mountain areas or populated by ethnic minority groups are acknowledged with a special status. According to their geographical location, schools are categorized as difficult (D), very remote (VR), remote (R), semi-remote (SR), semi-urban (SR) or urban (U). Due to their exceptional conditions, special provisions and considerations are made for schools located in those areas.
Beside the formal education system, non-formal education and community learning centres provide learning opportunities for local people, including literacy courses.
At the international level, Bhutan signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities in 2010 and is yet to ratify.
At the national level, the 2008 Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan mandates the state to provide free education to all ‘for the purpose of improving and increasing knowledge, values and skills of the entire population with education being directed towards the full development of the human personality’ (Art. 9). It also contains a general non-discrimination provision for all persons ‘on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status’ (Art. 7.15). Special protection is guaranteed to women (Art. 9.17) and children (Art. 9.18). The fact that education is as an inalienable right of all Bhutanese has been reiterated in the Vision 2020. The 2011 Child Care and Protection Act entrusts education institutions with the rehabilitation of children in difficult circumstances and with the provision of continuing education to those who have dropped out of schools (Art. 26).
At present, there is no legal document regulating the education system, although the need to adopt an education act was raised in the 2014–24 Bhutan Education Blueprint. However, a national education policy has reached an advanced stage of development.
The planned National Education Policy is a roadmap that aims to inform the reform of the education system. It aims to promote equitable, inclusive and quality education opportunities for all and recognizes the need to make schools more flexible and inclusive to accommodate the needs of all children, especially gifted and disadvantaged learners. The 2018–23Twelfth Five Year Plan also intends to provide inclusive education to all children, ensuring that no one is left behind despite disabilities, remoteness or economic disadvantage. The Plan intends to establish at least one school for inclusive and special education needs programmes in every district and municipality.
Drawing upon the Constitution and previous education policy documents, the 2019 draft National Education Policy provides overarching directions for the new education system based on the principles of education access, quality and equity. The policy calls for collaboration between the Ministry of Education and relevant government agencies for the enhancement of quality and inclusive education, in part through the provision of support for learners with special education needs. Economic background, gender and/or special education needs are taken into consideration for the provision of scholarships and access schemes for tertiary education.
A signatory of the Proclamation of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific Commission on Disability on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in 2008, Bhutan commits in the 2020 education sector strategy to ensuring access to and participation in education for all children with disabilities and special needs.
In 2012, the NPSEN was adopted, marking a shift in the approach towards inclusion in education. With the purpose of empowering every learner with special education needs and ensuring they have equal access to appropriate, enabling and responsive education, it calls for including or integrating children with mild to moderate disabilities into regular settings by providing them with support services, appropriate infrastructure and adequate teachers and support personnel. In the long term, the policy intends to make the education system more inclusive. The objective is to provide students with special education needs with specialized, appropriate educational services and facilities, including trained personnel, as reaffirmed in the 2019 draft National Education Policy.
With support from the Austrian Development Corporation, a National Policy for Persons with Disabilities was drafted in 2018 together with an action plan for its implementation. The Gross National Happiness Commission (Planning Commission) led the development of the policy, which was endorsed by the Cabinet. The policy includes a focus on adequate provision for education with an emphasis on inclusive education. Following the approval of the policy, a national action plan for implementation of the policy was also developed. In collaboration with UNDP, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, a workshop was organized to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in Bhutan, involving representatives of civil society.
The Ministry of Education has also developed the 2017 Standards for Inclusive Education, 2018 Guidelines on Assessment, Examination, Promotion and Transition for Students with Disabilities, the Ten-Year Roadmap for Inclusive and Special Education in Bhutan and the Communication for Development Strategic Action Plan to enhance access and quality education for persons with disabilities in the country.
With the general purpose of strengthening gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment, the 2008–13 National Plan of Action for Gender dedicates an entire section to education and training of girls and women, particularly at tertiary level and in technical and vocational education and training. More recently, the 2018–23 Twelfth Five Year Plan endorses a gender perspective and intends to promote gender equality, in particular bridging the gap of gender parity in tertiary education. The Educating for Gross National Happiness programme supports gender responsiveness in education through workshops on gender responsiveness and gender awareness and advocacy at school.
Several initiatives promotes girls’ access to education, such as the Youth Development Fund, which runs a scholarship scheme encouraging basic education, higher education and undergraduate courses for women and girls. The Tarayana Foundation also implements scholarship programmes specifically targeted at girls to pursue tertiary education.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
As established in the Constitution, Dzongkha is the National Language of Bhutan (Art. 1.8). The state is committed to preserving, protecting and promoting local languages (Art. 4.1). As reiterated in the 2019 draft National Education Policy, Dzongkha is taught as the national language in all schools in the country, while English is the medium of instruction.
The promotion of national and local indigenous languages is addressed in the strategic programmes of the 2018–23 Twelfth Five Year Plan. A programme implemented by the Dzongkha Development Commission is expected to map 18 indigenous dialects for their preservation.
People in rural or remote areas
The 2014–24 Bhutan Education Blueprint points out the need to overcome the rural–urban divide in terms of students’ learning achievements. More recently, the drafted National Education Policy includes a plan to provide learners residing in rural areas with free stationery.
At the national level, the Gross National Happiness Commission has played a leading role in bringing all sectors together for the development and implementation of the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, with the participation of representatives from the Ministry of Education.
Under the Department of School Education, a unit responsible for special education services was set up in 2000 and then upgraded to the Early Childhood Care and Development and Special Education Needs Division in 2011. It has played a fundamental role in scaling up targeted services for children and youth with special needs. In an effort to effectively implement the 30 goals identified in the Ten-Year Roadmap, the Ministry of Education formed a multisectoral steering committee for inclusive and special education in November 2019.
Zhung Dratshang (Central Monastic Body) is the only body responsible for regulating and managing monastic education. The 2019 draft National Education Policy invites Zhung Dratshang to collaborate with the Ministry of Education and other relevant government agencies for the enhancement of quality and inclusive education.
An independent agency, the National Commission for Women and Children, has the mandate to protect and promote the rights and interests of women and children. A Gender Focal Persons Network has been set up in all the government departments.
In 2012, a decentralized policy was introduced with the purpose of increasing school efficiency. The policy mandates principals with new instructional leadership activities and to establish a school management board.
As regulated in the 2019 draft National Education Policy, standard physical facilities are expected to include ‘appropriate furniture and teaching and learning equipment, learning support facilities such as libraries and counselling rooms, administrative facilities, water and sanitation facilities, games and sports facilities and equipment, as issued by the Ministry of Education or relevant agencies.’ The policy also specifies that schools must adhere to ecofriendly standards.
The Ten-Year Roadmap for Inclusive and Special Education has a specific goal of improving physical accessibility of educational institutions: ‘Physical accessibility is an essential element of enabling inclusive education. When planning for physical accessibility the Ministry of Education needs to consider retrofitting existing buildings and school grounds, as well as ensuring that the master designs for new construction enable accessibility, for all educational buildings, including hostels, WASH facilities and early childhood centres. The ministry needs to consider safety features for students with disabilities by planning for disaster. The ministry will also need to plan for accessible transportation.’
Monastic Lobdras and Shedras also need to meet standards for physical facilities, including functioning water and sanitation facilities, sporting facilities and administrative facilities, to ensure accessibility to all students regardless of age, gender, disability or climatic conditions.
Goal number 24 of the Ten-Year Roadmap for Inclusive and Special Education states, ‘appropriate curriculum is key to enabling all children to learn. The general curriculum must be flexible and adaptable so that most students can access it, while there is a need for functional curriculum for those with severe intellectual disabilities who will not be able to access an academic curriculum. Curriculum needs to have choice built in to enable students to study to their strengths. Specific curriculum adaptations are necessary for Deaf students due to language differences.’ In addition, there are several action points stated for adaptation and modification of the general curriculum for students with disabilities in order to fulfill the above goal.
Curriculum and pedagogy must be inclusive in terms of gender, special education needs, socio-economic background and geographic location, as prescribed in the 2019 draft National Education Policy. In particular, the curriculum is required to be flexible to cater for the need of all students to complete basic and higher secondary education and suit local contexts. A plan to reform and update the curriculum accordingly, to be implemented by the Royal Education Council, was highlighted in the 2018–23 Twelfth Five Year Plan.
Learning materials and ICT
The 2019 draft National Education Policy mandates the Dratshang Lhentshog (Commission for the Monastic Affairs of Bhutan), in consultation with Zhung Dratshang (Central Monastic Body), to support teachers with adequate and appropriate teaching and learning materials, including textbooks.
In 2013, an ICT roadmap was first rolled out in the form of a five-year Education ICT Master Plan, technically and financially supported by the Ministry of Information and Communications, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, Temasek Foundation, Singapore and Swiss Development Corporation. Revised with the technical guidance of UNESCO Bangkok, the 2019–23 iSherig-2 Education ICT Master Plan was adopted. With the purpose of implementing inclusive education and providing access to students with special education needs, the Education ICT Master Plan emphasizes the need to strengthen existing services by providing digital assistive devices and technologies. However, the focus of the plan is only on secondary school students with visual and hearing impairment.
The Paro College of Education has a module on special education for final year B.Ed students. The college has also recently introduced a Master of Inclusive Education for teachers teaching children with disabilities; the first cohort started in early 2020.
As highlighted in the 2012 NPSEN, teacher training is supposed to integrate a special education component in its programme. All schools that enroll children with special education needs are expected to have trained teachers in differentiated teaching and in needs assessment. The NPSEN further planned to equip inclusive schools with specialized personnel, such as teacher assistants, caregivers, counsellors and therapists.
In a study conducted in 2016 on teachers’ concerns and experiences, 69% of the respondents were not trained and equipped to teach students with special education needs. Enhancing teacher development and support is among the priorities of the 2018–23 Twelfth Five Year Plan, which calls for rolling out an 80-hour professional development programme to improve teachers’ knowledge and skills through in-service trainings and workshops, supported by scholarships and fellowships.
The Ministry of Education through the Special Educational Needs programme office organizes both short-term and long-term trainings and workshops for teachers of students with special education needs. As of 2019, all teachers in schools with special education needs programmes are oriented on the Standards for Inclusive Education, which is one of the first approaches to support schools to become more inclusive. While only a handful of teachers have master’s degrees in inclusive and special education or related programmes, more than 100 teachers are trained in inclusive and special education needs-related components annually by the ministry. Currently, more than 700 teachers who are teaching in schools with special education needs programmes have received either one or the other form of training thus far.
Bhutan provides annual education statistics.
The Ministry of Education has recently developed a module on special education needs and added to the current education management information system (EMIS). This module is expected not only to give comprehensive information on the enrolment of children with disabilities, but also to provide information related to other areas such as students’ achievement and transition, accessible infrastructure and facilities, professionals, and support from parents and the community.
Data are collected on the number of students enrolled in schools with special education needs programmes and specialized institutes, disaggregated by gender. Data for other groups include learners receiving monastic education and the girls’ enrolment rate. The new 2019–23 Education ICT Master Plan intends to develop an integrated and comprehensive EMIS based on new technologies to inform evidence-based decision making, updating the one introduced by the Ministry of Education in 2011.
Concerning gender, a monitoring system was piloted in 2015, focusing on responsive planning, budgeting and monitoring from a women’s rights perspective. A gender equality variable was also included in the Gross National Happiness policy-screening tool.