The 2003 National Policy on Disability defines inclusive education as the capacity of the education system to respond to the diverse needs and abilities of all children, regardless of their disabilities, by adopting a learner-focused educational approach. The 2009 proposal for a New Education Act for General Education broadened the definition, recognizing that inclusion is about the child’s right to participate in schools, rejecting segregation or exclusion of learners based on their ability, gender, language, status, family income, disability, colour, religion or ethnic origin. Not only does the concept of inclusive education refer to the absorption of disabled children into mainstream education, but it also imbues the right of education for all, specifically for deprived children and those at risk of exclusion.
Special education needs
A review of educational opportunities available to children with disability, conducted in 2002, revealed that the term ‘special needs’ rarely included children who have disabilities; the focus was rather on children with psychological, social and economic problems. The 2003 National Policy on Disability intentionally replaced the expression with the term ‘disability’.
The proposal for a New Education Act, drafted by an ad-hoc national committee, identified six vulnerable categories as target groups for inclusive education: economically disadvantaged children, disabled children, displaced children, children in the plantation sector, street children and children under institutional care.
Depending on the type of educational provision, the categories may vary. The 2010 National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People, for instance, targets disadvantaged women, people with disabilities, disadvantaged youth, the poor – including people in plantation, rural and urban poor areas – internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ex-combatants, and migrant workers.
The 1978 Constitution, as amended in 2015, establishes that education is provided in state schools, namely regular schools, and in specified schools, including special schools.
Special schools provide education to children with disabilities, such as those with visual impairments, hearing impairments, and physical and/or mental disorders. Children with mild disabilities can enrol in special education units in regular schools or in regular classrooms. A special centre for children affected by autism, located in a suburb of the capital city, acts as a national model centre.
Individuals with severe disabilities who are unable to participate in special schools are entitled to receive education at home or at a community centre through community-based programmes under the supervision of peripatetic (itinerant) teachers.
Four categories of student settings were identified by the Ministry of Education in 2014: special units of the schools, inclusive mainstream classrooms, special schools and special resource centres.
Alongside regular education, religious education takes place in Pirivenas, or monastic colleges. Pirivenas receive government grants to cover teachers’ salaries and facility maintenance and provide education at all levels, including higher education. The standard curriculum is enriched with training in Buddhist studies and classical oriental languages, such as Pali and Sanskrit. The Education Sector Development Framework and Programme (ESDFP) 2013–17 dedicates a specific section to Pirivenas and aims to increase grants to these institutes.
The 1997 General Education Reform requires the needs assessment of every child entering primary school through the Standard Assessment and Record Form, with parental involvement, by both a medical officer and the teacher. Assessment should be continuous up to primary education completion. Access to higher education is bound to the submission of a medical certificate and, in case of disability, to a medical interview. Even if they are admitted, only a limited choice of courses are available to students with disabilities.
The 1978 Constitution, as amended in 2015, enshrines the right of all persons to universal and equal access to education at all levels (Art. 27.2[h]). It also prohibits any form of discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion or place of birth (Art. 12.2).
The final report on the New Education Act for General Education, submitted in 2009, was the first legal framework referring to inclusive education and identifying specific target groups beyond disabled children. In parallel, the Child Friendly School (CFS) concept, launched in 2002 in partnership with UNICEF, has created a conceptual framework to address disparities in access to and quality of education. Based on a rights-based, proactively inclusive and gender-responsive approach, the child-friendly school framework was also integrated into the 2013 Education First Policy and the ESDFP 2013–17.
The 2003 National Policy on Disability represents the most comprehensive and holistic framework in the disability sector, promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. In relation to education, the policy refers to education provision either through inclusion in ordinary classrooms or in special education units attached to ordinary schools.
In the education sector, the 2009 final report on the New Education Act for General Education recognizes the necessity to identify and quantify the needs of these learners, acknowledging that adequate settings and educational personnel have to be prepared accordingly. The 2010 National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People acknowledges the inadequacy of the policy implementation measures to enable persons with disabilities to exercise the right to technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The strategy therefore calls for a review and an expansion of the occupational and training choices in vocational training centres, a strengthening of career guidance, and sensitization and special training for disabled people. The 2013 Education First Policy endorses the principle of inclusion in educating children with special needs and affirms that wherever appropriate these children are encouraged to learn in normal classes.
The ESDFP 2013–17 emphasizes equal rights and equality in all aspects of life and the principle of mutual respect. Gender issues have also been addressed in programmes on school infrastructure enhancement through amendments to legislation concerning early marriage and through a focus on providing adequate sanitation facilities for girls. Yet, gender imbalances persist in enrolment in vocational programmes. To address this gap, the 2010 National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People intends, for example, to establish childcare services in association with networks of local childcare service providers and to provide flexibly scheduled vocational training and a participation allowance for economically disadvantaged mothers.
Ethnic and linguistic groups and indigenous groups
The 1978 Constitution, amended in 2015, established that Sinhala and Tamil are the official national languages of the country (Art. 19). The medium of instruction in higher education institutions can differ from a national language (Art. 21).
The 2013 Education First Policy intends to introduce programmes to recruit teachers of diﬀerent ethnic and cultural backgrounds and encourage schools to increase the number of extracurricular activities to allow children from diﬀerent ethnic and linguistic groups to mix together. The Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration has played an active role in promoting the local Sri Lankan languages. The National Language Project, implemented in 2011 as a joint initiative with the Government of Canada, goes in that direction, promoting respect for linguistic diversity and language rights.
Vulnerable youth and street children
The 2010 National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People, which targets namely disadvantaged youth, young people with low educational levels, and workers in the informal sector and in Free Trade Zone factories, mostly coming from rural areas, acknowledges the existence of barriers to access TVET. In response, it intends to increase the number of rural vocational training centres and to enhance professional development through life-skills training and catch-up education. Marginalization of young people outside education does not depend solely on poverty. Gaps between policy and practice have been reported to negatively impact their education opportunities. The Catch-Up Education (CUE) initiative, supported by UNICEF, targets children who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, including internally displaced children.
While the number of centres taking care of street children has declined, the Community Learning Centre programme has been implemented to promote their education with the assistance of the government and non-government organizations.
Children of resident labour families
The plantation community is considered a disadvantaged group. Schools are often located in remote rural pockets, or in new settlement areas along the coast and amidst overcrowded urban dwellings. Schools have been established in the plantation areas thanks to the support of external donors. The 2009 Proposal for a New Education Act for General Education highlighted that more schools with different subject streams should be provided for children living in plantation areas in order to offer more educational opportunities at the upper secondary level.
The National Committee for the Formulation of a New Education Act proposed to provide all children of poor parents with a pro-poor subsidy scheme to encourage participation in education. It also proposed a teacher development and transfer scheme to encourage teachers to serve disadvantaged schools. Along these lines, the government has set up a package of welfare services for pupils, including provision of free textbooks and school uniforms, subsidized public transport to travel to school, free medical services, including dental care, and midday meals for primary children in disadvantaged schools.
Internally displaced persons and ex-combatants
Due to past conflict, many internally displaced persons and ex-combatants have been disengaged from mainstream education and most of them are considered semi-literate. Recognizing them as a target group, the National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People intends to facilitate TVET participation and retention by offering supportive services, such as financial assistance, career guidance, counselling and psychosocial services.
The majority of migrant workers have limited education and many lack recognized qualifications. In this respect, the National Strategy on TVET Provision for Vulnerable People intends to ensure policy coherence and institutional coordination between TVET and migration policy to plan effective strategies within their respective frameworks. An important benefit for female domestic workers is an educational scheme that has provided them with pre-departure training and awards a certificate from the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment. A policy gap has emerged concerning children whose mothers have migrated for labour purposes, who are more at risk of dropping out.
Cooperation across sectors
At national level, the National Policy on Disability established an Inclusive Education Unit within the Ministry of Education to supervise the education of children with disabilities through all levels of schooling and carry out tasks related to educational reforms, policy, planning and monitoring. The National Council for Persons with Disabilities plays an advocacy role and coordinates sectoral and cross-sectoral strategies for the disability policies with other ministries and relevant stakeholders.
Besides the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs is involved in the implementation of compulsory education regulations through the Compulsory Attendance Committees and the District Development Committees.
Cooperation across government levels
The responsibility for education provision has been shared by the central government and the provincial councils since 1987. Each province has its own council and a provincial ministry of education, assisted by a provincial secretary of education. The provincial department of education under the provincial director of education manages the schools. All local actors share the responsibility for the implementation of special and non-formal education programmes and for their monitoring and evaluation. The 2003 National Policy on Disability planned to involve inclusive education zonal officers in the monitoring of inclusive education implementation and in reporting to the director of primary education in the province and the Inclusive Education Unit of the Ministry of Education.
The ESDFP 2013–17 introduced a new bottom-up planning process. Schools and local and community stakeholders are also involved in the design of annual school development plans with the intention of giving voice to the needs of disadvantaged groups.
Complying with the 1997 education reform, schools infrastructures have been improved according to quality inputs to make schools accessible to all children, including classrooms, playgrounds and toilets. The Education First Policy intends to fill gaps in infrastructure facilities to meet national norms.
The 2003 National Policy on Disability recognizes the need to extend the right to benefit from subsidized travel to people living below the poverty line and to people with disabilities.
The primary education programme is designed to make schools child-friendly – that is, rights based and proactively inclusive, gender responsive, and attentive to children’s learning outcomes and to the creation of a healthy, safe and protective environment. The curriculum for secondary education was to be diversified to meet different learning needs. Schools have the freedom to adapt the curriculum to the local environment.
The National Institute of Education designs and develops curricula for general and teacher education and provides professional development. It has therefore prepared materials for teacher training on inclusive education, which was introduced in one of the National Colleges of Education (NCoEs). Yet, the 2003 National Policy on Disability previously established that all NCoEs should include a module on the inclusion of children with disability and that teacher centres should provide continuing education on the topic for all teachers.
Short-term training programmes on inclusive education are provided for regular class teachers and for in-service advisors as preliminary and continuous professional development. The 2003 National Policy on Disability only institutionalized such training for primary education practitioners. However, the policy called for training on inclusive education for trainers of trainers, for inclusive education zonal officers, and for education administrators and school principals.
Local experiences have been reported in the city of Mirigama, where a three-year course was introduced for resource teachers and a two-year training course for special education teachers takes place at the teachers’ college in the Colombo suburb of Maharagama. Since 2004, a professional development programme in special needs education has been offered at the Open University of Sri Lanka and is provided at National Colleges of Education in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.
The Ministry of Education provides annual reports. In addition to an annual performance report, it produces an annual report on Quality Assurance in School Education.