The 2013 Education Act defines inclusive education as ‘the process of strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners and students and as an overall principle, guiding all education policies and practices starting from the fact that education is a basic human right and the foundation for a more just and equal society’.
Special education needs
Special education ‘means education or help from a special school, special class, or special service’. The 2014–19 Education Policy Framework identifies different people with special learning needs: ‘the physically handicapped (those who require wheelchairs, for instance), the visually impaired (the blind or near-sighted), those with hearing impairment (the deaf), those with speech defects, and those with intellectual disabilities. The category of those with special needs also includes the emotionally disturbed.’
According to the inclusive education coordinator in 2016, two primary schools in Tonga catered for children with disabilities within the normal classrooms (GPS Folaha and GPS Veitongo). The inclusive education pilot class commenced at Ngele’ia Government Primary School in 2007 with nine children. Currently, there is a special classroom in one mainstream school for educating children from vulnerable groups aged between 4 and 12. There are very few children with disabilities in mainstream classes. The 2013 Education Act states that: ‘If satisfied that a person under 19 years of age should receive special education, the Chief Executive Officer shall require the written agreement of the child’s parents that the child should be enrolled, before directing that the child be enrolled at a particular Government school, special school, or special class.’
Education of children with disabilities used to be taken care of by the extended family; however, such a policy has meant human potential has ‘remained undeveloped, owing to lack of access to education.’ In addition, according to the Education Act, the Ministry of Education must allow schools to be managed by non-government providers, particularly the churches. This system is being implemented in the Catholic school system in Tonga. There are also other centres (run by non-government organizations) that cater for children with disabilities.
The minister of education promulgates regulations establishing guidelines for early childhood education centres and schools in relation to the transfer of students with special needs into mainstream classes. In addition, the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework states that ‘students with physical and intellectual disabilities face impediments that make access to learning difficult, and as a matter of equity should be assisted to take their place in the formal education sector and develop fully as individuals.’ Two primary schools currently provide inclusive education for children with disabilities, namely GPS Folaha and GPS Veitongo. There are also some initiatives to promote inclusive education, such as a pilot programme at Ngele'ia Primary School in Nuku'alofa. Tonga’s Ministry of Education first introduced an inclusive education pilot class in 2007 with nine children. In 2009, 23 children with disabilities were mainstreamed into a primary school.
Several initiatives with the support of non-government organizations are also taking place to foster inclusion in mainstream classes. For example, in 2017 a team of volunteers began working with the Inclusive Education Unit of the Ministry of Education and Training in this respect.
Tonga has not ratified the UN Convention Against Discrimination in Education and the 2016 Constitution does not contain any provision regarding the right to education. However, Article 4 of the Constitution states that ‘no laws shall be enacted for one class and not for another class but the law shall be the same for all the people of this land.’ The 2013 Education Act states that ‘every child under the age of 19 years has a right to access quality education in Tonga, irrespective of the child’s gender, religion, socio-economic status, physical condition and location.’ It also states that ‘The Ministry should encourage access and equitable participation in TVET of students from disability groups, lower-income families, rural areas, outer islands, and of girls.’
The mission of the education sector is: ‘To provide equitable, accessible, relevant, and sustainable quality education for all Tongans that will enable Tonga to develop and become a learning and knowledge society.’ Over time, Tonga has elaborated the Tonga Education Support Program, whose main goals were to improve equitable access and quality of universal basic education up to year 8, to improve access to and quality of post-basic education, and to improve the administration of education and training.
The desired outcome of the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework is that all children aged between 12 and 16 have access to education services appropriate to their interests and abilities. A number of principles underlie the development of the Education Policy Framework, such as ‘be inclusive’. The framework also promotes valuing individual differences and states that everyone has the right to be involved in decision making in relation to themselves and their work and should have the opportunity to use their individual talents for the benefit of the people as a whole. In this regard, ‘different viewpoints and perspectives need to be heard and valued’ and focus should be put on the individual learner. The framework also aims ‘to improve equitable access to and quality of universal basic education for all children in Tonga up to Year 8’.
Different sources mention that the Ministry of Education and Pacific Regional Initiatives for the Delivery of Basic Education (PRIDE) collaborated to develop an inclusive education policy in 2007. This policy was endorsed and approved by the Director of Education and by the Cabinet in 2009. During the process of developing this policy, there has been consultation and collaboration with the Curriculum Development Unit, the Teacher Training College and the Pediatric Unit in the Ministry of Health.
The 2015–25 Tongan Strategic Development Framework identifies 8 national outcomes and 29 organizational outcomes which, working together, will guide the development of the Kingdom over the period to 2025. The link between the strategic development framework and the mandate of the Ministry of Education and Training is clear in the ministry’s 2017/18–2019/20 Corporate Plan and Budget through the national impact expected, i.e. ‘a progressive Tonga supporting a higher quality of life for all the people’. National Outcome C aims to create a more inclusive, sustainable and empowering human development with gender equality and Organizational Outcome 2.4 aims to improve education and training, providing lifetime learning.
Persons with disabilities include ‘those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. That said, Tonga has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Cabinet of the Ministry of Education adopted in mid-2003 specific recommendations made by the Tonga Education Sector Study team, including giving increased attention to the special needs of physically and intellectually disabled children. The 2013 Education Act states that ‘a child with special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) has the same right to enrol and to receive an education at a Government school as a child who does not.’ In this regard, one of the three main goals of the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework is ‘to improve the access to and quality of post-basic education and training to cater for the different abilities and needs of students.’ In this respect, the framework highlights that ‘the Government of Tonga, through the Ministry of Education, wishes to support the special needs of children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities by: recognising that these children and adults need to have access to appropriate educational opportunities, and by supporting policies to provide this support within the acknowledged resource constraints.’
According to the initial report submitted by Tonga in 2018 to the Committee of the Rights of the Child, a 2014–18 Tonga National Policy on Disability Inclusive Development was ‘being drafted by the newly established Social Protection and Disability Division of the MIA [Ministry of Internal Affairs] to set up coordination and align legislation with provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’. The national report submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 16/21 in 2018 mentions that on 6 June 2014 His Majesty’s Cabinet approved the 2014–18 Tonga National Policy on Disability Inclusive Development to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Tonga has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but the 2013 Education Act states that women have equal access to education. A national Gender and Development Policy was adopted in 2001 and reviewed in 2011. Tonga’s 2014–18 Revised National Policy on Gender and Development re-emphasized Tonga’s vision for ‘Gender Equity by 2025’. The Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning Project (PEARL) aims to help children, regardless of gender, to learn to read and write before beginning school, as well as to help develop skills important to their education.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
The 2013 Education Act states that the Ministry of Education shall ensure the production and dissemination of culturally appropriate developmental learning resources. It also affirms that ‘educational and vocational information shall be made available in the Tongan language and the English language.’ In this spirit, in 2012, the Ministry of Education launched a language policy for all Tongan schools. Tongan is now the only language used in all kindergarten schools and in primary schools from classes 1–3, but an exception is made for children whose mother tongue is not Tongan. English is the main language of instruction from grade 7. The desired outcome of the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework is that students at all levels will develop proficiency in the Tongan language and understand and speak English by the end of class 6, and will be competent in oral and written English by the end of secondary schooling. The language policy states that schools should provide appropriate diagnosis and support students with language learning difficulties. The policy is also intended to include provision for intensive retraining of teachers and development and distribution of learning resources in both Tongan and English. The Ministry of Education will also implement a reading recovery programme for students at risk who are aged about 6 or 7.
The 2013 Education Act states that the Ministry of Education shall ‘support for the development of new early childhood centres in areas where there is no provision, and expansion of the sector to improve access for vulnerable and disadvantaged children’. As highlighted in the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework, ‘the Government is also implementing the National Poverty Reduction Strategy ... which, among other objectives, targets increasing access to basic education and addresses the special needs of the least well-off.’
People living in rural or remote areas
Article 99 of the 2013 Education Act provides for compulsory education but also states that ‘it shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive suitable and efficient education by regular attendance at school unless there is no school within walking distance of the child's place of residence’; ‘walking distance’ means three miles measured by the nearest available route. In addition, the act states that in implementing ICT in the education system, the Ministry of Education should ‘make electronic resources available to schools, particularly schools in rural areas and in outer islands’. Finally, the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework identifies early childhood initiatives in local communities.
Displaced persons, migrants and refugees
Tonga has not ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The 2014–19 Education Policy Framework aims to serve the needs of secondary school-age children who may emigrate as adults, ‘ensuring that they have the skills and competencies required in a global economy’.
The 2014–19 Education Policy Framework encompasses all education sectors and goes beyond the formal education system to include all aspects of human resource development in Tonga. The policy framework states that ‘everyone in Tonga has a stake in the future of education (including employers, parents, students, teachers, Ministry of Education personnel, people in non-government education institutions such as the Mission Schools, other workers in the Government and the private sectors, and members of the community).’ In other words, ‘education is not the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Education and everyone in Tonga is and must be involved.’ The Ministry of Health carries out diagnosis of children with disabilities for enrolment, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducts task force programmes to raise awareness and promote the education of children with disabilities.
The Ministry of Education is the main institution responsible for inclusive education by ensuring that education is accessible to all. The ministry manages all of the government schools in the country at all education levels and ensures that the private schools within the country adhere to the national standards of education. However, ‘Roughly 80 percent of all primary schools and 90 percent of secondary schools are run by religious organizations.’ The Social Protection and Disability Division, established under the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2015, is the focal point for persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Women’s Affairs Division is responsible for covering gender issues. According to the 2013 Family Act, in particular, ‘The Minster may establish a Family Protection Advisory Council consisting of persons appointed by the Minister in accordance with subsection. The purpose of the Council is to act in an advisory capacity to the Minister to assure the safety of victims of domestic violence and to carry out functions set out in subsection. The Council shall consist of representatives of the Ministry, the Division of Women’s Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, Tonga Police, the Ministry of Education, the Forum of Church Leaders, and other relevant groups as the Minister thinks fit.’
The main role of the Ministry of Education is to empower other people through its leadership, its support of infrastructure and its assistance of those who are at risk of underachievement. The 2013 Education Act lists the responsibilities of the Ministry of Education in relation to children with special needs:
- Reviewing the school curriculum to ensure that it caters adequately for children with special learning needs, and make available appropriate learning materials and equipment for special education.
- Providing incentives to improve the qualifications of teachers in the special education field.
- Facilitating a baseline survey to ascertain the nature, number and extent of children with special needs.
- Establishing a central database with detailed information about people who have special learning needs, having due regard to privacy considerations.
- Providing assistance for children with special needs in existing schools.
- Ensuring policy development in the area of special needs and inclusive education.
- Enhancing budgetary allocations for school, technical and vocational education and training, and community development in inclusive education.
The Ministry of Education has an Inclusive Education Unit that works with the Peace Corps to serve children with special learning needs who are enrolled in mainstream schools and named an inclusive education coordinator. In addition, the Advisory Council for Education is a forum for dialogue between the government and non-government systems and a consultative body to advise the Ministry of Education on education policies and planning, legislation affecting education and any other educational matters.
Under the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework, the government is implementing a national strategy to strengthen the private sector. In this framework, the government indicates that it values the contribution of communities, non-government organizations and churches and acknowledges the contribution of international agencies. The 2014–19 Education Policy Framework follows several principles, such as to decentralize decision making where possible, delegate authority where possible, move gradually to increase autonomy for institutions and collaborate with other education partners.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for ‘development, maintenance and sustainability of infrastructure, facilities, resources and the school environment of government schools’. The 2013–23 Tonga National Infrastructure Investment Plan aims to improve water supplies for around 24 schools and colleges. Among the outputs highlighted in the 2019/20–2021/22 Corporate Plan and Budget of the Ministry of Education and Training are to improve the quality of schools’ environment to facilitate learning and develop a database ‘of the status of the infrastructure and the school environments, in relation to learning’.
Curriculum and learning materials
The 2013 Education Act states that curriculum development, content and review should be guided by the principle that the learning programmes are ‘inclusive of all students’ and recognize and respond to the education needs and interests of ‘all students including children with special needs, with disabilities, who are gifted, and of both genders.’ In this regard, the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework aimed at reviewing the school curriculum ‘to ensure that it caters adequately for children with special learning needs’. It also aims at making available appropriate learning materials and equipment for special education.
The Tonga Institute of Education ensures that the Tonga Institute of Education curriculum is strengthened in areas of diagnosis and remediation of children’s learning difficulties and working with children with special needs. There is also a Curriculum Development Unit in the Ministry of Education. This unit aims to ‘develop a curriculum framework which recognises that all students should have the opportunity to develop essential values, skills and knowledge through study in key learning areas [and to] ensure that schools provide learning opportunities that are enriching, enjoyable and challenging for all students’.
The 2013 Family Protection Act highlights in its Article 21 that “Programmes for preventing and reducing the prevalence of domestic violence may include, but are not be limited to ... educating officials about the importance of human rights and gender equality in the curricula of all levels of education’.
The 2019/20–2021/22 Corporate Plan and Budget of the Ministry of Education and Training mentions among its outputs the improvement of the quality and relevance of curriculum materials. Given the country’s high exposure to natural disasters, climate change and disaster risk management have been integrated into the primary (years 1 to 6) science syllabus and the junior secondary syllabus (years 7 to 8) in the ongoing curriculum review.
The desired outcome of the assessment policy described in the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework is that the assessment system ensures that each child performs to the best of her or his ability and does not discriminate against any student. Assessments are to be made to diagnose any learning difficulties and to indicate the direction of further learning that may be required.
The Tonga Institute of Education provides pre-service teacher training for special education teachers. New compulsory courses in inclusive education best practices were developed and ongoing professional development courses for current teachers began in 2008. In addition, the Inclusive Education Division of the Ministry of Education continuously provides professional development for early childhood teachers, primary school teachers and some secondary school teachers.
The 2014–19 Education Policy Framework identifies incentives to encourage teachers to improve their qualifications, including in the production and dissemination of culturally appropriate developmental learning resources. This was to be achieved through the provision of pre-service teacher training at the Tonga Institute of Education and the provision of in-service training and professional development programmes for existing teachers at the early childhood level. In addition, financial subsidies for access to the University of the South Pacific and other tertiary institute courses in early childhood education for future teachers wishing to work in this area in the community were to be provided. To formally support children with disabilities in schools, the framework foresaw several actions, including a special needs component in all pre-service teacher training; providing teachers of children with special needs with professional development opportunities and targeted in-service training to assist them to help each child with special needs; training of teacher aides who could provide individual assistance to children with special learning needs; the provision of incentives to improve the qualifications of teachers in the special education field, such as financial subsidies for supporting access to special education programmes for teachers of special needs children offered by tertiary education providers, including the University of the South Pacific; and making provision for training of special education teachers at the Tonga Institute of Education. The framework also advocated for the creation of a special education adviser position.
Based on the Tonga Inclusive Model for Education, the inclusive education teacher is available to teach children difficult skills ‘and provides the children with at least two teachers to help with curriculum problems.’ As such, while special needs students are attending regular classes, the inclusive education teacher can monitor classrooms and supports and consult with other mainstream teachers. For the support personnel, Tonga has special and inclusive education specialists who are mainly tasked with promoting and providing inclusive education. In addition, the Ministry of Health has physiotherapists who assist in rehabilitation and developing wheelchairs for children with physical disabilities.
The country's 2019 report on gender equality highlights that in 2018, the UN Population Fund and the Ministry of Health in partnership with the Tonga Family Health Association conducted a one-week training for trainers of peer educators on sexuality education, including sexually transmitted infections/HIV, gender-based violence and peer education guiding principles. In all, 28 youth leaders, health service providers and community educators learned basic concepts and guiding principles in dealing with adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and Secretariat of the Pacific Community have prepared a guide for teachers on teaching climate change in the Pacific Island region, setting out clearly the links between the issues addressed and the curriculum.
The 2019/20–2021/22 Corporate Plan and Budget of the Ministry of Education and Training mentions among its outputs improved teacher quality through in-service training and evaluation and improved teacher quality and teacher supply through teacher registration.
The 2013 Education Act states that the Ministry of Education shall facilitate ‘a baseline survey to ascertain the nature, number and extent of children with special needs (including those children currently attending schools, and those whose needs are too acute and who do not attend school)’. It also sets out to establish ‘a central database with detailed information about people (including children and adults) who have special learning needs, having due regard to privacy considerations’.
In parallel, the 2014–19 Education Policy Framework affirms that ‘the “culture” of information-based decision making will be developed throughout the system’ and ‘projections and indicators, comparable to international and regional norms and standards, will be generated and reviewed on a regular basis.’ It also planned that an initial educational management information system (EMIS) which would monitor indicators linked to inclusive education would be fully functional by 2019.
The 2019/20–2021/22 Corporate Plan and Budget of the Ministry of Education and Training aims ‘to establish an effective Monitoring and Evaluation System with the support of a functional Educational Management information system (EMIS)’.