National Education Minister Bambang Sudibyo recently said he was upbeat that Indonesia, with its heterogeneous population, would be able to create a strategy and make a breakthrough in implementing so-called inclusive education, the goal of which is to promote an inclusive society irrespective of social status, race, faith and ability, with differences being respected and valued.
He further stated that Indonesia's education policy is already in line with that developed by UNESCO, including education for all, long-life education and education for ongoing development.
But the minister refrained from explicitly disclosing how he planned to implement inclusive education in the country, and what kinds of breakthrough he would make.
The idea of unveiling inclusive education is certainly highly relevant to our current conditions, where differences in religion, faith, gender, ethnicity and ability are often seen as a threat rather than a source of richness and diversity.
However, inclusive education can be implemented only if its principles are taken into account in the policy-making process. These encompass citizens' inherent right to education on the basis of equality, exclusion from any kind of discrimination (race, color, sex, language, religion, ethnicity and social status), and respect for diversity and individual differences. It must be admitted that much of our education policy is often at odds with these principles.
Moreover, the number of students dropping out of school is getting higher, especially in poverty-stricken areas. Students are forced to leave school due to their parents' poor economic condition, and to work to help their parents make ends meets. This leads to the growing number of child laborers, which in turn leads to physical and psychological disabilities.
The majority of children living in remote areas are unable to enjoy schooling in proper buildings. Many of them study in dilapidated and makeshift buildings, and are assisted only by a few dedicated teachers.
Another serious challenge is the fact that most disabled people are still excluded from equal access to mainstream education. In fact, they have become the ones who are sidelined by an exclusive education policy.
A centralized education policy is an exclusively one-sided policy, which is often the main cause of segregation and discrimination. The case in point is the endlessly controversial national exam, which fails to accommodate students' diverse backgrounds and needs.
Also, curricula are not designed on the basis of flexibility and tend to be content-heavy. With such a rigid curriculum, students with special educational needs are excluded and even marginalized from mainstream education.
Other challenges abound, further encumbering the implementation of inclusive education here. It is not easy, for example, to limit the scope of inclusive education to be included in the curriculum. As a result, designing teaching materials that cover students' diverse needs and cultural backgrounds is problematic.
No less important a challenge is the lack of teacher training in dealing with students hailing from heterogeneous cultural milieu. Teaching students issues related to inclusiveness in all walks of live requires a special skill, which can be acquired through a specific training program.
For instance, it takes a special effort to teach students how to appreciate differences in culture, race, ethnicity and religion if the students come from belief systems and cultures where exclusiveness and homogeneity are highly respected and valued, and ethnocentricity is culturally rooted.
Implementing inclusive education here can only be viable provided that the minister is cognizant of these challenges and bases his strategies on them. It is also very important the whole society be prepared to accept the inclusive policies.
The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching, and has taught English composition for 10 years at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org