Wednesday, 6th February 2013 at 1:15-2:45, UN Secretariat, New York
Welcome statement by the Chairperson, Ambassador Jarmo Viinanen, President of the UNICEF Executive Board
Honorable Ministers, Executive Director Mr. Anthony Lake, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to warmly thank UNICEF for this opportunity to take part in today’s discussion, not only as President of the Executive Board of UNICEF but also in my national capacity.
I’m pleased to inform you that the Finnish Minister for Development Cooperation, Ms. Heidi Hautala has chosen education of disabled children as one of Finland’s priority objectives for 2013. Finland also enjoys strong ties with the countries in the Central and Eastern Europe and CIS region, some of which are represented here today. I look forward to sharing experiences and working together with all of you to advance this important agenda.
To kick off the conversation, please allow me to say a few words about the Finnish experience in advancing inclusive education both at home and abroad.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In Finland, we have always been educating the whole society – girls and boys, rich and poor, disabled and marginalized children. Basic education is completely free of charge, including also school meals and materials, health care and commuting. The school network is regionally extensive and a great deal of emphasis has been given to the quality of training for motivated teachers.
The principle of non-discrimination of people with disabilities is enshrined in the Finnish Constitution. We firmly believe that a child has the right to education irrespective of ethnicity, sex, language, religion, economic background – or disability.
Finnish education policies went through major reforms in the 1990s, leading to an inclusive education approach where special needs education is integrated into regular education as far as possible.
Several changes were introduced. To name a few, the number of special schools decreased (the seven remaining state-owned special schools now function as development and resource centers on inclusive education), separate curricula for special education was abolished, statistical data collection was improved, and models to teach and prevent exclusion of pupils were developed.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Inclusive education is not always an easy task. A wide basic education network that supports the right of every child to attend a mainstream class in the nearest school is of crucial importance. The local school’s possibilities to teach a pupil with special needs are always explored first. Only when this is not feasible the provision of special needs education in a special group, class or school will be considered. Focus is on earlier and more intensive support and prevention of problems before a decision on special needs education is made.
In our experience the role of teachers becomes even more central and requires considerable investments in teacher education. Societal change requires teachers to meet children, young people and their parents, as well as colleagues, as co-operative partners. The Finnish teachers are educational professionals (all have higher university degrees) who have been entrusted with a great degree of independence in the class room. Schools have likewise enjoyed substantial autonomy in organizing their work within the limits of the national core curriculum.
Equal rights and positive discrimination have to be fully embraced by the leadership of the school, beginning from the headmaster, as part of everyday school work.
Equal rights and inclusion does of course not only cover children with disabilities. To support the inclusion of the Sami people, Finland’s indigenous people, the state provides day care and language learning and teaching materials in Sami for the young Sami children. We have also seen that sharing information about Roma culture to the teachers and other school staff, extra support for encouraging Roma students if needed and maintaining contacts between the school and the Roma families, have made major improvements in the field of Roma education and diversity in schools.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the past 10 years, Finland has shared its own experience and supported inclusive education initiatives with a focus on disabled persons in Africa and in the Western Balkans. Finnish support has contributed to changes in attitudes and practices towards inclusion and the concept of inclusive education has been introduced widely. However, theory and practice still have to become a lived reality in schools and among all stakeholders in order to have sustainable impact. There is also a need to consider how equal rights would be guaranteed also after basic education.
I would like to pay particular tribute to UNICEF, who has played a key role in human rights based inclusive education development in the Western Balkans and elsewhere. UNICEF is also an active partner in the UN Partnership for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), supported also by Finland, where inclusive education has been one of the issues high on the agenda.