Before Easter I had the pleasure of visiting two schools in Japan to see their differing approaches to special needs education. I had applied for funding through The Goldsmith’s Grant for Teachers hoping to go out to Japan and showcase some of the good work we do at Clare Mount and fortunately my bid was successful.
Firstly, I was able to make contact with a Japanese colleague who works for The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games who agreed to spend a Sunday with me showing me around the sites for the forthcoming games, something I could take back to the PE department at school. Ryoko Kawabe was an excellent guide showing me the various sites (most of which were still at the early stages of construction unbelievabl) along with the athletes village while talking passionately about the legacy of the games and what it hoped to give back to the city.
Musashino Higashi Gakuen School (MHGS)
Musashino Higashi Gakuen School is actually a complex of schools set over 4 sites and during the time I was in Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to visit each of these establishments. At present, the total enrolment (kindergarten through high school) is 1578, of whom 467(30%) are autistic.
When the kindergarten opened in 1964, there happened to be one child who later was diagnosed with autism. Desperate parents of children with autism all over Japan knocked on the door of the kindergarten, believing that their sons and daughters would not be turned away and that they would be better off at MHGK than elsewhere. The condition of these children, however, seemed to regress when they finished the kindergarten and returned to their local schools that apparently could not handle them appropriately. As a result Higashi Elementary School was established. Six years later, Higashi Junior High School opened. Three years after the opening of the Junior High School, Higashi Specialized High School began as a preparatory educational school to help students prepare to integrate into society.
The school bases its education on the philosophy of ‘Daily Life Therapy’.
Daily life therapy is a form of specialised education for children diagnosed with autism. It consists of an intensive and highly structured educational programme based around three key areas: 1) Physical stamina building; 2) Emotional stability; 3) Intellectual stimulation. Pupils are encouraged to learn through an active approach with the focus on developing physical fitness, body co-ordination and emotional stability. The academic curriculum includes maths, science, social studies, technology and the arts. Most of the teaching is delivered via direct instruction in groups, with an emphasis on reciting and repeating words or copying the behaviours of the other students or teachers.
As so much of the school day features physical activity, students change into loose fitting sports clothing on arrival at school. They have space to leave their outdoor shoes swapping them indoor pumps and everyone has a pair of identical training shoes, provided by a multi-national sport shoe company. On each of our arrivals at the respective schools, we were given indoor slippers to change into. With the exception of the elementary all schools had their own top grade running tracks within the boundaries of the school (quite astounding in the city recognised as the largest in the world with 38+ million residents and space at such a premium). The elementary school did have its own third floor swimming pool until the major earthquake of 2011 suggested that this was not a good location as water cascaded down through the school below it and onto the outdoor areas! All classrooms had earthquake blankets and hard hats as well as clearly practiced earthquake procedures in much the same way that UK schools have a termly fire drill, unimaginable to us but in a country reported to have approximately 2000 earthquakes a year (10000 reportedly in 2011) one begins to see the importance. The facilities clearly support the physical element of Daily Life Therapy and students were well versed in either beginning or ending sessions with bouts of physical activity under minimal supervision. The Kindergarten was set up for prioritising outdoor and sensory activity too, much of it led by individual choice of the individual.
The Specialised High School and Junior High School visits showed students receiving 2 hours of choice education each afternoon focusing on the more non-academic areas of the curriculum. The emphasis was clearly on intellectual and emotional stimulation through art or ceramics, ICT, textiles or cookery.
This was of course, interspersed with the regular physical activity. Prior to the afternoon lessons however, all students were allocated jobs to clean and care for their own environment. The thinking behind this was that if you value the space where you work, then you value yourself as a person and what you can contribute.
I had the privilege of witnessing their annual celebration event, a joint stage performance by the Elementary and Junior High Schools focused on Physical Education and Musical performances by all students, key to all areas of Daily Life Therapy. There were some excellent demonstrations of physical co-ordination by the autistic students using both balance boards and stilts along with dance, gymnastic, basketball and budo (a martial art promoting emotional stability and self-regulation) demonstrations. This was supported by high quality musical excerpts involving violins, recorders, full orchestras and choirs. All of these seemed to have been rehearsed and choreographed in the many pre and post school clubs that all of the students were encouraged to attend. Few students attend activity clubs outside of school but with many not getting home from regular school until gone 7pm and then attending out of school clubs prior to the school day, this is not unreasonable.
Hirano Special Needs School
Hirano Special Needs School in Osaka was of massive contrast to Musashino Higashi Gakuen School in Tokyo. The school has only 55 students being very small (most other special schools in Osaka house around 100 students.) the student intake is from age 6 to 19 years old. All students have a physical handicap.
The ratio of staff : students is almost 1:1, 48:53 including on role three nurses and trained physiotherapists. The school is a day school with no residential provision. Students are bussed in daily with the exception of one child who is able to travel independently. The school is entirely state funded with 3 of the students receiving home-tuition because of their health issues. They have the support of one teacher each for 2 hours, 2 days a week.
Over recent years, so I was told, there has been a big push nationally in Japan for people with special needs to integrate into everyday society. This was evident at Hirano where the local mainstream elementary school neighbouring the special school had an access gate between the two sites. At break or recess times, students were encouraged to interact with one another on both sites.
The school day was shorter at Hirano Special Needs School than at Musashino Higashi Gakuen School reflecting the differing natures of the special needs. Buses began arriving in the morning at 9am with formal lessons beginning at 10.15am. Students started the day in a home room for registration and then dispersed from theere for their lessons. They return to the home room for lunch which is eaten all together with their respective form staff. Staff spend the whole time with the students without an official break until the buses return at 3.30pm. Staff then have a 45 minute break before continuing to work until 5pm. The students run on a 35 week year Monday to Friday. Unlike many Japanese schools where students will attend one or sometimes two Saturday sessions a month, Hirano Special Needs School is only o pen on a Saturday for special events or open days.
Throughout the day, a very detailed home school diary is completed by the staff working with the students. This includes what activities have been carried out that day, medical issues or medicines dispensed during the day, toileting records and food diary etc…. There is an expectation that parents will complete a section at home each night and the diary returned to school the next day.
Our guide for the day (to myself, Ms Maki the interpreter and Ms Yamaguchi from the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau) was the Principal Mr Ushimo. He greeted us and took us into the staffroom for tea which he made himself. The visit then took us to classes containing elementary, middle and high school aged children, many that were unable to offer verbal communication. Many of the students were really eager to meet with and interview an English teacher. I felt incredibly well received and the experience was most humbling. Mr Ushimo was very interested in the work we do back in the UK especially with the process of statementing for special needs and how we report annually to parents. It was good to be able to give a little back after all the wonderful experiences and receptions I had received during my visits.
May I express my thanks to those at The Goldsmith’s Company and to Mrs Webster and her team here at Clare Mount for supporting me and making this wonderful experience happen for me.