Reflections on work in Malaysia (Maria Reraki)

Malaysia is a highly multi-cultural country. Based on this, one would expect that a mutlifaceted society as such would be reflected in the way diverse and disabled learners are included and supported within the Malaysian education system.

However, education in Malaysia needs more inclusive developments. From a recent visit my colleagues and I had in the country, we realised that parents, educationalists, organisations, NGOs and individuals are concerned about the way people with disabilities are supported in the Malaysian education system. Although there are some schools that are doing exceptionally well with the implementation of inclusive practice, little is done in the majority of the schools, colleges and Universities and the needs of those with disabilities are not being adequately met. 

What I cannot stop thinking from this visit is the differences I noticed between a government and a private school. Our first day of presentations was at a government school which is one hour drive outside Kuala Lumpur. This is a rather big school with 70 teachers and 750 pupils. Most of the pupils and teachers speak the local language (Bahasa Malay). Some pupils with Special Needs are found in the school, but these are supported by Special Needs teachers usually outside the mainstream classroom. It was also interesting to find out that the learners with Special Needs are also a ‘special unit’ during breaks as they have limited contact with the mainstream learners. However, in the workshop my colleuagues and I did the school management and the teachers showed us that they were eager to learn more about the ways they can support learners with Special Needs in the classroom without having to exclude them from classroom activities. The presentations of the Birmingham team engaged the teachers in an all day workshop on behaviour management, reading difficulties, and video interactive guidance. When we left I had the feeling that the teachers wanted to find out more about the issues we talked about but were hesitant because of the language barrier. Perhaps if we send the slides well in advance next time, the language problems might diminish to allow for us to have more interactive activities with the teachers.

In contrast to the teachers in the government school, the teachers in the private school were all speaking English very well because the language used in the school is also English. I found the inclusive developments in the private school very well-established and the teachers well-informed on Special Needs education. A number of pupils with special needs attend this school: all of which are included and supported in the mainstream classrooms. Additional support is provided where needed. Teachers follow seminars, have easy access to resources and have contributed to the establishment of a rather inclusive and friendly school environment. In the Workshop my colleagues and I did, we felt that the teachers knew a lot about what we were talking about and were highly motivated to learn more.

Another striking difference in these two schools is the background of the teachers. Athough the majority of the teachers in the Government school are Malaysian, the teachers in the private school come from a variety of backgrounds (Brazil, Italy, India, Malaysia). This makes me think on whether this teacher diversity also affects attitudes towards inclusion and ‘different’ learners? Food for thought…

I must mention, however, that when comparing the two schools we should always have in mind that the funding in the Government school is limited; something that has significantly constrained the inclusive developments the teachers and the management want.

During our time in Malaysia we also visited an academy that has immigrant learners at various ages and stages. All the teachers in the school are volunteers and the parents are not paying for their children to attend this school. The students in the academy come from different countries and speak a variety of languages. English is the language used in the academy. The school management is interested in further inclusive developments. The academy’s manager noted that she was not aware of any special needs children. Maybe because these are masked by language and cultural differences. I think we have a lot to contribute to and learn from this school and this does not necessarily need to be SEN specific. 

Apart from school-level visits that gave us an idea about the current educational developments in Malaysia, we also spoke to stakeholders, NGOs, people from the Ministry of Education and parents. It was striking that in one of the Forums we attended, an employee from the Ministry of Education talked about how well the schools are doing on the support of learners with Special Needs in mainstream schools. This was very contradictory to what we had seen by that time in the schools we had visited. What is more, in the same forum, a mother of a child with special needs who was also an activist gave a very inspiring talk about the current situation in the Malaysian education system and how exclusive some school environments can be.

I think that the above contradictory views is an example of the gaps between policy and practice that are apparent in any country’s education system – including the UK. That Forum on inclusion also gave us further ideas about pontential areas of development for the inclusive education system in Malaysia with voices coming from parents, teacher and academics.

It was also interesting to attend a Roundtable on inclusion organised by some organisations in Malaysia that run a number of educational developments in the country. People from various backgrounds talked about educational projects that are implemented in some schools in Malaysia and have the potential to contribute to educational enhancement in schools. However, the talks of some presenters from South Africa also made things interesting as they discussed a number of educational initiatives that take place there. 

Due to my teaching background, I always enjoy talking to parents and learn about their children and their views of inclusion. This happened in one of the social events the Alumni office had organised for us. In this event, a number of parents of children with Special Needs gave us an idea of the current situation and their perspectives on where the system is lacking. It was interesting to see that their children’s needs have empowered those parents as they have taken initiatives to create independent organisations for the support of parents and children (e.g. Association for Down’s syndrome). This showed me the power and the influence parents can have in their children’s education and the bottom-up developments to inclusion that can happen from parents’ attempts.

So, different points of view, different voices and standpoints gave us an idea about what the current situation in Malaysian education is and what can be done next for inclusion to be enhanced. The feedback and the questions my colleagues and I had from the people we came in contact with certainly painted a picture about the areas that need further development but also areas we can learn some lessons from.  

What we did not manage to do in this visit is talk to the agents of inclusive developments, the learners themselves; these are the most important of all voices.

Perhaps next time…


Dr Maria Reraki presenting on identifying and supporting learners with dyslexia and reading difficulties.

Dr Maria Reraki presenting on identifying and supporting learners with dyslexia and reading difficulties.

Lessons learnt from the trip to Malaysia (Lila Kossyvaki)

I and my colleagues, Drs Matt Schuelka and Maria Reraki, visited Malaysia from the 23rd of November to the 2nd of December. The reason for this trip was to get an understanding of the current situation of inclusion in the country and, based on the local people’s needs and priorities, to come up with a valuable research project. During our stay there we delivered a number of workshops and we had meetings with practitioners, parents and policy makers. We also had the chance to visit a number of schools both governmental and international. 

Reflecting back on the trip, I find it hard to select the moments which impacted on me the most as it was a very intense and valuable experience overall. I have, perhaps, to start with our visit to the refugee school ‘Ideas Academy’. It was the first time I ever visited such a school and I was surprised by the fact that children who are legal refugees do not have access to local schools in Malaysia. Although I don’t believe that inclusion should necessarily mean mainstreaming (Hornby, 2015), I was shocked to see a school consisting of only refugee students, some of them very bright and with very good English language skills. The definition of inclusion as described by the teachers in governmental schools and Ministry representatives at the conferences we attended was another interesting point I keep from this trip. Currently in Malaysia, in order for a school to be inclusive they need to accept at least one child with disabilities. However, in most cases these children end up in different classes at completely separate parts of the school and they do not mix with Typically Developing (TD) children even at break times. Although we did not have the chance to see the inclusion practice in a governmental school (they had already broken up for holidays when we were there), from the descriptions of the local people it felt that inclusive schools are often in reality rather exclusive special schools within the premises of mainstream schools. It is not surprising, therefore, why the phrase I used in one of our workshops ‘Inclusion is a feeling, not a place’ (Goodall, 2018) made a great impression to many people in the audience. 

From the very memorable moments of this trip, it was exciting to see a number of parents from the Down Syndrome foundation who came to the UoB alumni event. None of these parents were UoB alumni but they were brought over by an alumna friend of them as they wanted to talk to academics from the Department of Disability Inclusion and Special Needs (DISN)and explore how we can support them. I had long discussions with a number of them and admired their efforts but also their vision to create a better world for their children while raising awareness in their country; in Malaysia there is a strong stigma associated with disability and most children with Down Syndrome attend home schooling. Last but not least, I have to mention the visits to Anyaman preschooland the Unique school. The former is an Early Years international school following the Reggio Emilia approachand the latter an all age international school with very innovative approaches in teaching but also assessing pupils. It was eye opening that there are hubs of excellent practice in which inclusion was achieved to a great extent. 

I left Malaysia full of excitement. Although I think that a lot needs to be done on public awareness and teacher training in terms of SEN and disability, there are settings in Kuala Lumpur which can have a pioneering and leading role in this effort. It was my first time visiting Malaysia and Southeast Asia and I was fascinated by the blend of ethnic groups and religions which co-exist in the country. I learnt a lot from interacting with locals, seeing provisions and attending conferences there. I believe there are some excellent opportunities to work with local settings of excellent practice to support the vision of inclusion and best quality education for all children as opposed to imposing Western views on the local stakeholders and settings. Although still a bit jet lagged and tired, I feel full of energy and ideas in order to put a comprehensive research proposal together to promote an inclusive educational system. I could not agree with Imray and Colley (2017) more that this can only be achieved within a diverse and inclusive society and raising public awareness on disability is a step towards this direction. 

Photos from the trip

Personalised symbols for students at the Unique school

Unique Learning Academy

Unique Learning Academy

Ideas Academy

Ideas Academy

Anyaman Preschool

Anyaman Preschool


Goodall, C. (2018) Inclusion is a feeling, not a place: A qualitative study exploring autistic young people’s conceptualisations of inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, online first DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2018.1523475

Hornby, G. (2015) Inclusive special education: development of a new theory for the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 42 (3): 234-256.

Imray, P. and Colley, A. (2017) Inclusion is dead: long live inclusion. London: Routledge

Introduction to the Project

This project was initiated by the Alumni Office at the University of Birmingham, at the personal initiative of alumnus Sue Yian Quek. Dr Matt Schuelka (who previously lived in Malaysia) traveled to Kuala Lumpur in April, 2018 to meet various stakeholders; engage with schools, teachers, and families; and cement a partnership between Malaysia and the Department of Disability Inclusion and Special Needs, School of Education, University of Birmingham.

The Malaysian Ministry of Education has set an ambitious target of full-inclusive for 75% of its students with ‘special needs’ by 2025. Currently, most students with disabilities in Malaysia are excluded from school, or relegated to special schools and classrooms. In other words, the current scenario is not very positive and there is much room for improvement.

In November 2018, Dr Schuelka and his colleagues will travel to Kuala Lumpur to engage more significantly in the promotion and development of inclusive education in Malaysia. They will give several workshops directly to teachers in schools, as well as participate in several forums on inclusive education hosted by RITE Education, Yaysan Hasanah, and the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative; which will allow a high level of interaction with major education stakeholders at the policy and structural level.

It is the goal of this November visit to come away with an engagement plan between Malaysian organisations and schools and the University of Birmingham moving forward. This is a developing and evolving project and partnership, and we look forward to sharing it with you as we go!

Dr Matt Schuelka in a focus group with parents and students.

Dr Matt Schuelka in a focus group with parents and students.