Working in Bahrain
It was a long way, in every sense, from my native, drizzly Wales to the 33 hot, sunny islands of Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
I had qualified as a teacher of English and drama in 1971, then taught and lectured in all sections of education for 30 years. I entered special education with a counselling degree in 1984, then went on to teach the first statemented dyslexic children in Wales, gaining my RSA Diploma in 1987. I finally completed a psychology degree and worked as an assistant educational psychologist, before leaving Wales for warmer climes.
I first visited Bahrain in 2000. I returned in 2001 to marry and, as I then believed, to retire, a little prematurely perhaps at 50. After six weeks of sunbathing by the pool Bahrainis and ex-pats started to ask me for help and advice with their children.
Bahrain’s system of education is two-tiered, with both government and private schools. The government schools are free, and cater mainly for the local Arabic-speaking population. The schools in the private sector are fee-paying, and the curriculum, either British or American, is delivered bilingually in Arabic and English. Schools operating a British curriculum tend to use English as the language of instruction with Arabic taught as a second language. These schools cater largely for the ex-pat community. Special needs has been a much-neglected area of the curriculum in all sectors of education in Bahrain. This was largely due to a lack of public awareness and expertise in the field. Bahrain has made rapid development in every area of modern life over the past eight or nine years. Special education and psychology have matched this progress.
To give some examples, psychology is now recognised as distinct from psychiatry. The term ‘Children with special or additional needs’ has replaced the label ‘mental retardation’. Psychology is now being taught at the Arabian Gulf University, in Arabic so, inshalla, knowledge and awareness will spread in the local community.
I have had to learn to apply all my skills and past experience in several fields of education, psychology and counselling, sometimes wearing several hats at a time. My work involves the assessment of individual needs; counselling for troubled teenagers and adults; language and literacy teaching to dyslexic and dyspraxic pupils; giving behavioural support to those with ADHD and EBD; providing advice and support to schools; and delivering staff development programmes to teachers and parenting courses to new parents of young families.
Two months after arriving I was planning, with Dr Zahra Al Zeera of the Arabian Gulf University, to set up of the first bilingual assessment and specialist teaching centre for children with learning difficulties in Bahrain. The Bahrain Institute for Special Education (BISE) was born in a coffee shop, progressed to a villa and now occupies a brand-new purpose-built six-storey building. We now have specialist centres for autistic children, a brand-new school for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties and family centres focusing on child abuse.
Since Bahrain hosted an international conference on ‘Inclusion’ last year, some of the larger private schools have begun to develop their own specialist in-school resources to support pupils with learning difficulties. Some now employ counsellors to offer behaviour management programmes. One such prestigious, mainstream school has recently offered a place to a Down’s syndrome child. This was unheard-of only a couple of years ago. Even local government schools are now more aware of differences in pupils and have introduced their own Down’s syndrome integration programme, though this is underresourced. These children are no longer an object of shame to local families, and efforts are being made to cater for their education here in Bahrain, as opposed to sending them to care homes or to specialist provision abroad. Still, all children are not accepted in some private schools, as candidates as young as four years of age are required to sit an entrance test, and parents must attend an interview. Inclusion is by no means universally embraced.
Perhaps the most significant personal contribution I feel I have made to Bahrain’s progress in the educational arena is in my relationships with parents and young families from all nations. Parents call at all hours for advice: they need to share their burden of a having a ‘special’ child and trying to cope in a new situation, country, culture and education system. Local Arabic-speaking children experience problems from bilingual and English-language teaching. Children from mixed race and cultural backgrounds often experience more difficulties than most in terms of adjustment to home and social issues.
It is extremely satisfying to see pupils whose problems were originally totally misunderstood by their teachers and schools, progress well in a changing system that has come to appreciate the individual children and their varying needs. To witness attitudinal shifts over time and feel part of that ongoing process, is still exciting and challenging. I recently had the thrill of seeing my first pupils successfully through the educational system. They will do VSO overseas in their gap year before taking up places in colleges and universities in Europe and the States. It’s also satisfying to see some of my counselling clients relaxed and happy with their lives at various social functions. I plan to leave Bahrain, to retire to Europe next year, in the knowledge that special education can only continue to develop as awareness and expertise spreads amongst the local population.
Elizabeth Richards Moir
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