Penny Robertson founded the Australian International School in Indonesia in 1996 (now the Australian Independent School) with a group of parent educators. The first campus in Pejaten had 11 students. Today, Penny is renowned throughout Asia for her work in inclusive education, and in April was awarded the 2015 SENIA Asian Advocacy Award (the Special Educational Needs Network in Asia) at the joint EARCOS and SENIA Teacher’s Conference held in Malaysia.
What does the SENIA Asian Advocacy Award mean to you and why is it important?
It is a huge honour to receive the Advocacy Award from the Special Educational Needs Network in Asia; I am thrilled. To see the SENIA organisation grow so quickly and bring together so many people working for inclusive education is very exciting. When interested professionals come together to share and exchange ideas it acts like an accelerant to change, and the change is often quite fundamental.
How did your journey into advocacy for special educational needs begin? What was your background in education?
I was a geology lecturer and high school science teacher in Adelaide until my second daughter, Shona, was born with Down Syndrome, which was the start of a long and extremely interesting journey for the whole family. Shona started early intervention when she was about a week old, and it proved to be a whole new educational experience for me as well. The whole process of breaking a task into simple manageable chunks makes teachers with special education skills better at imparting the essence of any subject. I was a teacher before my daughter arrived and I became a much better teacher after I benefitted from the early intervention programme my daughter was enrolled in.
How did you come to be in Indonesia originally, and how long were you here for?
My husband’s job took us to Jakarta with UNDP in 1994. I remained in Indonesia until I retired. I still visit regularly and have strong ties to many communities, including the Australian International School community.
When we arrived in Jakarta I was rather surprised to find that no international school would accept my daughter as she had just attended her local primary school at home in Australia. My plight was not unique as I soon met many families whose children were locked out of places in Jakarta, as schools could afford to be very selective given the demand on places during the Asian economic boom.
A small group of us formed a yayasan and we borrowed some funds to pay the rent on a house. Sabam Siagian, who had just returned from Australia as the Indonesian Ambassador, agreed to become our legal protector (pengawas). 19 years later he is still in that role. We opened the school in July 1996 with 11 students and five teachers. It grew rapidly to over 300 students, but by the end of 1997 the economic crash had occurred and we lost 60% of our students over the Christmas break. I was obliged to retire five years ago when I turned 60, as expats cannot get a work permit beyond that magic age!
Since you founded AIS in 1996, what changes have you seen in Indonesia with regards to inclusivity in education?
The changes in inclusivity have been enormous. They were very slow in the beginning as community acceptance of people with disabilities was not great when we arrived in 1994. It was a bit like the western level of acceptance 30 years ago. The attitude within the community has changed so much; the visibility and even the services available are steadily growing day by day. It is heartening to see all this change and we have met so many people who are working every day to develop new services and build a supportive community. The biggest challenge is still community acceptance, and media stories of people with disabilities making their way in life do a lot towards making people aware of their situation and changing community attitudes.
What do you think the major hurdles facing inclusivity in education are in Asia/worldwide? Are they present in Indonesia too, and do you feel they are surmountable?
Probably the biggest challenge, both here and worldwide, is public education. People seem to fear that having their child in a class with children with special needs will mean that their child will not receive the attention that they deserve. There is also the fear that the disability may be ‘catching’ or that the behaviours of the child with a disability may have a negative impact on their own child’s behaviour. In fact the research has shown that this is not the case at all. Children who are in an inclusive class actually do better, because the teacher has refined skills that benefit all children; and students who are involved in peer tutoring demonstrate a better understanding of the skill they are learning than those who cannot explain it to someone else.
In Indonesia it has been relatively easy to implement programmes of inclusive education, as we have had a great pool of Indonesian teachers who have been open to the special needs training that we have instituted in the school and they have been a great source of support to our expatriate teachers trained in the Australian curriculum.
Special needs training courses now exist in Indonesia and that is a really positive development. The formation of parent organisations, which offer support for one another, the establishment of early intervention programmes, and the establishment of the Special Education network in Asia are all positive developments.
The area you work in must be very challenging at times. What keeps you going?
My children would say that it’s because I’m stubborn – that may in part explain why I took on the challenge of creating an opportunity for children with special educational needs, but I had a very strong, vested interest in the form of a 13-year-old daughter with no school and no hope of a basic secondary education. I also have a strong belief in social justice and I guess my circumstances have allowed me to direct this belief into achieving a better quality of life and greater acceptance for a number of children with special needs.
What are some of the things you regard as your biggest achievements in the course of your work in Indonesia?
Setting up the school has been my most memorable achievement. No matter what difficulties we experience, such as frequent changes in regulations and changing reporting requirements, whenever I walk through the playground and see the happy faces of students playing together from every culture, every ethnicity, every religion and ability, I feel a real glow and a sense of pride.
Lobbying to getting the UN to recognise World Down Syndrome Day on March 21 (i.e. 3-21 or trisomy-21) each year has also had to be a highlight of my life in Down Syndrome.
What would you wish to tell parents of exceptional children today regarding their education?
I would tell parents that all children benefit from being in an inclusive educational setting and I am very keen to see more schools take up this policy. However, inclusive education must be done properly, and that means ensuring that all teachers have the requisite skills. This takes time, and it means that change does not happen as quickly as we would all like. However, parents have a role here in that they need to be advocates for their own children and must make it known to their children’s school that access to education is a right for all children.
I can now rejoice in the fact that my daughter with an intellectual disability has the skills to get a job which she loves, get married, live in her own flat, put her thoughts and dreams on Facebook and organise her own money. When she was born 34 years ago, I would not have believed that possible. I am extremely proud.