Between learning together with your friends and learning just with a specialised teacher, what would you prefer?
Eleven-year-old Kenneth Shadreck—an intelligent Standard Three child with multiple disabilities whose story we told on this page last week—answered promptly: “I choose learning alone with Mr [Henderson] Chanza.”
Chanza is the special needs teacher at Kamwendo Model Primary School in Mchinji, the school Kenneth attends.
He explained: “You see, in a normal class, our teacher speaks very fast. I fail to go along with the lesson. I always struggle to raise a question because I speak slowly. This does not happen when I am with Mr Chanza. He teaches slowly and I understand everything he says, that is why I am able to get on position one during tests.”
Yet despite that—and this is what is critical—Kenneth underlines he does not want to leave Kamwendo Primary School.
The school’s headteacher, he notes, is a good man. Sometimes he gives me money to buy freezes, he explains, adding: “I love my friends, too. They don’t shout at me and they do not tire of pushing my wheelchair.”
Asked to interpret Kenneth’s story, Malonje Phiri—inclusive education projects coordinator for the Federation of Disability Organisations of Malawi (Fedoma)—says it represents the key challenge of inclusivity in Malawi’s pursuit to implement inclusive education in its schools and college.
“Learners like Kenneth tell us children with varying disabilities in the country are willing to learn with their friends in an inclusive environment, but, unfortunately, the classroom situation remains volatile for them to understand what is going on,” he says.
In fact, what Phiri says tallies with findings by Chancellor College lecturer Elizabeth Kamchedzera in her 2010 unpublished doctoral thesis entitled Education of Pupils with Disabilities in Malawi’s Inclusive Secondary Schools: Policy, Practice and Experiences.
Kamchedzera’s study confirms there is a mismatch between policy and practice, although there is much goodwill for inclusion to succeed in Malawi.
“Two critical issues that challenge inclusion… [in] Malawi still need to be addressed: how to make inclusive education more effective for both pupils with disability and those without disabilities; and how to redistribute resources to ensure appropriate pre-service, in-service and specialist training for secondary teachers and adequate teaching and learning materials,” she noted.
Two case stories could better authenticate what Phiri and Kamchedzera advance here.
Kenneth learns at a school that is modern, has adequate teachers, has enough and good classrooms—simply put, he is learning at a progressive school. The school has a single resource teacher, a well-stocked resource centre to further help children with disabilities and all the 59 teachers, according to the headteacher David Mutapa, have undergone a Fedoma sponsored one-week training in special needs education.
Yet in all this, learners with disabilities at the school, like Kenneth, do not want to learn in an inclusive classroom.
Compare this to Kaseka Primary School in Nsapato Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda in Mchinji. It has neither a resource teacher nor a resource centre. It only has seven teachers who take care of almost 600 pupils of whom 20 have varying disabilities. Sidolia Phiri, 12, is one such a pupil. She has speech problems, has hearing impairment and barely walks. Unlike Kenneth, Sidolia does not have a wheelchair. He depends on the family to carry her to and from school every day.
“At first, there was a school for children with disabilities in our area where we used to take her to. It closed two years ago. Deciding to bring her here [Kaseka] was difficult because we felt he could not withstand,” says Bolliam Phiri, her father.
RabsonBandawe, Kaseka’s head teacher, says for the past three years Sidolia has been at the school, she ‘is always in Standard Three’.
“She demands special attention to learn better but none of the teachers at my school has ever had a training in special needs education. We just try what we can manage,” he says, adding: “the situation is the same with many other children with disabilities at the school.”
What these cases underline here is that despite a goodwill on the policy level regarding promoting inclusive education in Malawi, there is little happening on the ground regarding building the capacity of the schools which are implementing agents.
The learning environment out there is still volatile for implementing inclusive education, says Steve Ndhlovu, National Education Programmes Coordinator for Catholic Education Commission (CEC).
Ndhlovu’s CEC—through disability project they have been implementing—have observed that inclusive education needs ‘urgent support from government in terms of ensuring that teachers have enough capacity to identify, and attend to specific needs of special needs education’.
Again, he adds, resources are required to create a conducive learning environment for children with specific disabilities. For example, there is need for rumps for students who use wheel chairs to enable them access all facilities in schools.
“Most students with disabilities begin school later than those without disabilities. This is often as a result of discrimination by parents, as they think a child with a disability cannot learn, and perform in a classroom situation,” he explains.
He further says some teachers do not know how to handle certain children considering the severity of their disability.
“In such cases, we have noted that they just let such children with disabilities to be part of the class while fully aware that such children are not learning,” he says.
Ndhlovu underscores the need to build the capacity of teachers in the area of special needs.
In fact, even Malonje Phiri agrees. Using his experience, Phiri, who has speech and hearing disabilities, notes that he struggled to learn in an inclusive environment, especially at secondary and college level, though he cherishes the moments he shared with many friends he made.
He adds that it was while studying for his masters’ degree in the UK that he really experienced the importance of inclusive education.
“Unlike at Chancellor College [where Phiri studied for his undergraduate degree], the University of Edinburgh in Scotland has a disability support office that handles educational needs of all learners with disabilities. I was given a professional electronic note taker, which used a laptop to type every class discussions for me to follow; thus enhancing my classroom participation,” he says.
He adds: “Edinburgh has a vast array of reading materials, which is good for a deaf person’s independent study. Moreover, in universities in the UK and other developed countries, lecturers in education faculties are good at sign language communications. They deal with deaf students on their own without looking for a sign language interpreter.”