A school for all: What does it look like and where do we stand?

From infrastructure requirements to teacher training and tackling societal attitudes, observations from a recent online course show the realities of inclusive schools in eight African countries.

May 07, 2020 by Jennifer Pye, IIEP/UNESCO
5 minutes read
Students and their teacher at a school in Malawi
Students and their teacher at a school in Malawi
Credit: Edith Lemani

At a primary school in Eswatini (Swaziland), ramps and handrails make all classrooms, open spaces, and bathrooms accessible. At the start of each school year, a screening by education and school health professionals identifies learners who may need additional support. A resource center with adapted learning material helps newly enrolled children transfer to mainstream classrooms.

In Kigali, Rwanda, teachers at a secondary school received training on inclusive education, enabling them to respond to the needs of a handful of students with physical disabilities. In classrooms, students in wheelchairs can use lowered blackboards. More remains to be done, however:  open spaces and bathrooms remain inaccessible, and exams need to be adapted for all learners.

A board at a primary school in Malawi shows the type of disabilities students have
A board at a primary school in Malawi shows the type of disabilities students have and where infrastructure needs repair
Robin Francis Chataika, Montfort Special Needs College

At a primary school in Malawi, a board in the headmaster’s office displays the breakdown of disabilities among students, as well as the infrastructure in need of repair. While the school is trying to implement inclusive education, its high teacher to student ratio of 1:120 makes it difficult to attend to the needs of all learners.

In a secondary school located outside of Nairobi, Kenya, students with disabilities (representing a quarter of the total enrollments) are learning side-by-side with other students. While teachers at this school say they are aware of the obligation to provide education to all, there are no guidelines, laws, or policies on how to provide inclusive education. References to “normal” or “special” children illustrate persistent attitudinal challenges.

Hinting at the complexities of creating a school for all, these observations - collected during school visits in early 2020 - formed part of a recent IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF online course on the foundations of disability-inclusive education sector planning.

The course targeted eight ministries of education in Eastern and Southern Africa and included national teams from inclusive education departments, planning and statistical units, teacher training colleges, university researchers, and UNICEF country staff.

Policy-makers need to see inclusive education in action to understand how it really works – so we arranged school visits, organized practical activities, and group work. By doing this, the participants could then understand how to make inclusive education commonplace in sector planning and analyses – the foundation for making a real school for all.   

A systems’ approach to planning for disability-inclusive education

Following the nine-week course, which wrapped up at the end of March 2020, many participants now understand that to make their education systems more inclusive requires a holistic, systems-based approach to planning. This means working with colleagues from different departments, but also strengthening collaboration across different ministries such as health and social protection.

"Empowered to empower" learners with disabilities

An Eswatini participant said, “My role has changed greatly. I no longer just sympathize with people with disabilities but instead I am empowered to empower them by letting them have a voice and taking their views seriously.”

Another participant found the school visit at the start of the course especially useful, as it helped set the tone for the journey ahead. “It was a real eye-opener. I never imagined there was such a mismatch between policy and implementation.”

While most view inclusive education as a process and not something that can materialize overnight, participants also said it must begin in the earliest stages of planning.

"Through interacting with different members from other countries, I have learnt that we should fight for the inclusive education curriculum to be included in the initial teacher training colleges. This will help to overcome problems of shortage of trained teachers in mainstream schools, which is one of the major barriers to inclusive education practices," said another participant.

Building knowledge and skills around inclusive education

The course focused on diagnosing the education sector, an analysis that helps education officials grasp the overall health of the system, including its strong points and challenges.

From Kenya, a representative of Special Needs Education said that they now understand how inclusive education factors into the entire planning cycle.

"I need to look at all components of the education sector analysis before even thinking of the education sector plan. If we get it right in the analysis, it will follow that the plan will easily accommodate disability-inclusive education," the participant said.

A special needs education officer with the Ministry of Education in Rwanda similarly said that they now fully grasped the framework for disability-inclusive education, a working document created by IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF in the run-up to the launch of the course.

"From now, I am going to be using this framework to see how our education sector is applying it for the benefit of children with disabilities. My role has changed: from someone who just implement to someone who plans."

Why inclusion?

Inclusive education settings provide a sense of belonging, stimulation, and socialization for all students irrespective of background and ability. Catering to the learning needs of every child, using principles of universal design that allow for flexibility in teaching and assessment increases the likelihood for all children to advance to higher levels of education, and ultimately find employment.

It also helps pave the way to tolerant and inclusive societies where all citizens play a role and contribute. Without ensuring that all children can exercise their right to education, SDG 4 will never be reached.

Learners with disabilities are one of the most excluded groups in education, with as many as 33 million children with disabilities out of school, notwithstanding the current school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To summarize one participant from the Ministry of Education in Malawi, inclusive education is the only type of education governments should provide. “Countries are not successfully educating anybody, if some are left behind.”

Learn more about this online course from the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) and UNICEF, which will also launch for ministries of education and partners in South Asia, South East Asia, and Francophone Africa.

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The really thing as per this critical pandemic Corona viruses Covid-19 have affected Education project very much in private education sector. Children are home, all school staff's are home, no way to get there daily bread. How can children in remote area, in village whereby, the have no technology have not reached, they very poor, fighting against hanger in there families, There is lockdown , in some counties, I Kenya no support of food staff's, to those poor families. As my Organization, need for support as we ha school for Ovcs, Secondary and primary who are coming from poor families, currently they're at there families care, because no fund maintain and now they are facing more problems, all this need to be under consinderation.

L'éducation inclusive est un de nos objectifs fondamentaux dans l'atteinte du point 4 des ODD car elle est la base de tout développement inclusif dans l'espace francophone.

C'est pourquoi nous serons heureux d'intégrer nos jeunes volontaires francophones enseignants dans votre programme de formation afin de renforcer leur capacité professionnelle en éducation inclusive dans l'optique de mener à bien nos actions citoyennes pour une éducation pour tous cage de développement communautaire

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