Across Africa, countries are making steps to make education more inclusive but they need to do more.
Many countries in Africa get a bad press for their progress in providing inclusive education. Just two in three children complete primary school on time, while the number of out-of-school children and youth is 97 million and growing. Less is said, however, about the range of tools being deployed to include some of those furthest behind: students with disabilities.
Inequalities in education are always blatant, but the 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report by UNESCO shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse. About 40% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have not been able to support disadvantaged learners during school closures, including those with disabilities.
Prior to the pandemic, countries in Africa were taking different approaches to inclusion. Most educate children with disabilities in mainstream schools, but have some separate arrangements for learners with severe disabilities. Nearly a quarter, however, have laws calling for children with disabilities to be educated in separate settings.
Many of the countries looking to move from segregated towards inclusive systems face challenges. Among other things, they need to work out how to share specialist resources between schools so all children can benefit. Fortunately, examples of how this can be done are to found across the continent.
Angola and Nigeria, for instance, are looking at transforming special schools into support bases for children with disabilities who are enrolled in mainstream schools. Angola set a target in 2017 of including 30,000 children with special education needs in mainstream schools by 2022.
Kenya also recognises special schools’ pivotal role in the transition towards inclusive education. At present, almost 2,000 primary and secondary mainstream schools provide education for students with special needs.
Malawi tries a twin-track approach. Those with severe disabilities are educated in special schools or special needs centres, while those with mild disabilities are mainstreamed. Special schools at each education level are being transformed into resource centres.
Instead of resource centres, Tanzania is mobilising itinerant teachers offering specialist services. These teachers are trained and managed by Tanzania Society for the Blind and provided with a motorbike. They also perform vision screening, refer children to medical facilities and organise community sensitisation and counselling.
While the political will for change seems clear, there is often a gap between theory and practice. This is where the emphasis between now and 2030 must lie. Throughout Africa, teachers mention that implementing inclusive education is hard because they lack resources.
Take Malawi. While it is increasingly encouraging learners with special needs to enrol in mainstream schools, a lack of facilities forces many to transfer to special schools. In Namibia, the shortage of resource schools in rural areas, a lack of accessible infrastructure and unfavourable attitudes towards disability are just some of the barriers to implementing its inclusive education policy. Similarly, in Tanzania, only half of children with albinism complete primary school. Because they lack support, they often end up being transferred to special schools.
The same story can be found in South Africa. A 1996 law says the right to education of children with special needs is to be fulfilled in mainstream public schools. But it reported to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently that it had new segregated schools in basic education and a lack of provisions for children with severe intellectual disabilities.
Ghana is another case. It makes provisions for all learners in its education law. Its 2015 inclusive education policy framework envisages transforming special schools into resource centres, while maintaining special units, schools and other institutions for students with severe and profound disabilities. Yet children with disabilities are still required to perform the same tasks within the same time frame as their peers without disabilities, occupy desks placed far from teachers, and are often physically punished by teachers for behavioural challenges, even in inclusive schools in Accra.
While all efforts are commendable, simply laying the groundwork for inclusion in education will not suffice. Implementing the ambitions spelled out in education policies will take a new wave of efforts.