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No teachers for special needs students

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ELLEN —I was very scared

Five years ago, the government rolled out the implementation of the National Inclusive Education Strategy, which was developed to promote inclusive education. But, as FESTON MALEKEZO writes, vices such as questionable teaching and learning method, poor physical environments, stigma and inadequate special needs teachers stand in the way of progress.

Thirteen-year-old Ellen Mwazembe, a special needs learner at Nahayombo Primary School in Chitipa District, dreams of becoming a nurse one day.

However, his status as a learner with special needs puts her in the path of insurmountable challenges.

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“I was very scared when I first enrolled for classes because I was meeting a lot of resistance and stigma. The disability I have is that I don’t see very far. I also have diabetes mellitus.

“I had to drop out of school but, after years, I was encouraged to enrol for classes again and I am hopeful that things will change because I want to be a nurse and assist my community,” she said.

The Government of Malawi introduced Inclusive Education in 2007 to ensure that every child, including those with physical challenges, access education services without facing stigma at all levels in society.

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However, over 10 years down the line, implementation of the initiative has been happening at a snail’s pace.

Lwakwa Primary School in Chitipa District is one of the schools in the country with a total of 28 children with various forms of physical disabilities but has no single special needs teacher.

Further, only one classroom block has a ramp at the doorstep to enable learners that use wheelchairs and crutches to have access to classes.

School head teacher Hellings Mwambeni faults education authorities for leaving the responsibility of constructing ramps in the hands of the school’s management committees.

“We are pleading with the government to send us a special needs teacher because we are struggling. So, what we do, as an alternative, is to group the learners. For example, we offer extra lessons to people with hearing impairments and other challenges,” he said.

He further highlighted that the cost of training a special needs teacher in the country is very high and that, unfortunately, the government does not shoulder such costs. It is incumbent upon the teachers themselves to get such training.

Despite having a total of 187 primary schools, Chitipa District has six trained special needs teachers, which only exposes a huge gap in the implementation of inclusive education in the country.

Annually, the office is also given around K5 million, which is not enough, according to Harris Nsakamira, one of the six special needs teachers.

“We have over 3,000 learners, in various schools in the district, who have various forms of disabilities. We need to visit those learners as well as those who are still at home but we cannot manage to do so because resources are limited,” he said.

Chitipa District Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Franklin Mwalwanda said the challenges start from where the learners are coming, blaming some parents and parents for showing no interest in educating children with disability.

“On the other hand, we have the problem of funds,” he said.

In Karonga, Lughano Lweya Binga, a special needs teacher, says the district has 3417 learners with special needs in regular classes.

He said, while they were on course to meeting inclusive education goals, stigma was one of the stumbling blocks.

He highlights that they are banking on partners in the education sector.

One such partner is Synod of Livingstonia Education Department, which is implementing a four-year inclusive education project dubbed Promoting Equal Access to Education in Malawi using funds from the Scottish Government worth about K1.1 billion.

The synod is implementing the project in three districts of Nkhata Bay, Chitipa and Karonga.

Livingstonia Synod Inclusive Education Project Manager Thomas Nkhonjera said, before project implementation started, some parents had a negative attitude towards their special needs children but now most of them are sending their children to school.

“We have a lot of learners with disabilities in schools but the money allocated towards special needs education is a pittance, which makes it difficult to address all challenges learners are facing.

“We plead with the government to increase the budget allocation to district councils. If more funds would be channelled to the cause of special needs and inclusive education, that would be great. At the same time, the government should strive to build the capacity of learners, considering that we have very few special needs teachers in the country,” he said.

Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala acknowledged the challenges but pointed at strategies the government had adopted to address problems.

Chimala said the government is training 155 specialist teachers in a three-year diploma course in special needs, with another 200 undergoing a Certificate in Inclusive Education Course at Montfort College in Chiradzulu District.

“Machinga TTC [Teachers Training College] is also training 200 specialist teachers through ODL [open distance learning] mode. These teachers will, upon completion of their training, be deployed to all the education districts countrywide including Chitipa,” he said

Under Secondary Education, Chimala said the ministry was planning to come up with a postgraduate certificate tailored specifically for secondary school teachers.

“In addition, the ministry has oriented science secondary school teachers in Inclusive Education through the EQUALS Project. We are planning to reach all Secondary school teachers in Malawi, including in Chitipa, through this initiative,” he said.

However, as happens to all plans, all these plans are prone to changes, delays or failure— just as the five-year National Inclusive Education Strategy, which was introduced in 2017 to run up to 2021, has struggled to bear fruits.

The strategy was linked to Sustainable Development Goal number four that commits all governments to ensure inclusive, equitable, quality education and lifelong learning for all.

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