Seventeen-year-old Adson Phiri (not real name) is in Standard One at one of the primary schools in Blantyre City. He has difficulties in walking and talking that came after battling epilepsy in the first decade of his life.
But every morning, Phiri wakes up and walks 10 kilometres to school. He rarely misses classes and nurtures his dream in a resource centre for learners with special needs at the school.
“I want to be an accountant,” he says.
However, Phiri’s dream is always threatened by the inadequacy of special needs teachers at the school. There is only one specialist teacher to train 10 learners and this is contrary to the normal ratio of one teacher to five pupils.
“It is often difficult for one teacher to attend to all the learners since their needs are different and unique,” says the teacher who chooses to remain anonymous.
Lack of specialised teachers for special needs education remains a huge challenge and it throws spanners into efforts of improving the quality of special needs education.
The 2012 Education Management Information Systems indicates that there are about 100,000 learners with special needs at all three levels of education. This is against 750 qualified special need teachers only across the country, translating into a ratio of one teacher to 133 learners.
Such a ratio disparity is putting a huge burden on the very few teachers around and at the same time stifling efforts to promote quality in special needs education.
Dennis Luwemba, a special needs teacher at Catholic Institute and Namasimba primary schools in Blantyre, says he teaches close to 60 special needs pupils, 11 times higher than the recommended ratio.
He says the task of teaching pupils with special needs is difficult compared to the normal class.
“The learners are in different categories depending on the nature of their need. Some have their problem emanating from mental, medical and psychological disabilities.
There are some with disabilities like speech, visual and hearing impairments. So mentoring them requires more attention and time,” says Luwemba, who is also Special Needs Coordinator for Zingwangwa Zone.
Compounding this problem is the lack of teaching materials and learning aids in most resource centres to meet the educational needs of children with learning disabilities, according to Luwemba.
“Special needs education uses unique instructional methods that require specialised teaching and learning resources like Braille for those with visual impairment, hearing aids and sign language for hearing impairment.
“Unfortunately, most resource centres lack these materials because they are not locally made but rather imported from the United Kingdom,” he says.
Head of Learning Difficulties Department at Montfort Special Needs Education College Patrick Malikebu concurs with Luwemba on the complexity of having few teachers in special needs education.
He says unlike in mainstream classes where teachers have a general lesson plan, special needs education uses individualised education plan that requires a teacher to plan for each child, which is a challenge when the class has more than five learners.
“Supervision from a teacher is somehow affected. Some children grasp concepts easily while others are slow learners. So you have to make sure that everybody is on board before you can jump to the next lesson,” Malikebu says.
This problem of teachers, he says, is long overdue and the only solution is to train many specialised teachers to meet the number of special needs learners in the country.
But that, as time goes by, is proving to be a long shot.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology says the country needs 10,000 specialist teachers in order to meet the growing numbers of learners with special needs.
But, currently, government only relies on Montfort Special Needs Education College in Nguludi, Chiradzulu. The college only produces a cohort of 90 teachers every two years, hence government’s inability to have specialist teachers in all public schools.
This figure is way below the number of trained teachers needed per year.
One study titled “Malawi Deaf Education at a Crossroads: Research on the Challenges Deaf Learners Face in Mainstream Education Settings” highlights the huge task the nation has in meeting the demand of specialised teachers.
The study, done by Malonje Overs K. Phiri of DeafNET Centre of Knowledge in South Africa, states that Malawi needs to produce over 500 specialist teachers every year to address the needs in all learning disabilities.
With Montfort College graduating 45 teachers per year, it means the country is only producing nine percent of the required figure the study recommends.
In 2013, government indicated that it will construct a Special Needs Education Institute (SNEI) in Lilongwe with a capacity of not less than 400 trainees to increase the number of specialist teachers in the field.
A site visit to the designated land, located near Malawi Institute of Management, shows that the project is yet to take off.
And the long wait for this institute continues as it is once again missing in the 2017/18 proposed budget.
While the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology gets a large share of K235 billion in the budget, the long-awaited SNEI project is not on the list of developments to be undertaken in the education sector.
Instead, there is only a provision for construction of three teachers training colleges for primary and secondary school teachers in Rumphi, Mchinji and Chikwawa.
Spokesperson for the ministry Lindiwe Chide says government is through with the first phase of SNEI project and is currently looking for alternative resources to kick-start construction works.
“We have done the designing phase using the little resources available. The project requires a lot of money and government alone cannot finance it. So we are looking for support from development partners,” Chide says.
She further says although the partners are yet to make commitments on the project, the ministry is still optimistic that some will come forward.
Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi Executive Director Action Amos says the delay in the project could further alienate children with disabilities in terms of access to quality education.
“Sixty percent of these children are already not in school due to lack of qualified special needs teachers across the country,” says Amos.
“If this trend continues, we may be leaving behind a generation of children that needs our support.”
Such a scenario could be potentially damaging to the aspirations and dreams nurtured in minds of individuals like Adson Phiri
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