Changing the narrative on inclusive education through research
“Communicating hope, bringing people together, saying it is possible, we can do it, realising a small change is worth the effort and motivation are some of the challenges of being a change maker. As one, you are often an outsider looking in. You need a certain privilege to see and think you can change. There is a privilege with that.” – Esther Kamaara, former trainee at Liliane Foundation and Founder of Star Kids Initiative, Kenya.
Five years ago, Zambian head teacher Mr Malumbe ignored bureaucracy and enrolled 17-year-old Mpaso in his school. His action provided an inclusive educative space to a child with a disability.
Before that Mpaso who has autism and experiences hypersalivation had been denied admission to public schools where his mother had for over two years sought to have him enrolled. Denial was based on his medical assessment which indicated he should be admitted to a special school. This was something his mother could not afford.
His medical condition, coupled with the family’s low socio-economic status meant Mpaso and his mother who is his sole caregiver suffered from low self-esteem. Today Mpaso’s story is different due to personal motivation from the head teacher Mr Malumbe.
“The family was of very low esteem; I saw they carried a lot of shame. His inclusion in school transformed his low self-esteem into self-acceptance and increased his confidence. If you observed him then, the child did not look like someone who could fit in. And you can see now, confidence levels are high. Mpaso is a happy boy. He interacts with everyone. He is a boy that everyone feels privileged to be around. “You can see he takes good care of himself, sits with others, and came dressed in a jacket,” Mr Malumbe tells us.
An inadvertent benefit of Mpaso’s educational inclusion was that his mother began working at the market during his school hours. This lifted the socio-economic status of the family leading to their social inclusion.” This inclusion narrative is a vivid illustration of school inclusion leading to inclusion within one’s society, writes Kamaara.
Mpaso’s transformation story and Mr Malumbe’s inclusion initiative are part of the findings published under the subtitle chapter Tackling Attitudes: School Leaders subverting dominant Inclusive Education Perceptions from the study on inclusive education success factors in Zambia by Esther Kamaara.
It is not because of existing policies that headteachers like Malumbe are creating change in the inclusive education space for children with disabilities. They have personally overcome overwhelming changes and put in place practices that ensure inclusive education in their schools. This is simply because they are intrinsically motivated. They have become my heroes; they go above and beyond what they are employed to do.”
With support from Liliane Foundation and Radbound University Nijmegen, Kamaara carried out the research in 2021 in Zambia as part of the “Breaking Down Barriers” learning trajectory. Liliane Foundation started Breaking Down Barriers in 2015 and uses it to translate academic research findings into successful strategies, policy briefs, training and manuals. It also builds the capacity for effective advocacy for inclusion for children with disabilities.
Liliane Foundation works to reduce environmental barriers that hinder the participation of children and youth with disabilities in society. It improves children’s and parent’s health, well-being and self-confidence. Through collaborations with local partners in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the foundation provides children with the best available, tailor-made care. It creates a more accessible and inclusive environment for them and supports their development.
“Liliane Foundation was looking for an inclusive education researcher. Having created a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) in Kenya that focuses on providing access to quality education to underserved children, I was already pushing the inclusive education agenda. I wanted to grow my expertise and carrying out this research provided me with that opportunity and the space to change the narrative around inclusive education,” explains Kamaara.
Years before when still an undergraduate student, while volunteering as a Sunday school teacher at her church, Kamaara witnessed how exclusion from quality education affected the less fortunate children in Kenya.
“While interacting with the children, I realised there were those who comprehended what I said because of their exposure to education and those that did not. I wanted to understand this injustice; not just understand it but also be a part of changing it,” says Kamaara. And so began her journey towards change.
In 2013 Kamaara while still undertaking her bachelor’s degree studies in Telecommunication and Information Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya set out to help excluded and underprivileged children. What started as an informal programme by a group of friends visiting schools and offering support to underprivileged children is today a registered Community-Based Organisation, Star Kids. This organisation focuses on inclusive education in urban informal settings in Kenya.
“We partner with local public primary schools to offer after-school programmes that focus on life skills such as communication, public speaking and instilling values. We also have a scholarship programme to ensure that children transition from primary school which is free to secondary school which is not. At the time 72 percent of primary school children did not make it to secondary school because of economic hardships. We wanted to do something about this,” explains Kamaara.
Kamaara says one of the significant barriers to inclusive education especially for children with disabilities as revealed by the research is attitude. Many people do not believe that children with disabilities should attend school, and this includes their parents.
Headteachers like Mr Malumbe break down barriers. They have come up with innovative ways to do this such as the “Child Find” programme. They venture out into communities and look for children with disabilities, knock on doors, and engage parents and communities. And this is working because, in most places in rural Africa, teachers have authority, they are believed and they are heard.”
Kamaara says research has revealed the importance of motivation in creating change in inclusive education. “There is this essence of motivation. Teacher training does not include inclusive education. Yet, these headteachers have created innovative unbiased initiatives based on personal experiences and respect for human rights for everyone. They have set up buddy systems to help children with disabilities in their schools and advocate for these children to start school right from pre-school,” says Kamaara.
Carried out across three countries, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Zambia, the research involved local researchers and academics. They provided specific information on mainstream education. “The resounding outcome was that inclusive education in Africa has many drawbacks; most countries have it in policy, such as access to free basic primary education. But how about inclusion and quality? It turns out that school leaders are the key to implementing inclusive education. Their attitude and perseverance lead to inclusion. Evidence-based research is therefore significant as it brings to light what works and how this can be applied across the board,” Kamaara adds.
How then can evidence-based research be translated into programmes that will create change and bring about inclusive education, especially for children with disabilities in Africa? How can challenges be overcome especially in settings where resources are scarce?
“One of the biggest challenges is translating these findings into programmes and ensuring that they are implemented. To overcome these and break down the barriers, we need to take those already existing innovative initiatives such as those put in place by head teachers in Zambia for example the “child find” and use them in other communities, and other countries. But we need patience to see this change happening and accept that it will be gradual,” says Kamaara.
Adding: “The aspect of being innovative as change-makers is significant. We will always be faced with a shortage of resources, so what can be done with what we have? It brings us back to the glass-half-full perspective when looking at global issues, especially education. It is imperative to rally communities to be a part of the change not only in terms of resources but also in terms of advocacy. Communities need to see this as a problem and speak about the need to invest in inclusive education for children with disabilities.”
About the Liliane Foundation’s “Breaking Down Barriers”
The Liliane Foundation initiated Breaking Down Barriers in 2015 to enable organisations within and outside the foundation’s network to enhance the effectiveness and quality of their programmes. Unlike existing knowledge, “Breaking Down Barriers” is directly tied to the realities and agendas of Southern civil society organisations and the Liliane Foundation. It is presented actionably. Through academic research and bringing together civil society organisations and researchers from the Netherlands, Cameroon, Sierra-Leone and Zambia Liliane Foundation aims to offer relevant evidence and tools in the field of disability-inclusive advocacy and development.