Inclusive education that is just on paper
Junior's parents who are subsistence farmers were surprised one day to see their son sent back from school apparently by the school's management, writes Aliko Munde, Mana.
MALAWI: Mzimba, Mana: Just like any other child, Novious Phiri Jnr, 11, was happy to start his primary school education, but little did he know that his entry into school could not be long term due to difficulty in hearing and speech.
Junior who stays with his parents at Zamba village, Group Village headman Sitima in Traditional Authority Mabilabo in Mzimba district was born without any disability.
"When he was 3 years old Junior was diagnosed with malaria and was given quinine at Mzimba district hospital. After finishing his prescription, we started noticing that the child couldn't utter words like mama and dada," recalls Novious Phiri senior.
Phiri says when they narrated back to the medical personnel they were told the effect of quinine and assured the parents that the child would be fine as he grows.
The news had brought a ray of hope to Junior's parents that their child would be like any other child.
"When my child was 6 years old I enrolled him at Chongeya Primary School because I wanted my son to be educated like other children," he says.
Junior's parents who are subsistence farmers were surprised one day to see their son sent back from school apparently by the school's management.
Phiri recalls that the school's headteacher told them that they couldn't manage to keep the child in school because of his challenge.
As a father of 6 children, four boys, and two girls, he was helpless to see those whom he thought could assist to impart knowledge on their child bringing back their son home.
Phiri had to stomach 85 kilometres to Embangweni school for the deaf to secure a place for his son. He was given a response the other day.
He says: "I failed to go back to Embangweni because i didn't have money for transport".
"My child could have been in standard 5 had it been he was not chased at Chongeya school," he says.
Junior Phiri is just one of the many children with disabilities willing to be educated but can't easily access inclusive education in the country.
Deputy headteacher at Chongeya primary school that time a Mr Chima quashes reports that the school authorities sent back Junior Phiri.
"We advised Junior Phiri's parents to go with the child to Embangweni school for the deaf but they did not go," Chima explains.
In 2007, the government introduced Inclusive Education to ensure equitable access to education.
A five-year (2017-2021) National Inclusive Education Strategy was developed and linked to Sustainable Development Goal number 4.
With Junior Phiri's story, is Malawi prepared to realize Sustainable Development Goal number 4, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”?
"It is unfortunate we have an education system in Malawi that can afford to send back a child who is seeking enrollment because he has a disability," says Federation of Disability Organisation in Malawi (FEDOMA) Project Manager Ethel Kachala Chibwana.
Chibwana says the fact that the school doesn't have specialist teachers is no excuse and is not a justification.
"Imagine a person who has an eye problem and goes to Luwelezi Health Centre where there is no clinical eye specialist, will the health centre send back the patient? "surely not," she says.
She says: "The medical officer will simply refer the patient to Mzimba district hospital or even further refer the patient to Mzuzu Central hospital".
"Why doesn't the education system do the same?" she wonders.
Chibwana says at the school level people expect the headteacher and his team to be education extension workers on who the community will rely in terms of education support and advice.
Being education duty bearers at that level there is no way they should shun their responsibility.
However, on his part, Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) executive director Benedicto Kondowe says Chongeya teachers are not at fault to send back Junior Phiri because they are not special needs teachers.
"Teacher training colleges do not teach special needs education and it's difficult for government primary school teachers to assist learners with disabilities," he says.
He faults the government’s seriousness in promoting inclusive education in the country.
Kondowe says: "Government is not serious in promoting inclusive education. Just imagine in the Ministry of education all other directorates have director and deputy director while inclusive education has only deputy director which is a mockery".
He says directors have their own mandates and deputy directors have also theirs.
Ministry of education did not respond to a questionnaire that was sent to the ministry's spokesperson despite several reminders.
But recently, Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala said the government is doing everything possible to address the shortage of special needs teachers in public schools in the country.
"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," he said.
He further said the government is also training 200 specialist teachers at Machinga Training College through open distance learning mode.
"Upon completion of their training, these teachers will be deployed to all the districts in the country," Chimala said.