In Eswatini, inclusive education turns a page

02 December 2021

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©Ministry of Education and Training, Eswatini / Ministère de l’Éducation et de la Formation, Eswatini
Four new inclusive high schools have been built in the different regions of Eswatini. Here, x's on the ground are placed for social distancing during COVID-19.

When a bathroom stall in a school is too narrow for a wheelchair. When the abrupt shift to remote learning leaves a student without assistive technology or teacher support. These are just several forms of exclusion that can prevent a student with a disability from accessing education. However, when barriers like these can be removed, the shift towards inclusive education – where all children and youth benefit from the same education - can take place. 

While inclusive education is required in many legal frameworks and is a central part of the 2030 sustainability agenda, realizing this goal can be complex. That's why for the past two years IIEP and UNICEF have paired up to offer the course, Foundations of disability-inclusive education sector planning.  

So far, 210 technical staff in ministries of education from four regions (Eastern and Southern Africa, South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific, francophone Africa) have completed the 9-week course. Now, an outcome harvesting evaluation has revealed that results are making a difference in the education systems of participating countries like Eswatini.  

Changing course in Eswatini 

Earlier this year, four inclusive secondary schools – the first of their kind – opened in the four regions of Eswatini. Using universal design standards and with funding from the Japanese government, learners no longer must travel far in search of secondary education. Class sizes are limited to 35 students and all teachers have gone through the required training for inclusive education and special needs.  

These schools were built to support inclusive education where all students, regardless of any challenges they may have, are placed in age-appropriate mainstream classes that are in their own neighborhood to receive high-quality instruction, interventions, and support that enable them to succeed in the core curriculum.

The schools are part of a larger country-wide shift towards inclusive education. Behind the scenes is a dedicated national team with the Ministry of Education and Training who participated in the IIEP and UNICEF course. The team includes Phumzile Magagula, a Coordinator for Sector Wide Approach, and Cebsile Nxumalo, a Senior Inspector for Special Education Needs. 

Looking back on the course, Magagula and Nxumalo both refer to a key tool – a conceptualized framework to advance inclusion. Since completing the course in March 2020, this framework has accompanied them through a complete planning cycle, from a comprehensive education sector analysis, to a new ten-year sector plan, and an implementation plan. 

“When we develop education plans, we mirror it against the framework, to see if we have enough finances to respond to children with disabilities, if the school environment is conducive, and if the teachers are properly trained,” says Magagula. “If the environment is not favorable, then it is impossible for children with disability to attend.” 

The framework, developed by IIEP and UNICEF, serves as a tool for determining an environment’s ability to enable inclusive education, as well as its capacity to deliver services based on supply, quality, and demand. 

The course has also influenced data processes in the country, a key component to making sure that all learners, including those who may have a sensory, physical, or learning disability, are reached. For example, a new data collection tool was used to track the experience of learners with disabilities – specifically children with albinism and those with vision and hearing impairments – with the remote learning programmes developed in response to COVID-19.  This information is now being used to help the Ministry of Education and Training to follow-up with appropriate interventions to ensure that all learners, and particularly those with disabilities, are supported. For example, they are exploring the use of printed booklets to help children with little connectivity and are exploring ways to preserve vital interaction between students and teachers even when learning is remote. 

“Everything is now looked at through a disability lens,” explains Nxumalo. “We can now check to see if we are on track and covering everything when we are developing the sector plan. And we also know that we need the involvement of everyone throughout the process.” 

Mainstreaming disability was applied first to the 2021 Education Sector Analysis. Its architects embraced a participatory approach, including the many partners who support learners with disabilities. Questions typically asked in the ESA process were refocused to address children with all types of learning needs, and the data looked at access rates, types of disabilities, as well as the challenges like repetition in the early grades. 

This also provided an evidenced-based foundation for the development of the forthcoming Education Sector Plan (2022-2034), which calls for inclusive growth for all children, including the most disadvantaged. 

Progress amid a challenging context 

However, today’s progress does not come without new challenges. COVID-19 led to prolonged school closures, and recent political instability and an extreme storm have further complicated learning in Eswatini today. While this has impacted all students and families, the effects have been particularly detrimental for vulnerable learners, including those with disabilities. 

“We have never experienced crises of such magnitude,” says Nxumalo. “We are going back to the drawing board and we need to reimagine education, and not just for COVID-19 but for any crisis.” Looking forward, the two planners hope to apply new solutions for inclusive blended learning, to accompany learners through whatever the future may hold.

“We have to give all children with a disability an opportunity to expand their wings,” says Magagula. 

 

Watch the short film from the IIEP and UNICEF training course: Let's get Fahma back in school!

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