A new Topic Guide on Inclusive Learning has been launched that brings together evidence of what works for children aged 3 to 12 years with disabilities and difficulties in learning in low and middle income countries. Produced by the DFID funded HEART programme at the Institute of Development Studies, this Guide is the first of its kind and is designed to support policy-makers, educational planners, practitioners and advocates in the drive to ensure all children are included and engaged in schools worldwide.
Strategies to achieve mass access to education since 2000 have made schooling a reality for boys and girls from urban centres, high income households and for those fortunate enough to live in countries where supply and demand side factors have created equitable and meaningful access to quality education. Transformative momentum has been brought to bear by international commitments, government policies, civil society engagement and economic growth and yet fee free schooling has not been a panacea for the achievement of universal enrolment.
Disability continues to be one of the most neglected causes of educational disadvantage even though children with disabilities are disproportionately represented among those excluded from schooling. Four out of every five children with disabilities live in developing countries, with the highest levels of moderate and severe disabilities being found in sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi and the United Republic of Tanzania, for instance, having a disability doubles the probability of never having attended school and in Burkina Faso, it increases the risk of children being out of school by two and a half times. Disability also make it less likely for children to complete their schooling.
The economic growth and development that is essential to a renewed, sustainable development agenda will fail without inclusion and a commitment to tackle head on the structural barriers that perpetuate high rates of poverty and vulnerability. Policies that directly target the discrimination and extreme deprivation experienced by marginalised groups, including children with disabilities, are necessary for the benefits of growth to be realised by all.
Access to good quality basic education drives down poverty and improves health and livelihoods, as well as enabling people to fulfil their potential and contribute to open, inclusive and economically vibrant societies. And the costs of exclusion are high. In Bangladesh for example, foregone income due to lack of schooling and employment, both of people with disabilities and their caregivers, is estimated at US$1.2 billion annually, or 1.74% of GDP. More generally, a recent study showed that the economic costs of out of school children is ‘greater than the value of an entire year of GDP growth’ in nine countries: Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Yemen. Even for large middle income countries with low out of school populations, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the costs of out of school children outweighs the additional public spending required to enrol them making it an equitable and cost effective investment.
Lack of detailed national data and established cross-country benchmarks has limited the ability of governments, donors and others to assess, monitor and address the situation of children with disabilities. Although the picture is now changing, with new survey tools, guidelines, toolkits and capacity building programmes, led by the Washington Group and UNICEF, planned for 2015, the political will and commitment needed to drive improvements in data availability and management to date has been insufficient. This has hindered action at national and international levels.
Systemic challenges, such as divided ministerial responsibility across education, health and social protection have also been a barrier to education for children with disabilities by shifting the focus of support onto social welfare and ‘special’ treatment, rather than inclusion and equity. The absence, or inadequacy, of legislation, strategies and targets prevents the inclusion of children with disabilities in education, along with school-level barriers including physical access, inappropriate curricula and pedagogy, inadequate teacher training, labelling and discriminatory attitudes that reinforce the marginalisation.
The complexities in addressing the specific needs of children with disabilities or difficulties in learning that may not arise when designing interventions for other marginalised groups, such as those living in slums or remote rural areas, have challenged policymakers and made disability seem like an intractable ‘problem’ for the sector.
Extending education opportunity to all children, including those with disabilities, needs more than the general expansion of education provision and the improvement of average learning achievement. Policies and other system-wide interventions that directly target children with disabilities and the underlying causes of disadvantage are needed and require political support and leadership to be effective.
One size does not fit all; all countries face their own specific constraints, challenges and opportunities. Action to ensure the inclusion of learners with disabilities works best when it is tailored to local and individual circumstances.
Building on the renewed global focus on learning, and responding to growing concerns about the estimated 250 million children who have failed to learn despite four years of school attendance, this new Topic Guide on Inclusive Learning highlights the importance of ensuring that global strategies prioritise the diverse learning needs of the most marginalised children. We discuss key concepts associated with inclusion and inclusive learning, terminology related to disability, and the difficulties faced in collecting appropriate data. We also addresses some of the dilemmas of the twin-track approach, which involves providing specialist support for children with disabilities, while at the same time promoting generic inclusion. The body of evidence on inclusive learning in LMICs, though weak and fragmented, is presented, with a particular focus on classroom practice, teacher education, school leadership and community engagement. Finally, we explore the relationship between inclusive learning and development more broadly and suggest an agenda for future research directions.
Blog by Juliette Myers, an independent consultant and co-author of the Topic Guide.
Juliette can be followed on twitter, @JLMConsulting. The hashtag #IncEd4dev can be used to join in the conversation with others who have accessed the report. Tweet to us at @HEART_RES to let us know what you think of the Topic Guide.