Driving Inclusive Education in Nigeria: from Policy to the Classroom

Written by Jennifer Ihuoma Abraham

with supporting information from *Angela Emuwa and *Queen Onolaja.

Presently, most schools in Nigeria do not accept children with disabilities. Yet, Nigeria is signatory to many resolutions and international conventions that refute educational exclusion:

Nigeria is a member state of the United Nations (UN) and has signed and ratified many of their international declarations, conventions and policies [UNESCO, 1994; UNESCO, 2000; The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (UN Enable, 2008); Policy Guidelines on Inclusion in Education (UNESCO, 2009)] that promote inclusive education.

The right to education is rooted in international protocols and conventions (Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949; Article 2 of the Convention on the Right of the Child (UN, 1989)). In Nigerian local laws and policies, one of the provisions of the Child’s Rights Act, 2003, is that every Nigerian child has the right to free, compulsory and universal primary education.

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1994) advocates inclusive education; stipulating that all children regardless of their individual differences and difficulties are entitled to receive their education in regular schools. The statement urges all countries worldwide to adopt inclusive approaches to education in order to achieve the Education for All (UNESCO, 1990) objectives.

In addition, schools are required to make the necessary provisions to respond to the diverse needs of all children, including those with special needs. Similarly, UNESCO restated these ideas of inclusive education in the Dakar Framework for Action (2000). The right to education is entrenched in some African human rights treaties like the Organisation of African Unity (1981) African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the Organisation of African Unity (1990) African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

As co-signer to all these international and local treaties, no child should be rejected by any school in Nigeria based on disability. Children with special needs ought to have facilities made available to them in at least the public schools and when government is unable to do that, it should provide financial support to parents to enable them enrol their children in private schools that can accommodate them. It is not fair that parents are allowed to bear the entire burden without support.
The system gets support to push the education for all by 2015 agenda but unfortunately, leaves children with disabilities behind in the implementation of this goal and where, in some instances there is an attempt at inclusion, the effort focuses more on access to the neglect of quality; and is almost always directed at physical disabilities, not catering to the needs of children with developmental disabilities. The inclusion model also relies heavily on the medical model whereas in more civilised environments, they use the social model of disability. The social model tries to remove from the environment barriers; attitudes, structures, practice that disable people. Sometimes even the curriculum, instructional materials, teachers’ classroom management style, can be a barrier to children with special needs; disenabling them from accessing qualitative education.

Inclusive education entails that every child, regardless of disability or other differences, should have access to any school of their choice and be supported to participate in classroom activities. It is the duty of the teacher, as the classroom manager, to devise enriching activities and experiences that engage all the learners without anyone feeling left out.

Again there is also the problem of schools treating the teachers as puppets and not allowing them to use their initiative in creating conducive classroom environments for children in their charge and to adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of their students. The trend in the developed countries is that teachers are allowed to function as decision makers in the classroom not only in terms of the environment but also as implementers of the curriculum. The key is to ensure that only professionals are allowed to work as teachers and then they are empowered to take charge and manage their classrooms. Experts say that teachers should even have a say on how seats are arranged in the classroom to ensure that every child benefits from class activities and enjoys the learning experience.

It is believed that schools should be able to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate these children and help them grow their potentials. It should be appreciated that in a classroom environment, there are multiple kinds of intelligence. Individual differences in the classroom entails that pupils present with varying degrees of intelligence and that some children are visual learners, some are auditory while some others may be kinesthetic and so on.

Teachers are therefore expected to have an open mind towards their pupils; not giving up on any child as unresponsive or slow. Instead, a good teacher would explore different teaching techniques and adopt the ones that best address the individual needs of the learners.

Unfortunately, the learning setting in Nigeria has remained traditional and conservative over the years. Elsewhere, it is changing as both teachers and students are allowed a voice in the design and arrangement of the learning environment. For example, the average Nigerian school has all the children facing one direction; an arrangement that makes it difficult to manage overcrowded classrooms.

Also, the students are always listening to the teacher facing the white/blackboard and constantly copying notes without themselves feeling like participants or stakeholders in the learning enterprise. Sometimes the children do not even understand the notes they copy. That way, learning is made tedious and placed beyond the reach of some students who may never be able to learn by rote. The system needs to open up more to accommodate different categories of learners. Some physically challenged children may never be able to write with their hands while some children with autism may not be able to communicate with speech. Such children need to be supported to succeed in their educational pursuits through the provision of ipads. Education strategies should be designed to help the children succeed irrespective of their abilities otherwise the goals of education would not be met.

It is generally observed that teachers in Nigeria face many challenges, especially in the area of pupil/teacher ratio. Yet, the committed teacher (where such is allowed to use personal initiative), can work creatively to surmount whatever difficulties that present in the classroom situation. The classroom can be arranged such that students are divided into groups where they seat at tables facing one another with the teacher moving round freely to attend to students’ needs. One advantage of this setup is that the students in their individual groups can learn from one another. Teaching assistants (even some non teaching staff like cleaners who are idle for most of the day can be trained) to assist the classroom teachers; especially to keep children with Attention Deficit Disorders and other disabilities on task. The principle of inclusive education demands that children should feel free to attend any school of their choice; and that schools should be able to make reasonable adjustments to admit diverse categories of students. It is therefore not right to consign children with disabilities to special schools where they are to relate with only their ‘kind’ as this robs them of the opportunity to learn from their peers who may be better skilled in some areas. For example, children with autism who have communications challenges could pick up social skills from their regular peers in a diversified classroom environment. Typical children also benefit from Inclusive education as it exposes them to the natural diversity of the environment; engendering social and emotional growth amongst the children.

To be able to drive inclusive education in our schools, it is important that all teachers receive training on how to manage children with disabilities. Experts suggest that student-teachers should be put through classroom behaviour management courses to ensure that they really pick up skills on how to build their students instead of beating them down with negative and obsolete management techniques. Teacher attitude is usually the first and most lasting barrier that children with disabilities meet in the schools; making it difficult for them to benefit from school experiences and activities. Current thinking suggests that Government, as a matter of policy, exposes all student teachers to special education courses so that every qualified teacher comes prepared with the knowledge of how to handle individual differences in the classroom; including children with disabilities. This would be the most impacting and decisive way to lift barriers to education in our schools and entrench goal-oriented inclusive education.

Besides exposing teachers to special education modules while in training, it would also be helpful if they are taught about international and local laws on the rights of children; especially as it affects education. That way, professional teachers would appreciate that children have rights and would therefore be careful to not infringe on those rights in the discharge of their duties. Child rights activists also advise that parents should learn to fight for the protection of the rights of their children in school and should report infractions and where necessary, sue offending schools and teachers to serve as deterrent to others. There is ability in every child and it is the duty of that good school, that good teacher, to give every child the opportunity to discover and grow it.

*Angela Emuwa is the President of Parents against Autism Initiative, PAAi. *Queen Onolaja is the Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning Company, ITL. She holds a degree in Law, a Post Graduate in Primary Education, A Masters in Special Education and is Working on a Professional Doctorate in Special Needs Inclusive Education.

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