21st November 2022

For the first time in three years, the 2023 Zambia National Budget will include allocations towards Learners with Special Needs (LSEN). The allocation of K10 million in school grants to schools with learners with special needs is a major pronouncement as Special Education (SE) has not been prioritized in previous National Budgets. The Ministry of Education statistics reveal that the Zambian education system has over 130,000 LSEN at both primary and secondary level. This implies that three learners out of every hundred in the school system have special education needs.

Special Education refers to a form of learning support provided to students with exceptional special needs who require additional support to participate, cope and meet normal learning outcomes. The needs include all physical, neurological, behavioral and social attributes that may limit learning among children. Therefore, since the needs for every individual are diverse, it is critical that more attention is given to special learning programs, teaching approaches, and a conducive learning environment.

Despite the Government’s assertion on enhancing quality education as a right for all and its relevance in addressing socio- economic challenges, achieving inclusion in schools remains a challenge as Learners with Special Education Needs (LSENs) still face many challenges in accessing quality special education due to the significant gaps in the provision of quality special education.

The gaps include limited availability of skilled teachers who are critical in improving the pupil-teacher ratio, limited school infrastructure and the lack of an inclusive examination system. Addressing these challenges is critical in a Government’s ambitions of providing free quality education for ALL.  This will ensure that children with Special Needs achieve optimal education performance at levels their status can allow, which will ultimately lower inequality levels.

In 2022, the Government has made huge steps towards delivering free education, and this was coupled with the mass recruitment of over 30,000 teachers. Much as the mass recruitment of the teachers will undoubtedly improve the overall pupil-teacher ratios, the recruitments did not explicitly target the recruitment of teachers with special education qualifications to cater for LSENs. As a result, Zambia remains way off target on meeting the set standard for the teacher-pupil ratio for special education.

In 2015, the Ministry of Education Standards and Evaluation Guidelines set a standard of one teacher for every five Learners with Special Education Needs (LSENs). However, as of 2018, the teacher-pupil ratio for Special Education stood at 1: 85 implying that there was 85 LSENs for every one teacher compared to the recommended standard of 1:5. This ratio was also much higher than that of ordinary learners who had a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:38 despite requiring less attention in the learning environment. The ratios reflect that, the higher the number, the less effective the education and learning process due to inefficient access of the LSENs to qualified teachers. This will ultimately widen the gap of education disparities in special education, which will weaken the goal of optimal education inclusion in the country.

Learning infrastructure is key in delivering equal access to education for all. However, the infrastructure for delivering quality special education remains limited. Currently, there are less than 60 schools that are solely dedicated for the provision of Special Education nationwide. This suggests that there is one school for every 2300 LSENs, whereas in comparison, there is one school for every 400 ordinary learners. With the limited inclusive learning infrastructure for LSENs to cope, ordinary schools are brought into service and most of these schools allocate a single classroom for all LSENs irrespective of grade and status of disability. This affects the education performance rates of the pupils which is critical in improving transition and completion rates at all levels of education.

LSENs also face challenges related to progression through the school system due to limited customization of approaches. Case in point, LSENs are required to sit for the same exams as learners without special needs regardless of their cognitive or physical abilities. As a result, learners with more severe disabilities such as those without limbs and those suffering from neurological and developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy and autism cannot fully participate is some or all of the exams.

To remedy these challenges, the Government must prioritize expenditure towards LSEN and ensure that the budget commitment reflects an inclusive education system. Though the allocation of K10 million to schools for LSENs to be used to purchase teaching and learning materials will improve the quality of teaching in special education, it must be further increased to address the aforementioned challenges which include learning infrastructure and revision of school curricula. Further, to improve the pupil-teacher ratio, a more inclusive recruitment process must be employed to meet the demands for special education. Finally, the Government is urged to review the examination policy to ensure that the administration of examinations is inclusive and accommodates LSEN. This process will require adopting an examinations system that reflects the fact that some LSEN could have different education outcomes. Education must be provided in a manner that reduces inequalities and allows every child to achieve their maximum potential.

 ‘If a child cannot learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn’. Ignacio Estrada

By: Liana Chikwekwe and Miselo Bwalya

The authors are researchers at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, MNDP Complex, Cnr John Mbita & Nationalist Roads, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: info@zipar.org.zm