It started with a partnership between the British Council and the government in Malawi – and now, thanks to passionate teachers and new pedagogical approaches, four children with special educational needs in Malawi have made enormous progress with their literacy skills.  And they’ve increased their confidence too.  

“I’ve worked in the education sector for 25 years by now and this is one of the best things that I’ve ever been involved in,” says Sian Williams.  Sian is a British Council trainer and for the last few months, he’s been working on the Connecting Classrooms Inclusive Pedagogies course in Malawi. 

Twenty schools from Lilongwe sent teachers and leaders to participate in the course, which offers practical support with inclusive education.  Over two days they learned a variety of techniques, such as inclusive classroom management and differentiating learning, as well as exploring the theoretical concepts around inclusion.  Then it was back to school to put the learning into practice, before reconvening after three months to share the results. 

The course was a result of a partnership between the British Council and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) in Malawi.  The Ministry has recently developed a national strategy to promote equitable access to education and the British Council was looking to provide support, through Connecting Classrooms core skills training. 

Changing mind-sets

One of the schools participating in the course was Chitedze, a large primary school with over 1000 learners in the rural outskirts of Lilongwe in Malawi.  The ratio of teachers to children is about 1:100.  Martha Chagoma Mohango runs the SEN resource room in the school.  Here, she teaches small groups of learners with SEN on a part-time basis, when they are withdrawn from mainstream classes for specific support in academic and life skills. 

After attending the Connecting Classrooms Inclusive Pedagogies training, Martha decided she wanted to change the mind-set of her colleagues about four individual students.  These students have a variety of difficulties affecting their reading and writing: communication, fine motor skills, visual and cognitive.  Martha wanted to show the other teachers that these students have the capability to make progress.

Planning strategies

Martha started off by looking at the four learners’ individual needs and made a plan for each learner.  Part of this plan was to consult with the parents and she discovered, through asking about the birth and early development stories of the children, that most of them had had problems including cerebral malaria and premature birth.  The parents’ persistence in sending their children to school gave a clear message about the importance of education for all. 

Her conversations with the families helped Martha to plan for each student, and also gave the teachers some high-quality background information which increased their understanding of the students.  Martha shared the individual plans with the students’ teachers to let them know what she would be doing, and what they needed to do differently to support the learners in class.  This included help with communication such as modifying print for the visually impaired learner, using gestures to communicate meaning and using seating plans to make sure that learners were near the teacher and could see, hear, or lip-read.  Martha also set out plans for working with students physically to help them with letter formation and breaking down content into its smallest teachable units.  In addition, she taught basic life skills in the Resource Room to increase the children’s confidence. 

Martha carried out some specific teaching in the resource room, but she also made sure that the learners spent the main portion of their time in mainstream classes, and supported the teachers to use the strategies she had planned for each learner in this setting. Martha also arranged for the school’s leadership team to run a series of assemblies about difference and inclusion to coincide with the project.

Growing in confidence

As a result of this initiative, two of the students are now able to read and write to the extent where they can engage in the same classroom activities as their peers. The other two students are making good progress. 

Martha has observed these students interacting more with their peers during break times; she connected this with the range of life skills activities the students undertook, which seemed to have increased their confidence.  Parents also reported an improvement in this area at home.

Through discussion with teachers, Martha discovered that their mind-sets towards these students have changed, noting: “It seems now the teacher is working hand in hand with the children.” With some additional knowledge, skills and support from Martha, teachers felt more able to teach these learners within their large classes. Teachers also felt that the emotional wellbeing of these students had improved; they were involved in more classes and fellow students were going out of their way to include them more.

Sharing success

Other schools are reporting similar achievements, underlining the success of the training.  Many teachers started by thinking of an individual student who would benefit from more inclusive classroom practice; but they often found that the change had not only benefited the individual, but the rest of their class as well. 

The Ministry is keen to expand and has already identified another 21 schools to receive Connecting Classrooms training.  Christina Mussa, Director for Secondary and Distance Education in Malawi, said“[The Inclusive Pedagogies programme] has worked because we have evidence of how enthusiastic our teachers are, using this pedagogy, and so some of our teachers… on their own are taking it to other schools…  that’s a very positive development.”