Pay attention to children’s special needs

SHARE   |   Monday, 10 April 2017   |   By Dr Philip Bulawa

In previous articles on issues of education, I’ve highlighted a number of possible factors likely to have continuously contributed to poor academic performance in our public schools. These include class size and others all of which one could argue are within the remit of the Ministry of Basic Education and practitioners directly involved in teaching and learning. Over the years however, there have also been other possible key contributory factors to declining performance, mainly to do with implementation of inappropriate policies. Cases in point are reforms that have previously been imposed on the education sector under the pretext that they would be a boost to the learners’ academic outcomes. When some of these initiatives were introduced their relevance to pedagogy was always questionable. While those directly involved in teaching and learning such as teachers, academics and leaders in education were very much aware of their irrelevance, what they probably lacked was the courage to reject that which was imposed on the nation by none practitioners particularly, politicians and to a considerable extent, policy-makers as well. One such instance was when government took a decision to transform the education structure to two-year junior certificate and three-year Cambridge, in spite of strong reservations and protestations against such a reform. The government without basing their decision on any empirical evidence considered this a plausible transformation that would among other things, positively impact on the quality of teaching and learning. I still recall vividly a visit by top government officials to Tutume sub-region in the 1980s under the pretext that they had come to solicit teachers’ ideas regarding the feasibility of changing secondary education structure to a two-year JC and three-year Cambridge. Right from the onset when this idea was presented teachers found it not only crazy but also weird and irrational, and based on their experience and expertise in education, they made it absolutely and explicitly clear that it was never going to add value to the quality of teaching and learning, but would in contrast, adversely affect quality. This infuriated the officers, especially the team leader, and all of a sudden he in turn categorically and without mincing his words, told the gathering that, in actual fact their mission was not really to solicit for ideas, but to convey information that the government had already taken a decision to that effect. That was the end of story and the next thing the programme was introduced, and as fate would have it, this proved a complete disaster forcing government to revert to the original tried and tested three-year JC and two-year Cambridge. Of course these guys were cunning in that when they sensed that the idea of a controversial reform such as this one would never prevail among professionals, they would lump them together with parents whose understanding of issues on education was very minimal. The sole purpose of doing that was certainly to use them to rubber stamp their imposed top-down decisions. The Work Improvement Teams (WITS) was yet another reform that was introduced for implementation in the public service including education, which in my view was not as crazy, weird and irrational as the idea of the two-year JC. Teachers and other participants learnt at different seminars that were held that WITS was a Singaporean initiative and that it had made tremendous improvement in productivity in that country. I must admit when those who went to benchmark in Singapore interpreted the reform, it made some of sense, but again it still proved cumbersome trying to contextualise it to teaching and learning. With the passage of time WITS died a natural death, most probably mainly because of lack of fit. The reality is that while on paper it made some sort of sense, practically it did not add much value to teaching and learning.

Owing to government’s fear of embarrassing itself by pronouncing the demise of WITS, officials chose to hoodwink the nation into believing that it had actually become an integral part of the performance management system (PMS) another very costly reform that did not contribute much in terms of quality teaching and learning. The PMS was for all intents and purposes, another imposed reform based on an assumption by the World Bank that if it had improved productivity in developed countries such as New Zealand and the USA, it would work for Botswana. You see copying the New Zealand way of doing things was always going to be difficult for Botswana, because in the former’s case the education sector was entirely redesigned, reformed, reorganised, or reconfigured in one way or another. For instance, for New Zealand performance management in terms of education administration, which comprised both staff appraisal and staff development, and became mandatory, had the support of a nation-wide continuous professional development programme (Boston & Pallot, 1997; Cardino, 2005; Bulawa, 2012), which was not the case in Botswana. In Botswana this reform was introduced piece-meal or in a fragmentary way with very limited resources and the human resource which had very little knowledge and skills to implement a borrowed reform such as the PMS. One could sense that even our politicians and Executive government officers who had the responsibility of driving this reform did not seem to believe in it at all, but were just acting on the advice or coercion of a transnational organisation, the World Bank in this case. While these were the people who were supposed to have sanctioned and spearheaded implementation of PMS, they were only visible in the initial stages of its inception largely to glorify the reform and then disappeared into thin air leaving it in the hands of largely reluctant middle management and the most junior officers many of whom grappled with a reform they did not seem to fully comprehend. The painful reality was that our leaders were so naïve to believe (if at all they believed) the World Bank and therefore, assumed that since the PMS had been widely used and tested by many successful and global leading organisations and governments elsewhere it would also be a suitable reform for Botswana (Bulawa, 2012). Again the fact that in education PMS never really worked could be because it was mainly suited for industry. I understand schools today continue to complete PMS-related documentation such as PDPs, and I have been wondering why continue with this tedious and wasteful exercise resource wise, which has not produced any tangible results at least in terms of student academic performance. I mean the deplorable academic results that have continued for several years are a clear indication that in education it has not been helpful at all. Obviously the glaring weakness with PMS was that it was introduced as a one size fits all reform which did not seem to fit the context of education. In all these reforms a common major flaw was implementation without having made an attempt to pilot with a small sample of organisations. Of cause piloting might not necessarily suggest success of a reform, but the advantage of doing it is that it would give implementers the opportunity to monitor and evaluate on a smaller scale, receive feedback and make some adjustments where there is need to do so. That means one has the latitude to overtime, determine whether to continue with implementation on a larger scale or withdraw the reform before further resources could be wasted.

Against this background, it should always be the responsibility of teachers, academics and others to engage government on issues of relevance in education, to avoid a situation of implementing politically motivated reforms with very minimal chance of adding value to the quality of education. I believe that while there are several other factors at play in the poor performance of our learners that need attention, the way to go is for our education system to give priority to assessment of children with special educational needs and disabilities at an early stage of their learning. For me while there are other areas that should also be explored, the one that has the highest propensity to be responsible for the declining academic performances if not addressed as a matter of urgency, is that of undetected special needs and disabilities that may be inherent in some learners. My argument and strong conviction about this as being a major factor is largely on account of extensive and mainly conclusive research to that effect. In as much as the research referred to in this case is not about Botswana, there is ample evidence suggesting that countries which have paid attention and prioritised children’s special needs, have experienced a great deal of improvement in the academic performance of learners. It is my well-considered view that the time is now for all teachers, especially at kindergarten, pre-primary and lower primary to be given pre-service and in-service training not just to identify children with special needs and disabilities, but also on how to deal with their situation from an informed position. Molosiwa and Monyatsi (2016) reveal that in undertaking such assessment, this will be an opportunity for all learners to find themselves receiving their education alongside each other in a general education classroom with support that enables individual learners to achieve their own potential. These scholars refer to this as assessment for inclusion which has the advantage of inter alia, enabling teachers to know their learners very well to be in a position to state curriculum objectives for learners in a different way. I entirely agree with Molosiwa and Monyatsi that for this to bear fruit there is need to include parents and caregivers in the assessment for inclusion since they are likely to have a better understanding of how best their children learn. These avalanches of failures that I have highlighted above are a result of what is not aligned to the core business of what we do as educators, which is teaching and learning. We therefore as educators have an obligation to determine the nature of reforms possibly most suitable for teaching and learning such assessment for inclusion, and further direct the pace such reforms should take. The position that I am selling here will certainly have major cost implications, as it would obviously mean a huge budget for a project of this magnitude. Nevertheless, given the gravity of what has been going on in our schools performance wise, in the long run this could turn out to be money worth spent on a noble cause, in comparison to reforms on which we have spent so much resources but bore no fruit whatsoever.
*Dr Philip Bulawa is a member of Botswana Congress Party in Tati West, Sekakangwe