Blog: Disability and school-readiness in rural Malawi

Photo: © Paul Lynch 2017

Apr 2017

Equity and the complexities of school-readiness

Since 2014 the UN, through its Sustainable Development Goals, (Goal 4.2) has begun to prioritise early childhood development seeking to ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’.

We know, thanks to overwhelming evidence, that high-quality Early Child Development (ECD) programmes benefit all children’s development (motor, cognitive, psycho-social and emotional wellbeing), life experiences and life chances. But in what contexts are young children with disabilities supported; and prepared for primary education? 

Children with disabilities don’t always follow the same pathways as ‘typically’ developing children. They often need support and guidance that address the more practical skills needed for their daily environment; their situation compounded by social status, gender and health conditions - and yet they are often expected to comply with rules, routines and subject-based curricula. It is these complexities which form the basis of my current research project funded by the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes Programme - ‘Let’s Grow Together’ which looks at promoting greater inclusion of children with disabilities in ECD centres in rural Malawi.

The challenge of measuring ‘school-readiness’ in rural Malawi

Currently, there are no reliable assessments to measure ‘school-readiness’ of children attending Community Based Child Care Centres (CBCCs) including children with disabilities in Malawi. This is a big problem when trying to measure emerging and developing pre-school skills of young children, particularly for those who will be entering primary school.

In Malawi, ECD is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare. The model of Community Based Child Care (CBCC) has been developing for over 30 years with the main objective of creating a self-sustaining childcare system, initiated, managed, and owned by the communities themselves.  Children attend these centres which are usually located within the same or a neighbouring village as the child, for three hours. The structures vary enormously from having dedicated, child-friendly rooms to borrowed buildings (e.g. a local church, a villager’s home) or outside under a tree.  All community-based child centres should be registered at the district social welfare office which provides guidelines on safety as well as a register and monitoring tools.

The absence of appropriate assessment tools means that ECD teachers have no way to measure children’s progress between one term to the next. Many children (including children with disabilities) attending the ECD centres are missing out on important ‘windows of opportunities’ in early-years development to increase their chances of being ‘school-ready’. They are not provided with opportunities to communicate their needs and solve problems.

To enable caregivers the ability to assess children’s development and to identify ways to support those children who are underperforming or have a delay in the best way they can, it is essential that there are appropriate tools and approaches in place. Having simple, easy to use, assessment tools that not only measure child development but also assess children’s levels of engagement (e.g. curiosity, discovery, anticipation, etc.) should encourage teachers (pre- and primary school) to give appropriate attention to the development of concepts and skills that are prerequisites for progressing on to the school curriculum.

'Let’s Grow Together' – promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities in identifying appropriate assessment measures

‘Let’s Grow Together’ is a project seeking to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities through the adaptation of assessment tools, as well as teaching curricula and teaching methods in a rural district of Southern Malawi. We are doing a trial as well as follow-up case study work to track the effectiveness of an early education intervention training programme for pre-school personnel (caregivers) who are responsible for the care and development of key developmental and educational skills of all children, including children with disabilities, between the ages of three and five.

The early stages of the project have carried out a review of current assessments and measures of key domain skills in ECD.  Through consultations with experts, the project team identified a set of tools that look at the child’s development and learning outcomes, rate the quality of provision of ECD centres (as well as rate the level of inclusion for children with disabilities) and a set of tools that ask a set of questions about a child’s daily functioning as well as identify any impairment or disability.  All tools either include questions on disability or help to identify children who fail tasks which are either at or below their chronological age. For instance, the Malawi Development Assessment Tool has the sensitivity to identify children with a potential neuro-developmental delay.

Early results indicate that a high proportion children in each of the ECD centres assessed (over half of 44 centres) are unable to perform the most basic pre-literacy ‘school-readiness’ tasks such as hold a book in the correct way or recognise 10 letters of the alphabet. When children are assessed on a pre-literacy task – such as holding a book correctly – this relies on the children having had exposure to print, pictures and books meaning that children who have little or no access to books won’t perform well in the assessment, including children with disabilities.

So, the quality of ECD programmes are dependent upon multiple dimensions that include opportunities for children to develop literacy skills that are ‘experience dependent’ and where the social and cultural context i.e. participating within an environment such as a CBCC is conducive to such learning. Other factors such as the intensity and duration of the teaching, the skills of staff and carers’ own literacy levels as well as the physical and social set up of the learning environment play an important role too.

Quality vs Outcomes

International organisations and national governments expect ‘high quality’ ECD, but there are issues around standards (e.g. set at an international, national or local level) and how they have been validated. So, there is a dilemma, should governments, like Malawi, enforce regulations that promote quality, but don’t have the resources to assure adequate inspection and monitoring. Or should the focus be on child outcomes and/or on other outcomes such as staff performance or on accessible and adequate resources that promote child development or levels of interaction and involvement of parents with staff?

All these aspects are very important for children with disabilities and their families but also for all children. This project hopes to respond to these important questions, ultimately having a strong impact on the development and learning of children with disabilities in Malawi and beyond.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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