Starting the journey towards inclusive education in Cameroon
Bridget A. Longla Fobuzie
Bridget has been teaching in secondary education in the English-speaking North West Region of Cameroon, West Africa, for over 20 years. In 2009 she became involved with the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS) whose mission is to improve the quality of life of persons with disabilities. When visiting relatives in the UK in 2010, she searched for resources that would help her train teachers in inclusive ways of working. The idea of inclusion is new and challenging for teachers, but many see it as an opportunity for professional development. Here she describes the impact of this journey on her day-to-day practice as a teacher and on teacher development in Cameroon.
I trained to be an English teacher in 1989 in Cameroon, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I began to question the training I had received. With student populations getting more diverse, I began to reflect on my training as a teacher; perhaps I had not been adequately trained to teach students from diverse backgrounds, with different abilities and learning styles, and those with disabilities who were now conspicuously present in mainstream classrooms?
In 2009, CBCHS asked me to work with them on their Socio-Economic Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Programme (SEEPD). This led me to ask questions about how inclusive education can be developed in our region, which has approximately two million people and over 200 schools.
In Cameroon, special schools are owned and run by church organisations and by individuals as businesses. There are no state-run special schools. CBCHS has been operating two special schools; the Integrated School for the Blind in Banso and the Integrated School for the Deaf in Mbingo, both in the North West Region of Cameroon. In addition to these they support learners with visual impairments in some mainstream schools (government-owned) by stationing staff in the school who Braille documents for teachers and learners. With more children with visual and other impairments craving education beyond the primary level, CBCHS realised they would not have the resources to support the increasing number of students with impairments. If government took over the responsibility, then not only would the learners be better resourced but more children with visual and other impairments would attend school and be included.
Searching for relevant information
When I started looking I was amazed by how much information there was about inclusive education on the Internet! It was difficult to know where to start. UNESCO’s documents proved very useful. Their strategies are in simple language and easy to follow. I wasn’t looking at the various different perspectives on inclusion at that time. We focused on UNESCO’s definition of inclusive education because it sat well with SEEPD’s focus – the disability aspect of inclusive education – and was relevant to us and the Cameroon context. The SEEPD education team then sought materials that deal with different impairments, classroom implications and strategies to identify and address the learning needs of learners with impairments. While we looked at a wide range of impairments, including autism, we focused more on visual, hearing, mild orthopaedic and speech impairments. As time went on we started venturing into attention deficit hyperactive disorder and attention deficit disorder and dyslexia.
After exploring the literature, we decided that a bottom-up approach would be more effective. We envisaged a lot of resistance from education authorities and teachers, which is typical when major changes are introduced. However, we felt that if we had the teachers (since they would do the practical implementation) and parents on our side, convincing government to buy into the inclusive agenda would be relatively easier than coaxing government to institute a policy first.
Developing a strategy
We began by holding consultative meetings in the form of seminars and workshops with education stakeholders in the region. This included directors of teacher training colleges, heads of departments of colleges and education authorities in the region like divisional delegates of secondary education, pedagogic inspectors and advisers. We began in Mezam Division and then moved to the region’s other six divisions.
The main aim of these meetings was to highlight the educational challenges children with impairments were facing in school and how such challenges were contributing to their low levels of achievement and school attendance.
We started piloting an inclusive approach in 14 schools – one primary and one secondary school from each of the region’s seven divisions – with funding from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and CBM Australia. When visiting relatives in England, I contacted Richard Rieser at World of Inclusion1 and Tara Flood at the Alliance for Inclusive Education2 and others. My meeting with them boosted my confidence and I realised we did not need sophisticated resources to go inclusive. It is a change of attitude and the willingness of the teachers and school heads that matters most.
We developed a handbook for teachers based on materials from books on strategies on teaching children with impairments. We organised one-day workshops in each division for teachers of the pilot schools to prepare them for practical implementation, which has been going on since September 2010. We visit these schools once a term to support teachers and further strengthen their capacities through mini workshops, where teachers celebrate their successes and brainstorm feasible solutions to the challenges they face. At the beginning, teachers saw inclusive education as just including children with impairments and so many were not keen. Interestingly, they now see inclusion as an excellent way of engaging ALL learners and becoming better teachers. Consequently the demand for our workshops is soaring!
Looking to the future
We are working with Cameroon General Certificate of Education Board to make all end-of-course examinations accessible to candidates with impairments. On invitation by the Higher Teacher Training College in Bambili in the North West Region, we have started to teach a course on inclusive education in the Department of Guidance Counseling. The plan is to make inclusive education a mandatory course for all teachers in training in the college.
There are plans underway for SEEPD to meet with and present their work to the ministers of basic and secondary education. We are optimistic about the future.
c/o The SEEPD Programme
Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services
North West Region, Cameroon
1 World of Inclusion: www.worldofinclusion.com
2 Alliance for Inclusive Education: www.allfie.org.uk