ISEC 2000 logo

Presented at ISEC 2000

Inclusive Education in Africa: A Myth or Reality? A Zambian Case Study

Dr. Mwamba D Kalabula, University of Zambia


Special Education in Africa is still a new concept to many of its nations. Its planning, organisation and orientation has been characterised by poor funding, lack of information, negative attitudes, selfish interests among its so-called experts, cultural influences and a general lack of commitment by those who are responsible for running the education system.

Many African countries have shown theoretical interest on Special Education by formulating policies such as mainstreaming, family, community or social rehabilitation, and by showing the desire to give concrete meaning to the idea of equalising education opportunities for all children irrespective of their physical and mental conditions. Despite this interest, the dreams of the majority of children with special educational needs are a far cry from the desired policies or from the educationally correct attitudes and provisions.

This paper attempts to highlight the efforts that have been made in this direction in Zambia, and to give the negative and positive attributes of these efforts. Recommendations for the way forward are proposed as a summary.


Before I embark on the discussion of inclusive education in Africa, particularly in Zambia, allow me to briefly introduce the country to you so that what will follow in the discussion will be fully understood.

Zambia lies 10 to 18 degrees South of the Equator on a gently undulating plateau of savannah country between 900 and 1,500 metres above sea-level. This makes the country temperate, with but few discomforts associated with the Tropics. The country covers an area of 752,620 square kilometres or the size of Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium combined. Of this area 65,000 square kilometres is a preserve for nineteen National Parks. It is the birth place of the fabled Congo and the mighty Zambezi river; the latter winding 2,700 kilometres to the Indian Ocean, its course broken by vast gorges and rapids and the greatest drop of them all, Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-tunya), one of the Seven Wonders of the World and the most imposing sight in Southern Africa. Zambia is bounded to the East by Malawi, to the North by Tanzania, to the North-West by Democratic Republic of Congo, to the West by Angola, to the South-West by Botswana, to the South by Zimbabwe, and to the South-East by Mozambique. According to 1990 population estimates, Zambia is believed to have approximately 10.5 million, almost half of whom are in the 5 - 15 age cohorts, which is the official school going age range.

Socio-Economic Context

During the past two decades the Zambian economy has experienced serious difficulties which have limited its expansion. Critical problems have included the failure to diversify the structure of the economy and the internal imbalance evidenced by the high rate of inflation in the period since 1986. Since large-scale copper mining began in 1920s and 1930s, Zambia has been vulnerable to exogenous changes in the price of copper, a characteristic that remains unchanged today when copper still forms the backbone of the economy. This vulnerability was evident during the 1970s and much of the 1980s when a protracted decline in copper prices, in conjunction with a decline in copper output and a rapidly increasing population, contributed to a fall of one third in per capita Gross Domestic Product.

To address this situation, the present Government adopted in 1992 a wide variety of policy and institutional changes designed to rehabilitate the economy. The changes were based on the conviction that Government should not undertake what the private sector can do at least as well, and where predicated on the importance of allowing market forces to operate. The strategies adopted consisted in monetary and budgetary measures designed to stabilize the economy, by curbing inflation rates and reducing budget deficits, and in market and trade arrangements designed to make the economy more efficient through market operations, privatization and liberalization. Measures were also taken to relieve the social problems that had accompanied the economic decline and to lessen the negative impact of economic restructuring on the poor and most vulnerable in society.

However, despite the measures that were adopted, and the discernible increase in trading activities in the 1990s, the economy has continued to decline. The real GDP fell by 2.5% in 1992, by 3.1% in 1994 and by 3.9% in 1995. The only year in this decate when a decline was not registered was 1993, when the exceptional performance of the agricultural sector contributed to a real GDP increase of 6.5%. The generally poor performance of the economy in the 1990s is attributable to a variety of factors such as recurring droughts which negatively affected the agricultural sector, production difficulties in the mining sector, and poor performance by the manufacturing sector.

Impact on Social Provision

The economy decline has made it difficult for the Government to meet its social and economic obligations. The accesses of the poor and vulnerable groups to social services continues to be limited, while there has also been an increase in the number of people living under deteriorating social conditions. The incidence of poverty has increased, a notable feature being the substantial increase in the proportion of extremely poor people living in the urban areas.

The economic crisis that has characterized the Zambian economy for the past twenty years has resulted in a substantial reduction in the share of national resources going to the education sector. For example, from 1974 to 1983 there was a decline of 38% in total education expenditure and a further decline of 50% in the period of 1983 to 1991. The proportion of the total public budget allocated to the education and training ministries, which stood at over 16% in 1984, declined to below 8% in 1991, and in the years since then has fluctuated around 10.5%. These sharp reductions occurred during years when, because of unsatisfied demands and a rapidly increasing population, enrollments in almost all education and training programmes tended to increase. As a result of the high population growth rate, about 48% of the country's total population is aged 15 or less. The youth (those aged 15-25) constitute a quarter of the population and are increasing at an average annual rate of 4.4%. This phenomenon presents the sector with the challenge of meeting the educational and training needs of large numbers of young people and of expanding services to respond to the needs of growing number of children.

The General Picture of Existing Education and Training Situation

The Ministry of Education Provides primary, secondary, teacher, continuing/non-formal and distance education. The Ministry also has the responsibility for general and tertiary policy on education. On the professional side, it discharges its responsibilities through an inspectorate which is an integral part of the Ministry structure, a Curriculum Development Centre which is responsible for the development of the curriculum and support materials from pre-school to secondary level, a Directorate of Continuing Education, and an autonomous Examinations Council which has statutory responsibility for all non-university public examinations.

Preliminary data show that in 1995 there were 4,000 primary schools with an enrollment of 1,808,560 pupils, and 591 secondary schools with an enrollment of 253,000 pupils. The secondary schools comprised 411 basic schools (i.e., Grades 8 and 9 in schools that run from Grade 1 to 9), 47 grant-aided schools (owned and run principally by churches), and 133 conventional government schools.

Constraints on the Provision of Education and Training

Although there have been increases in the number of schools, colleges, institutions and programmes, and in the number of students benefiting from such increase, the sector still faces problems of access, equity and quality, arising from a number of factors.


Access to suitable education and training has been inhibited by inadequate development and provision in the sector; the increasing poverty of people; the poor health status of much of the clientele; and distances to learning centres.

The rapid rate of population growth, which lies within the range 2.7-3.1% per annum, has outstripped the economy's capacity to expand facilities and programmes within the sector. Thus the national gross enrolled ratio for primary schools fell from 96.6% in 1986 to 88.9% in 1995. There is enough room in primary schools in urban areas to accommodate all 7- year-old children, with the result that about one quarter of them are denied access each year. Access to secondary education is equally limited, with only about one third of primary school leavers entering Grade 8 and less than one-third of these proceeding, on completion of Grade 9, into Grade 10 to finish the full secondary cycle.

The extent of this demand is revealed by the fact that in 1995, over 120,000 young people left school upon completion of Grade 7; 40,000 left after Grade 9 and 25,000 left after Grade 12. The universities, colleges and training institutions could absorb fewer than 7,500 of these (almost all of them being Grade 12-leavers). For the remainder, virtually no opportunities exist for further learning or for acquiring the skills needed for a productive and sustainable life.

The increase in poverty has exacerbated the problem of access. Many of the poor are unable to afford even the low costs associated with participation in school or training programmes. They also feel a greater need for the involvement of their children in their household economics and in the generation of the resources they need for survival. The result is an increasing number of children who do not enroll in school, who do not complete the primary cycle, or who are withdrawn early by their parents. Cultural and social practices, particularly those affecting girls, also contribute to this failure to make adequate use of existing facilities for education.

Poverty is frequently accompanied by extensive child malnutrition, tuberculosis, sicknesses occasioned by poor sanitation and inadequate access to safe source of drinking water, and a range of vitamin deficiencies. These factors adversely affect child development and the possibility of profitable participation in education. The nationwide impact of HIV/AIDS further aggravates the situation for young children, particularly by increasing the number of orphans and child-headed households, and for youths and adults whose health or economic situation debars them from further participation.

The single most important determinant of primary school enrollment is the presence or absence of a school, within easy reach of children of primary school age. The long distances that many rural and urban children must walk are a serious deterrent to school participation. Similarly, long distances to learning centres negatively affect participation in available non-formal education programmes, particularly the literacy progammes. The narrow geographical coverage of institutions that provide non-formal programmes has also limited access to this form of education. Rural inhabitants, in particular, do not enjoy many opportunities in this regard.


Equity in education and training refers to the way in which resources for these purposes are distributed among individuals or groups. The general policy of the Government, in tandem with United Nations' numerous policies, is that every person in Zambia, regardless of place of residence, poverty, gender or disability, should be able to participate fully and on an equitable basis in education and training. In practice, there are great imbalances in provision, particularly for the disabled children.

Despite the fact that equal numbers of boys and girls enroll in Grade 1, fewer girls than boys are found in schools from grade 5 onwards. Statistics show that in 1995 there were 20% more boys than girls in Grade 7 and 40 more in Grade 12. In the universities, the picture is at its worst there with numbers being four times as many males as females. Because of the gender stereotyping that relegates girls and women to a limited number of training opportunities, most technical education, vocational and entrepreneurship training (TEVETA) programmes, except secretarial studies, are male dominated. Similarly, the percentage of females undertaking skills production training at skills centres is low compared to males; for instance, in 1995, 177 females were enrolled against 225 males, none of whom were disabled.

Because of social and cultural factors and problems of distance, children in rural areas tend to participate less than their urban counterparts in education, while among rural girls and particularly disabled girl children are more disadvantaged. The provision of education in rural areas has also suffered from failure to invest in infrastructure, a large proportion of the schools being dilapidated and in extensive need of repair. Such education materials as are available do not always reach rural schools, while many of these schools must rely heavily on the work of untrained teachers.

The unfavourable educational status of girls and disabled girl rural children inhabitants is reflected in the rates of adult illiteracy. Census data show that at national level, approximately one-third of all persons aged 15 and above cannot read and write. For women as a group, 42.7% are rated as illiterate, compared with 22.8% of men; while 44.7% of rural adults are unable to read and write compared with 15.2% of the corresponding urban population. These high rates of illiteracy tend to be closely associated with high rates of poverty; the geographic areas that show the highest levels of illiteracy also show the highest rates of poverty.

UNESCO and others in the international community have acclaimed Zambia's efforts to reach out to the handicapped and impaired children. Among other interventions, MOE has thirty-one special education institutions that cater for the needs of those with severe impairments, while TEVETA offers vocational training (in weaving, tailoring, basketry, pottery, mixed farming, leather work and home economics) in seven trades training institutes to persons with mental retardation. Notwithstanding these praiseworthy efforts and considerable success, the majority of those with special needs are not yet able to benefit from the education and training system. Apart from the small number of special institutions, units and programs, education and training opportunities for those with physical or psychological disabilities remain very limited.


The quality of education and training provision in the sector has been adversely affected by the scarcity of resources which has necessitated the adoption of various strategies that are hostile to meaningful learning and quality provision. At the school level, it has been necessary to have recourse to very large classes, to make widespread use of double, triple and quadruple sessions, and to shorten the number of hours of classroom instruction.

National Expenditure on Education and Training

The allocation of public financial resources to the education ministry has never been adequate for national education and training needs. From 1975 to 1985, the proportion of the GDP devoted to education averaged 5.5%, but thereafter it fell off sharply, to as low as 2.0% in 1993 before rising to 2.95 in 1994 and1995. Although these increases are a welcome development, they show that in general the ministry continues to be greatly under resourced. The extent of the shortfall can be gauged from the fact that the international yardstick for the provision of universal primary education of good quality is 2% of the GDP. In the past, developing countries whose economies made great strides forward committed more than 5% of formal education alone, apart from other forms of education and training (see table 1)

Table 1

Budget allocation to the Ministry of Education in relation to Total Public Budget (TPB) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

  1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
% of TPB 10.3 10.8 10.0 10.6 10.4
% of GDP 2.9 2.0 2.9 2.9 2.8

Source: Ministry of Education

Children with special educational needs
Historical Perspective

Education for children with special educational needs has been in existence in Zambia close to 100 years. The first attempts to educate SEN children were made by missionaries in 1903. Following the widespread of success story of this experiment, philanthropists from Europe jumped onto the bandwagon and established schools and centres for SEN children. Sixty-six years later, the Zambian government realized that it was their responsibility to educate SEN children. The Ministry of Education was then mandated to take the portfolio of educating SEN children in 1971. Since this take-over, however, not a single school of any kind has been constructed by the Government of the Republic of Zambia for these children. The 31 special education institutions referred to above are all mission, private and NGO-run schools and centres, without government input. However, teachers and grants to run these schools are borne by the government.

Current situation

The consensus of expert opinion is that ten to fifteen percent of the children are exceptional and require active intervention and specialized services (MOE, 1996). This means that in Zambia there were 160,000 to 250.000 children of primary school age in 1995 with special educational needs arising from physical and mental causes. These figures do not include the maladjusted or emotionally disturbed children. Neither do they take account of those who are exceptionally gifted or talented and require a more challenging educational environment.

Only a small percentage of the physically or mentally impaired children are catered for in schools. There are several reasons for this. One is the lack of sufficient educational provision for the profoundly impaired. Another is that systems for identifying and contacting children with special needs are not well developed. Furthermore, family attitudes are not always favourable. From a false sense of shame or embarrassment, many parents do not divulge information on their exceptional children, with the result that their children's problems remain unknown and untreated.

The guiding principle of educating exceptional children is that to the greatest extent possible they should be integrated into the programmes that are offered in ordinary classrooms. Hence special education in Zambia is not an educational programme entirely different from that normally provided for pupils of the same age, but refers to those aspects which are unique or are additional to the regular education programme.

Policy and Legislation

Zambia has had an articulated policy on special educational needs since 1977. The twenty-three year Educational Reform Document which has been superceded by Focus On Learning (1992) and Educating Our Future (1996), had elaborate recommendations on special needs education and clearly specified the need for integration, early childhood special needs education, adapted curricula to meet identified and specified individual needs, staff development, integrated administration, inter-ministerial co-operation, and adequate funding for special needs education to be more meaningful and beneficial. Sadly, to date, there has been no Law enacted to protect SEN children and their parents, regarding educational rights.

Current education Policy on Pupils with special educational needs

In the current policy (Educating Our Future, 1996), the Ministry of Education states among other things that it will ensure equality of educational opportunity for children with special educational needs; that it is committed to providing education of particularly good quality to pupils with special educational needs; and that it will improve and strengthen the supervision and management of special education across the country.

The Ministry of Education states that it will achieve the above policy goals through the following strategies:

Constraints experienced so far

Despite all these perceived good intentions from the three stated policy documents above, constraints have abounded, ranging from economic causes, human error causes and lack of political and governmental will and commitment to education of children with special educational needs. Among other things, the following have greatly increased limitations in the provision and administration of services to children with special needs:

Inclusive Education in Africa: Can it be done?

The problems highlighted above would be comfortably generalized to most African countries' situation. This assertion is made because many countries in Africa, particularly in Zambia, where programmes in special needs education have been modelled on what was happening in Western countries in the late 1970s after legislation to protect children with special educational needs were enacted there, to suit their situation. Without fully understanding what special education was really all about, Zambia adopted wholesale, the western systems. Like Zambia, most African countries whose education systems strongly reflect former colonial masters' found it prudent to adopt the recommendations as made in Warnock (1978) Report in particular, and American Public Law (PL42-142) of 1975. The biggest problem this has caused in Africa is that Government leaders and indeed, educators find it very difficult to spend money on children with special educational needs, who may not "plough back" yields into the economy after spending so much money on them. A lucid example can be taken from Zambia, where for example, visually impaired students who complete School Certificate requirements cannot be trained or find jobs to enable them earn a living, but line up along town streets with begging bowls.

As observed in the constraints above, the ever dwindling economy of Zambia makes it impossible for the government to implement what was listed in the strategies to achieve the goals set in the policy to educate children with special needs.

The Ministry of Education in Zambia has clearly stated that "the education sector has suffered from insufficient and declining levels of public funding (MOE, 1996). Massive reductions occurred in the real public expenditure on the system between 1982 and 1991, at a time when enrollments at all levels continued to grow. During the period 1987 - 1991 real public spending on the sector fell to less than half of what it had been in 1981 - 1985, while in 1994 real spending per primary school pupil was less than 60% of what it had been in 1985.

There has been no major sustained recovery from this drop. Since 1989 annual real spending on the sector has been in the range of K35 - K40 billion at exchange rate of of K3,200 per $1 (United States) for system which has some 1.5 million pupils in primary schools, 200,000 in secondary schools, and 12,000 in third level institutions.

Is Zambia Ripe for Inclusive Educational Provision?

The first question one has to ask himself/herself is what the ideal situation is in inclusive education. According to Stainback and Stainback (1988), an inclusive school is one that educates all students in the mainstream; and provides them with appropriate facilities and materials. Zambia, which cannot afford even basic resources for those children already in boarding schools, cannot be considered as ready to take up such a demanding responsibility as including children with special needs in ordinary classes. Students/pupils with special educational needs need to be provided with appropriate facilities and materials such as hearing aids, braille paper, braillon and others. These things are very expensive and not locally obtained. Regular teachers, resource teachers and specialist teachers to handle SEN children need to be trained and made available in school settings for networking and collaborative work. Simple assessment and screening tools which should be well understood by teachers and parents should be made available in schools. All the people that come in touch with children with special educational needs must be properly sensitized in order for them to support inclusion in schools. To achieve what has been stated above needs government's political will and commitment to educating children with SEN. Zambia does not seem to have this will and commitment.

What is the present Zambian situation regarding inclusive education?

Almost six years after Salamanca Conference which made proposals to governments around the world to include SEN children in ordinary school systems, there was no tangible action taken by the government to make this a reality. In mid-1997, efforts toward inclusive education in Zambia had been embarked upon in Kalulushi District with the help of the Danish government. Another initiative whose intention is not exclusively inclusive, has been taken by the government of Ireland, particularly in Kasama and Mbala districts, where they have renovated schools with the hope of increasing access for SEN children. In Kalulushi district, for example teachers, social workers, and health personnel have come together, to sensitize the communities in urban, peri-urban and rural areas of the District. Although no seriously impaired children have been placed in ordinary schools in these areas, the attitudes of most people who come into contact with SEN children are showing positive signs of changing.

The main problem noticed in this venture is that, like what happens in all other donor-driven programmes, the zest for continuation may just wither away after the support has been withdrawn by the donor community, especially if the local government's input for sustainability is not forthcoming.


Taking the constraints enumerated above, it would be prudent to observe that unless African governments take deliberate and positive political action, inclusive education for children with SEN in Africa, particularly in Zambia is a Myth rather than than reality now. The theoretical interest shown on special education should be backed up by practical action to make the dreams of the majority of disabled children come true.

Dependency on donor or the present day co-operating partners should be minimized. The African governments must budget for special needs education. It is better to spend a lot of money now on educating SEN children to make them self-sufficient in their lives to avoid their perpertual dependency on the State's handouts for the rest of their lives. Although it is a Myth now, it can be realized if barriers in one individual's mind were broken and if this 'barrier busting syndrome' was emulated by the next person, yet another.


Borthwick-Duff, S.A, et al (1996) One Size Doesn't Fit All: Full inclusion and Individual Differences. Journal of Behavioural Education, 6(3), 311-329

Evans, D et al (1996) Addressing the Challenges of Inclusion of Children with Disabilities. Teacher Education and Special Education, 19(2), 180-191

Garnett, K. (1996) Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Difficulties: A Teacher's Guide. Council for Exceptional Children Publications, Reston, VA.

Kalabula, D. M. (1991) Integrating Visually Handicapped Children into Zambian Secondary Schools. Upublished Ph.D Thesis, The University of Birmingham, School of Education.

Ministry of Education (1978) Educational Reform Document, Lusaka, Zambia.

Ministry of Education (1992) Focus On Learning, Lusaka, Zambia.

Ministry of Education (1996) Educating Our Future, Lusaka. Zambia.

Stainback , W & and Stainback, S (1984) A Rationale for the Merger of Special and Regular Education, Exceptional Children, 51(2), 102-111

Zindi, F. (1997) Special Education in Africa. Mogoditshane: Tasalls Publishing.




to ISEC home page

to Inclusive Technology website