The economic case for inclusive education

The cost of exclusion is high - by Nafisa Baboo
Photo: Inclusive classroom in Burkina Faso. Credit: Gregor Kuntscher

The cost of excluding children with disabilities is high and there is a strong case for investment in low and middle income countries, says Nafisa Baboo, education advisor, Light for the World.

- originally published in Education Investor Global vol. 9, no. 8, Oct 2017

 Education Investor Global

There are 32 million children with disabilities who still don’t go to school in developing countries. This staggering number doesn’t just mean that people with disabilities are denied education but also that they are excluded from society and their hope for employment.

The International Labour Organisation suggested the cost of exclusion could be up to 7% of GDP in some low- and middle-income countries. In addition, the World Bank estimated that in Bangladesh lack of schooling and employment for people with disabilities and their caregivers could be losing the country $1.2 billion (£908 million) of income annually.

At a time where every child should and needs to receive quality education, as stated in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need to ensure that all children, including those with disabilities attend school.

According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, the completion rate of primary school children is 48% in low income countries, whereas 95% finish primary school in middle income countries. Children with disabilities are far less likely to complete primary school. There is limited data on girls and boys with disabilities on education access, but one study suggested that across 14 out of 15 low and middle income countries, people of working age with disabilities were a third less likely to have completed primary school.

Even though the SDGs promise to leave no-one behind, the debate on whether it is worthwhile to strengthen systems to collect data on people with disabilities continues. This is despite the progress made by the Washington Group and UNICEF to provide standards and guidelines.

A question of cost

In developing countries the most cost effective solution for educating all is inclusive education. This means schooling all children in a supportive environment in regular schools. This brings better social, academic, health and economic outcomes than children with disabilities attending segregated schools. According to UNESCO, special schools in Pakistan, for example, are 15 times more expensive per pupil than mainstream schools which include kids with disabilities.

Inclusive schools prepare girls and boys with disabilities for the realities of the real world and have a positive influence on both children with and without disabilities. It promotes the appreciation of diversity in our society and also avoids the extreme pain caused by families being broken apart, due to sending their child to a special school which is often far away from their family home.

Convincing communities or parents that their children with disabilities should attend school isn’t as easy as you would think. In developing countries, parents are ashamed and often hide away their children if they have a disability. Poor families often have to choose which of their children to send to school. More often than not the girl or boy who is blind, deaf or different is seen as an unworthy or unwise investment. They don’t see them as having a bright future,  as capable of having a career or  providing for the family. They only think of the insurmountable challenges they would need to overcome in a competitive and prejudice world.

It takes capital, time and effort to educate parents about their kids’ rights and to make them realise that their children can be a part of and contribute to society. However, once that hurdle is overcome, there also needs to be enough schools that are prepared for including pupils with disabilities.

We work with several partners in developing countries to ensure schools have the necessary equipment and teachers have the training to teach both children with and without disabilities in the same classroom.

Funding and investment challenges

Most funding for special education needs in the developing world comes from individual donors and foundations, but much more investment is needed. Most education funding by donor governments do not prioritise disability inclusion to receive further funding, nor are the allocations adequate but it is a growing challenge and an interesting investment area for both the public and private sector to address.

We work in very difficult operating environments and reach some of the most disadvantaged groups and communities in countries such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, North East India, South Sudan and Mozambique. Besides promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities in school, we are trying to demonstrate to teachers that inclusive education practices address barriers to learning and participation.

80% to 90% of children with disabilities will need their learning and teaching material in adapted formats (Braille, large print, easy-read) or sign language. An interactive, fun and stimulating learning experience enables an environment where all learners, regardless of their abilities, can thrive and develop an appreciation for studying.

One of our partner school centres is CEFISE (The Integrated Education and Training Centre for Deaf and Hearing People) in Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou. The school now educates 3,800 pupils, including around 500 children with disabilities. Here, teachers learn sign language to reach all students. Hearing and non-hearing pupils learn together, while the teacher leads the lessons in sign language and spoken words. A hearing impaired teacher’s assistant also supports the class and focuses on the deaf students to ensure their progress.

Besides partnering with inclusive schools, helping to find children with disabilities and convincing their parents and the community that it is their human right to be educated, we also advocate for long term change in policy and legal frameworks on a national and global level.

Last year, we launched a global call for action for increased investment in disability inclusive education which was signed by over 118 organisations.

The call was based on our #CostingEquity report, which revealed that there is a lack of technical and financial resources for developing countries to deliver on inclusive education.

Including boys and girls with disabilities in mainstream schools is a way to remove learning barriers and to reduce out of school populations. It can lead to economic growth and reduced unemployment.