The 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework endorses the definition of inclusive education elaborated by UNESCO; it specifies that inclusive education refers to the inclusion and teaching of all children in formal or non-formal learning environments regardless of gender, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic, cultural, religious or other characteristics.
Special education needs
The 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework defines special needs as conditions or factors that impede normal learning and development of individuals, such as disabilities and social, emotional, economic, health and other conditions; the latter can also refer to barriers to learning and development, which can be environmental and/or congenital.
Defined as a learner–centred education system, special needs education presents modifications in curricula, teaching methods and resources to address children’s individual special education needs. As a matter of policy, special education institutions provide education to learners with severe disabilities, while those with mild and moderate disabilities, including blind students, are mainstreamed in regular schools. However, the three special schools are only located in Banjul; each caters specifically for the blind or those with visual impairments, students with hearing disabilities or students with learning disabilities. Within the broader Vision 2020 government strategy, the 2016–30 education sector policy stresses the importance of early identification of students with special needs, including gifted and talented learners, through a close collaboration between the medical and education sectors to identify appropriate responses.
Besides the public school system, education is provided in madrasas, Arabic schools with an emphasis on Islamic education. The 2016–30 education sector policy reaffirms the government’s intention to continue supporting these education institutions and to explore access opportunities for madrasa graduates in tertiary and higher education.
The 1997 Constitution of the Republic of Gambia, as amended in 2000, enshrines the right to free, compulsory and available basic education to all (Section 30[a]). Secondary education, including technical and vocational education, is made ‘generally available and accessible to all ... by the progressive introduction to free education’ (b), as is higher education (c). It further mandates the state to provide adequate education opportunities across all levels (Section 217) and to allocate adequate resources (2). It also contains a non-discrimination provision, addressing discrimination on the grounds of ‘race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Section 33).
As made explicit in the Constitution, persons with disabilities are protected against exploitation and discrimination with particular regards to access to education (Section 31). In 2009, an Integrated National Disability Policy was drafted, but it was not adopted by the Department of State for Health and Social Welfare. With reference to education, it built on the education policy and announced the need to adopt a special needs education policy to coordinate and organize special needs education. The cited policy was then adopted, broadening its scope to integrate inclusive education.
Based on the principles of inclusiveness, integration and participation, the 2004–15 education policy marked a transformation in the promotion of special needs education, calling for the adoption of a holistic inclusive approach in education provision. Against this backdrop, the policy aimed to strengthen special needs assessment to determine appropriate health and education interventions and intended to include special needs learners, but not children with severe disabilities, whose education is provided in special schools. Among its priorities, the education policy further aimed to provide relevant preschool programmes to children with special needs, including health care, protection, and social and emotional stimulation.
With a specific focus on special needs and inclusive education, the 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework collects and rationalizes in a single document the existing legal and policy frameworks. Within the new framework, specific programmes have been adopted, such as the Integrated Education Programme for Blind and Low Vision Children.
To domesticate the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and other human rights instruments, the 2020 Women’s Act also deals with education and training of girls and women. At policy level, the 2010–20 gender policy sets out the goals of gender parity at all levels and equitable access to quality education and appropriate livelihood skills for women and men, girls and boys. It advocates retention, raising awareness of the legal provision for the minimum age of marriage of 18 years old. Furthermore, it encourages equal training and recruitment opportunities for female and male teachers, introducing gender courses in all training institutions and promoting a gender-sensitive culture. The Free Education for Girls initiative in rural areas and a change to allow pregnant girls to go back to school after delivery have been among the efforts to comply with the policy objectives.
The 2016–30 education sector policy stresses the relevance of the country’s sexual harassment policy in the education sector and the need to reinforce it at school level with the introduction of disciplinary committees consisting of teachers, parents and students. It reaffirms the principle of gender responsiveness in education management and leadership and further sustains the re-entry policy for girls who have dropped out because of pregnancy and/or early marriage.
Several initiatives have been established for promoting gender equality in education access by international and non-government organizations, including the Child-Friendly School Initiative, supported by UNICEF, which provides water and sanitation facilities in schools and a child-centred learning approach, also involving families and communities in the education experience.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
English is the formal language of instruction, although about 10 indigenous languages are used in informal contexts across the country. The 2004–15 education policy promoted the use of the local language during the first three years of basic education and as a school subject onwards. The policy intended to introduce the teaching of the five most commonly used languages and to expand the current language pilot programme. In compliance with the policy provisions, the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) has developed and validated training manuals on orthographies of the five languages and established a national technical advisory committee on national languages.
Primary and secondary education has become fee free to reduce the burden on households. In addition, the government commits to support the homegrown school-feeding framework following the first such programme, launched in 2012. The intention is to expand the current provision, which is currently limited to deprived regions, to cover all the countries and all the education levels. To address school dropout, school grants have been introduced in public lower basic schools to encourage the adoption of low-cost items in school plans. Religious factors, together with education costs, contribute to keeping school-age children out of school. With the purpose of offering alternative forms of education, children and youth whose families opt for religious education can benefit from a conditional cash transfer scheme. A pilot has been conducted in 12 regions and has been planned to be extended.
Collaboration across sectors
The MoBSE and the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (MoHERST) manage the education system. The former is responsible for inclusive and special needs education, allocating resources for implementation of programmes and other education instruments. On the other hand, the Ministry of State for Health and Social Welfare is involved in medical assessment to determine type and degree of disability, including provision of certification.
Collaboration across government levels
While the MoBSE’s operational and management activities are partially decentralized across its six regional education directorates, the MoHERST’s functions remain centralized at all education levels. The country is engaged in a process of local government decentralization. The ultimate goal is to transfer school management of basic and secondary education to local government authorities and municipalities. With the decentralization process, regional education directorates are expected to be strengthened in their decision-making power and included in the local governance structure. In turn, the MoBSE, whose role is also under reorganization, is to undertake monitoring and quality-control functions.
New schools and classrooms need to be constructed or rehabilitated, including with water and sanitation facilities. In order to increase and ensure accessibility, regulations on school structural development need to be defined. However, lack of reliable data on the actual status and needs, especially on students with special needs, challenges the planning and provision of adequate services and structures. To encourage inclusive education, the 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework explores the possibility to provide alternative accommodation, such as temporary resource classrooms, special classes and specialized units.
The 2016–30 education sector policy aims to create a more gender-sensitive curriculum and environment for both boys and girls. The current curriculum does not take into consideration special education needs. A goal of the Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework was to include the Life Skills Education Programme in the curriculum of special needs education. The Life Skills Education Programme focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention, elimination of gender-based violence, peace building and tolerance through guidance and counselling services in schools.
The Gambia College is the main teacher-training institute in the country. Through the School of Education, it provides training for teachers in both general and special education and Islamic studies for teachers in lower basic schools and in madrasa education. The school has a specialized department for gender.
At present, all teacher students in the Higher Teacher Certificate and Primary Teachers’ Certificate programmes attend a module in special education, which is also available as a distance learning option. Teachers in regular schools, madrassahs and early childhood development attend three to five days of training on inclusive education organized by the Special Needs Education Unit of the MoBSE.
In addition, the 2004–15 education policy aimed to strengthen the preparation of teachers in dealing with learners with special needs by developing an ad-hoc training programme. The aim was to establish a special education unit at the Gambia College to support the design of a special needs curriculum and the professional development of specialized teachers in the field.
The 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework reinforced the profile of itinerant teachers to support inclusive education of all children, as introduced in the 2004–15 education sector policy. The latter set among its priorities the integration of children with hearing impairments, visual impairments and mild intellectual and development disorders through an itinerant teaching programme and, with this purpose, 143 itinerant teachers have already been trained. Itinerant teachers are now expected to be assigned to a group of children across mainstream pre-, basic and secondary schools to provide instructional support to all learners with special needs.
The 2016–30 education sector policy reaffirms the intention of expanding pre- and in-service teacher training to create an inclusive teaching system. Medical and education practitioners are called on to continue collaborating in the identification of learners’ disabilities. On the other hand, in order to address cases of severe disabilities, training and teaching materials for special education are intended to be developed and special education facilitates expanded into rural areas.
The 2009–15 Special Needs Education and Inclusive Policy Framework acknowledges the importance of collecting and maintaining data on special needs for future planning under the responsibility of the MoBSE. However, reliable national data on special needs students is obsolete, since the last disability survey was carried out in 1988. Data provided by the education management information system is sometimes not accurate.