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Barbara Follows

Barbara Follows, M.Ed

"My philosophy is that every child is unique and, whatever their differences, every single child matters."

Inclusion in Namibia 2

In my second week of work at the Ministry of Education Ondangwa in north central Namibia, boy B and his father walked into my office and sat down looking expectantly at the "expert". Oh, me!

So began an unceremonious initiation to the role I have as a Regional Inclusive Education Adviser and a precipitous invitation to thinking on my feet, or backside as it happened... though more of that later.

B will be 16 years old in March 2009 and he is still in Grade 4 (10- to 11-year-olds). It is proposed that he will stay in that grade when the new year begins in January.

Science lessonHis lack of English skills and general poor performance in academic subjects has meant that he has repeated every year of school. Schools are only allowed to keep pupils "down" once, so B has achieved this remarkable record by attending numerous schools and living with various relatives. Differentiation is in its very early stages in Namibia and there are no assistants of any kind in classes. In my current limited experience of observing lessons here, work progresses at the pace of the slowest and there is limited peer support.

B comes from a typical poor family, where the children have to tend to the goats, assist with the younger siblings, complete household chores and collect water before and after school. There is often no time or daylight to do homework or discuss what has been learned in the day. Children are passed around the extended family as and when finances are low or extra hands are needed.

B is lucky in that his father is trying to understand the school system and obtain the best for his son. He also has a certain amount of guilt in that he blames himself for B's lack of progress. When B was under school age he was looked after by a neighbour who they found out had been holding the boy upside down by his feet and hitting him on the head when he needed to be reprimanded. Corporal punishment is now illegal, although culturally still practised.

When speaking to B, through his father as interpreter, he says that he is happy at school, does not mind being with younger children and enjoys school. However, it is difficult to believe his answers, as children are taught to say what they think will please the adults. Although there are six other "repeaters" in his class, he is the oldest and the one most behind in achievement.

It is difficult to gauge the amount of emotional turmoil B is in, as his frustrations only bubble over occasionally because he is normally very good at hiding his emotions. I did observe him in class, though, gesticulating and pulling faces at a boy who had teased him with a "bad" nickname. B was told off by the teacher for reacting and told that he must always tell the teacher.

Sound advice, if the teacher can be trusted to treat all her learners equally. But the cultural divide between girls and boys, the learners deemed "retarded" and those "normal", is strongly entrenched.

I was visually admonished for giving B a tissue and a sweet when he came in from the unsupervised play area in tears of pain and humiliation after an older boy had verbally and physically attacked him. "This often happens" is not the level of understanding and empathy we would expect in a UK school, but it is easy to criticise from outside a culture.

Barbara's officeI try and remember what I have learned from working with all sorts of families and try to stop myself from "blaming" before I understand. I will be working with the school on developing an IEP for B and keeping parents involved.

Further to the "backside" comment, I had no idea how much time is spent sitting on one when in an office. Teachers: don't complain about having no time to sit down; be thankful that you are not developing an African bottom!

(Published in SEBDA News, issue 17, spring 2009)