By Connie Wu
619 street-connected children with special educational needs in Western Kenya gained access to quality inclusive education between February 2016 and January 2020. This was the incredible impact that resulted from a humble community-owned inclusive education and protection project (LEAP I) funded by Comic Relief and delivered by a consortium of NGO partners: Chance for Childhood, Kisumu Urban Apostolates Programmes and Yellow House.
As the Programme Manager during those four years, I have witnessed how project staff, teachers, parents, students, even community members and fellow NGO partners have come to understand and adopt the effective Learning Support Assistant Model, first piloted by Chance for Childhood in Rwanda in 2014, alongside the Kenyan education system. If one were to describe the Learning Support Assistant Model, it is similar to a mélange of the British model of Teaching Assistant and a Special Education Teacher roles. The objective of the Learning Support Assistant Model is to ensure that every child has the right to quality education and learning, especially reaching children with special educational needs in low-resource contexts, where families are struggling to make ends meet and teachers lack the skills and time to support learners with special educational needs. In a nutshell, the Learning Support Assistant Model not only focuses on career development for the assistants, but it also builds the capacity of school Head Teachers and classroom teachers, creates awareness on the importance of inclusive education, and offers a low-cost solution to ensure that children with special educational needs are included and valued alongside their peers.
According to UNICEF, more than 1 billion children are at risk of falling behind due to school closures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. Whilst many countries have adopted remote online learning programmes for students, we witness how this approach has amplified existing learning inequalities; especially for those who cannot afford the technological devices and access to the internet. Globally, 3 out of 4 students who cannot be reached by the remote learning policies provided come from rural areas and/or belong to the poorest households (UNICEF, 2020). In communities where access to the internet, mobile phones, and laptops are limited, the Learning Support Assistant Model would therefore enable the continuous learning of students from home. By taking all the precautions and following national Standards of Operation, Learning Support Assistants can agree with parents on home visit schedules and provide catch-up lessons to students in the comfort of their homes.
The effectiveness of the Learning Support Assistant Model can be characterised by three attributes, all of which validate how the model can be replicated in other similar contexts:
- Locally-owned: The global development and humanitarian sectors are increasingly and rightly placing emphasis on shifting the decision-making process, strengthening sustainability efforts, as well as shifting more power to frontline workers who are ‘on the ground’. This approach has often been referred to as ‘localisation’. The Learning Support Assistant Model is run entirely by community volunteers who receive monthly stipends to support their transportation costs when delivering the project. The model is also managed and monitored by Kisumu Urban Apostolates Programmes (KUAP), a national child-rights organization. Based in Kisumu, the organization has deep-rooted relationships with community members, championing the rights of marginalised children. Furthermore, governmental education departments, as well as Parent-Teacher Committees, are also involved in maintaining this model and the inclusive environment it creates, due to the improved learning outcomes experienced not only by children with special learning needs but also by their non-disability counterparts.
By the end of the four-year project, 19 Learning Support Assistants were retained by the schools: 7 in Kisumu; 6 in Vihiga and 6 in Siaya County. The school management committee took over the costs of maintaining the Learning Support Assistants after the project ended. In 2022, 15 out of the 19 Learning Support Assistants are confirmed to be engaged with the schools to date. In addition, three Learning Support Assistants were recruited by organisations that work with children with special educational needs because the organisation recognised the added value of the Learning Support Assistants with their skills in inclusive education. Another two Learning Support Assistants were recruited by the government under the Teacher Service Commission. By end of 2021, follow-up with the 15 Learning Support Assistants showed that additional 240 children with special educational needs and street connections have been supported by the Learning Support Assistants since the original project ended.
- Flexible: The success of the Learning Support Assistant model also relies on its ability to adapt to its environment and to the needs of learners. Learning Support Assistants develop Individual Education Plans (IEP) unique to each of the learners’ needs so the support is tailored and no two plans are the same. Each IEP contains long- and short-term goals and objectives which are in line with the needs of the child. For example, if a child faces challenges with reading, the long-term objective may be: “by the end of 2 months the child will be able to read 2 – 6 letter words”. The short-term objective may be: “by the end of 3 weeks the child will be able to read 3 letter words”.
The IEP is developed based on the results derived from Chance for Childhood’s non-medical disability detection screening tool. This tool, tailored and adapted by local education departments to ensure its suitability within the country’s context, helps detect less visible disabilities, such as dyslexia and autism and other learning needs. Furthermore, it serves as the first step to determine if a child indeed has learning challenges and is used alongside other locally available assessment tools to determine what the child is unable to do in the classroom and where the child needs support and the referral pathways for advanced support. In addition to the support given at school, Learning Support Assistants and parents also agree on a suitable schedule for home visits whereby learners continue to receive learning support. The number of Learning Support Assistants can be increased based on the number of learners with special educational needs identified. One of the learnings that emerged from the implementation was to not challenge one Learning Support Assistant with too many learners to support. Better results were achieved when providing tailored support to a smaller group of learners (1:5 ratio). After this, the quality support provided starts to inversely correlate with the number of learners assigned to one Learning Support Assistant.
- Low cost: Apart from the initial start-up costs that include mobilization and training, the Learning Support Assistant model does not require exorbitant management investments. Typically, a Learning support Assistant receives a monthly stipend of 7,000 Kenyan Shillings for their support. Furthermore, their monitoring costs are limited to mobile phone airtime between the Learning Support Assistant trainer and the Learning Support Assistants for weekly check-ins. What we have seen is that the Learning Support Assistants are motivated to form Village Savings and Loans Associations amongst themselves to initiate group savings and loan capital to start and grow their own businesses. Gradually, these funds will enable them to become economically stable to protect themselves from economic shocks. In LEAP I, the Learning Support Assistants were saving 200 Kenyan Shillings per month and they used to engage in table banking and share their savings before the project ended. The Learning Support Assistants in the current project with KUAP and Chance for Childhood (LEAP II) are doing the same. This, in turn, fosters camaraderie and helps the Learning Support Assistants maintain sustainable livelihoods to benefit their own families. Due to the part-time allowance of this scheme, the model can accommodate volunteers working on other lucrative ventures, while still fulfilling their roles as Learning Support Assistants in schools.
“The project helped me to be able to save, I started a shop and have been generating some income which has enabled me to take care of my family, I am so grateful for the new opportunity LEAP II project provides because I know I will be able to save again”One of the Learning support assistants from LEap was able to establish a small retail shop from her savings
The evidence and learnings gathered from the implementation of the Learning Support Assistant model not only through the LEAP projects in Kenya but also in Rwanda and Uganda through other programmes implemented by Chance for Childhood lead me to believe that the Learning Support Assistant model would offer an innovative solution to out-of-school children in an unchartered time when schools could close the very next day due to the ubiquitous global pandemic. In both Rwanda and Uganda, the Learning Support Assistant model was implemented in a much more rural setting, vastly different from the urban context of Kisumu, Kenya. The challenges and enabling factors were similar across the three countries. The most important thing to consider during programme design is to involve local stakeholders in identifying Learning Support Assistant recruitment criteria, subsequent training, and monitoring processes – this varied from one community to the next.
The Learning Support Assistant model offers a simple yet fitting solution to bridge the current education gap we see. It has the potential to enable local governments in supporting the most hard-to-reach children who have more barriers to overcome in accessing quality education. Chance for Childhood’s Learning Support Assistant model should therefore be celebrated and recognized as creating a sustainable and relevant impact on the lives of children, and this model should be adopted and scaled up by other I/NGOs and governments to support more children in need.
LEAP II (the second phase for this initiative) is currently ongoing from November 2021 to October 2022) in Vihiga country in Kenya and is funded by Theirworld. Taking the learnings from LEAP I, our goal is to directly deliver services to 200 street-connected children with communication disabilities and special educational needs, who face complex challenges that are not being addressed through existing service provisions. Using the Learning Support Assistant model as a focal point we incorporate tried and tested child-centred approaches of safeguarding and inclusive education practices in schools, teacher training, positive parenting, and engagement with existing community-based and institutional structures to foster a community that embraces inclusion.
If you would like to know more about Chance for Childhood’s toolkits and training support to establish a Learning Support Assistant model in low-sources settings, please get in touch.