The University of Birmingham (UoB) and Sightsavers International have invited researchers and academics from leading institutions working in the areas of early childhood development and education (ECDE) and special educational needs and disability (SEND), educational psychology, applied anthropology, and epidemiology in Malawi, the UK and the USA to co-design and conduct an innovative three-year study.
This study will provide the ESRC, DfID, the Malawi Government and its partners in education with a better understanding of the complex dynamics that can enable or inhibit quality ECDE for CWDs. The Malawi Government has prioritised ECDE as part of its Growth and Development Strategy II (2012-16) to increase equity of access and improve the quality of early childhood services which are currently reaching just over one third of children aged three to five years. This research programme, which aims to address the widespread need for equitable and quality ECDE services in Malawi, will establish advanced level collaboration between UoB - a research institution specialising in the education of children with disabilities (CWDs) - and Sightsavers, a UK-based charity that supports the educational inclusion of CWDs in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. They will collaborate with the University of Malawi (Chancellor College), Arizona State University, and a UK-based research organisation specialising in applied anthropology in global health research (Anthrologica). Non-academic stakeholders will include the Malawi Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare (MoGCSW) and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST), Save the Children, and the Association of Early Childhood Development in Malawi (AECDM), the main agency responsible for the delivery of ECDE training to all caregivers in Malawi. The research questions and mixed method study design were developed in consultation with the partners, and will be further refined at the study outset during an inception workshop.
A study group will be formed of representatives from a wide range of governmental, academic and non-governmental stakeholders, including people with disabilities, who will guide and oversee the implementation of the activities. The study will be subject to ethical approval at the Universities of Birmingham and Malawi, and will adhere to best practice in acquiring informed consent from all participants. The research will be based on a socio-cultural model that situates learning within a cultural context in which family, peers and schooling are regarded as key in responding to children with early developmental delays and disabilities in rural settings.
We will focus on daily family routines of families with CWDs to identify ways of understanding the whole family ecology and how it intersects with the community and its institutions. Further, we will explore how community-based childcare centres (CBCCs) can provide 'institutional' support to help meet family goals that support their children, and try to reduce stress levels which are often high in these families, particularly for the main carer.
We will design and implement a community participation framework which will provide CBCC caregivers with the required skills and knowledge to adapt their own teaching practices to help develop children's skills (e.g. language and communication; self-help; cognitive; fine motor; gross motor; social; and emotional) in sustainable ways. The team will disseminate study outputs through existing networks and partnerships at local and international levels, and investigate opportunities to extend and deepen those connections on the basis of this work.
The research consortium will produce high-quality research findings in order to influence a range of audiences and policy makers in Malawi and internationally over the three years. The research partners are in an excellent position to maximise impact by ensuring that the findings influence key decision makers at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development (MoGCSW) and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) at national and district level in Malawi. This is guaranteed by the long-standing relationship the consortium has with international agencies working in education and disability (e.g. Catholic Relief Services, CBM, Handicap International, UNICEF), the strong academic networks in Malawi and internationally, and previous, as well as ongoing, research into education (e.g. Sightsavers Innovative Fund to support research into 'Early Childhood Development and Education of Children with Visual Impairment; ESRC Knowledge Exchange Opportunity - 'Making Educational Research Count for Children with Disabilities in Malawi, Kenya and Uganda', and other areas (Social inclusion, Eye Health, Neglected Tropical Diseases). The ultimate beneficiaries of the research are children with disabilities and their families living in Malawi and similar settings. The research consortium expect these groups to benefit directly from the interventions offered during the study and through policy and programme changes which promote their inclusion and participation in formal and informal ECDE. Other key beneficiaries include: 1. Trainers of caregivers who work at community-based childcare centres; 2. Caregivers with different levels of literacy working in urban and rural districts; 3. Specialist teachers who have training in sensory impairment or intellectual impairments; 4. Community-based rehabilitation volunteer workers and Child Protection Officers working for the Community Development Department within MoGCSW and the Ministry of Disability. The study will have impact on the international core working team of academics, NGOs, policy makers, ECDE trainers and caregivers through their involvement in the research. A purpose built online community will have an impact on all key stakeholders, providing an innovative space where we can share examples of different training practices and innovative intervention programmes at the CBCCs, and communicate via podcasts, webinars and discussion boards. The use of participatory action research methods at the different stages of the study will mean that participants will particularly benefit as they will be asked to draw on their own experiences and beliefs and will be encouraged to pose and answer questions most important to them. In the long-term the organised working groups and online discussions will lead to a body of new knowledge for academics and practitioners working in the field of ECDE and the assessment of young children with disabilities in low income settings. A large network of stakeholders including International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC); the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Leonard Cheshire Research Centre at UCL will be invited to seminars as part of an ongoing 'research in progress' series at the University of Birmingham. Sightsavers will also plan an annual research seminar which will be recorded and used by the organisation's programme development team in its country offices. The partners will also explore opportunities to communicate with other projects which are involved in 'ECDE and inclusive education' in Malawi to ensure it is up-to-date with their latest findings and developments. Where possible, the consortium will explore opportunities to present findings from our research at national seminars and conferences organised in Malawi.