Mbabane — Art programmes have widely been considered unaffordable luxuries by Swaziland's public schools, but one school has broken from the pack, using art to improve academic performance and economic prospects for students with disabilities.
Children with disabilities are often overlooked by government services, leading to disadvantages in the classroom that carry into adulthood. The government lacks a designated education budget for deaf and blind students, for example, and disabled children are generally integrated into underfunded mainstream schools, which have little capacity to cater to their special needs.
At Swaziland's High School for the Deaf, near the eastern provincial capital Siteki, the government provides money only for teachers' salaries, not for students' special needs. All other expenses are funded by school fees.
Even so, the school has found an innovative way to improve students' learning. It recently launched a pilot art project for 50 underperforming leaners, meant to equip them with the skills necessary to produce indigenous handicrafts, for which Swaziland's tourism industry provides a market.
The programme has yielded unexpected benefits. Thabsile Kunene, a teacher at the school, told IRIN that since the art classes began, "the students are focused more on their studies because the art lessons have made them like school. The students originally put in the arts programme were students who were failing in the classroom; they were put into vocational studies so they might earn livings with their hands.
Making art teaches a student much more: individual thinking, creativity and socialization by cooperating in a group
"The art project made us realize that the problem may be with the curriculum for children with disabilities and not the children themselves, because after the art classes, their new fondness for school, a place that had previously frustrated them, is showing up in their other work," she said.
Reaching alienated youth
"It is true that art, as we are teaching it, as a vocational subject, can offer students a real means to make a living, but making art teaches a student much more: individual thinking, creativity and socialization by cooperating in a group," Peter Armstrong, one of the founders of the Yebo ArtReach, which is coordinating the pilot programme through a grant from the US government, told IRIN.
"Access to art education and creative enterprises is severely lacking in Swaziland, while the number of disenfranchised youth is forever on the rise. Over half of the population is now under the age of 18. Some of the serious issues currently facing Swaziland include youth unemployment of 53 percent," Armstrong continued. About 70 percent of country's 1.2 million people live in poverty.
The problem is even worse for youth with disabilities, said Information Minister Winnie Magagula, at the recent opening of a Braille book section at Mbabane Public Library. "Lack of education and training for people with disabilities has led to a knock-on effect when it comes to accessing employment. The unemployment rate for the disabled is 83.5 percent, which is a terrible waste of human resources." The unemployment rate in Swaziland is estimated at about 40 percent.
The art programme has discernibly motivated its participants. The project's launch earlier this year coincided with strikes and school closures as teachers demanded a below-inflation wage increase. "Because of the strikes, all the students were sent home. But they all came back for the two days of art instruction. They were given hands-on instruction in painting, printing, mosaic and paper work. The response was amazing. You could see the students get more involved and excited by the day," said Dane Armstrong, a project coordinator and the son of Yebo ArtReach's founder.
Pholile Malaza, a faculty member involved in the initiative, saw it as a safety net for underperforming students, but has seen it improve behavior as well. "Most of the students were short-tempered before. They would get frustrated in class and start fighting. But now they are less frustrated. It is as if their spirits are at peace."
The school's principal, Zodwa Thwala, said that since the art classes started, discipline has improved. "What I notice is that the students really enjoy the arts. They showed a love for what they are doing."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]