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date: 15 August 2018

Developing Inclusive Schools in South Africa

Summary and Keywords

In South Africa, new legislation and policies on inclusive education in the post-apartheid era since 1994 have placed a strong emphasis on equity, equality, and human rights, as defined in the South African Constitution. As a result, a White Paper on building an inclusive education and training system was published in 2001. It acknowledges the failure of the education system to respond to the barriers to learning and development experienced by a substantial number of learners, including diverse learning needs caused by, for example, language, socioeconomic, or gender issues as well as disabilities. This policy document describes inclusive education as being based on the ideals of equity and equality and as a result recognizing and respecting learner and learning diversity within mainstream schools. As stated in the policy, in practice this means identifying and removing barriers in the education system to ensure that the full range of diverse learning needs are met in mainstream classrooms as well as providing support to learners and teachers in addressing barriers to learning and development.

Research studies on the implementation of inclusive education in South Africa, however, are finding that despite the development of a wide range of implementation guidelines since 2007, complex interrelated issues continue to complicate the development of successful inclusive schools. These issues include a continued divergence of views of inclusive education with a continuing strong belief in special education and separate educational settings by most teachers, therefore leading to a resultant lack of clarity regarding the implementation of inclusive education at the level of local practice in schools and classrooms. These differences in the understanding of inclusive education and its enactment in diverse school contexts also bring the question of power and agency into South African debates about inclusive education: who should decide which version of inclusive education should be the goal of the development of inclusive education in a specific school district or a specific school. Furthermore, contextual issues including the lack of financial and human resources, for example effectively trained teachers, effectively functioning district educational support teams for schools in specific school districts, lack of textbooks, and overcrowded classrooms, play a dominant role in the development of effective inclusive schools.

Keywords: inclusive education, inclusive education South Africa, inclusive schools, teacher education for inclusion, social model of disabilities, medical model of disabilities, diverse educational needs

Background

In 1994 a non-racial and democratic South Africa (SA) came into being on a high tide of expectations and great anticipation that the education system would be transformed (Badat & Sayed, 2014). As a result, education policies and education guidelines, through the South African Constitution with its Bill of Rights (Republic of South Africa, 1996), have embraced the principles of human rights and have committed to building an inclusive education and training system that is characterized by equality and equity.

This commitment within education emphasizes, firstly, equality within which the constitutional and human values of social justice and fundamental human rights are recognized and all learners receive equal treatment regarding their right to education despite their differences. Formal equality has been achieved through the repeal of discriminatory laws and the adoption of desegregation policies. Equality on a more substantive level demands that people be treated the same, irrespective of individual differences, in situations where their likeness as human beings outweighs their merits as individuals and emphasizes the attributes that humans share irrespective of individual differences and the way in which we affirm each other’s dignity in society in general as well as in school communities. Secondly, equity in education in SA implies more than equality and can be described as a transformative recognition and acceptance of diversity and rights in education (Spreen & Vally, 2006). Equity therefore refers not only to access to equal educational opportunities but also to the full acceptance and participation of all learners on physical, educational, and social levels in an education system that embraces diversity and acknowledges the concepts of rights, within and through education, to participate meaningfully in society (Engelbrecht, 2011).

Since 1994 three broad phases in the policy cycle to develop a non-racial and democratic education system characterized by substantive equality and equity can be identified. The initial focus on policy formulation was followed by an implementation phase and at present there is a focus on revisiting and possibly revising policy, as there is general consensus that general transformation to develop equitable education systems has not taken place (Engelbrecht, 2011). This discussion on the development of inclusive schools in South Africa should be regarded as an effort to contribute to debates in revisiting policies.

Inclusive Education in South Africa

Inclusive education has its origin in countries that are generally regarded as high-income countries (e.g., Scandinavian countries, England, and Canada), and its appeal is reflected in the number of countries, including lower-income countries, that in recent years have aligned their education policies and practices with the sentiments of inclusive education, as reflected in UNESCO’s Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education in 1994 (Artiles, Kozleski, & Waitoller, 2011; Pather & Nxumalo, 2012; Oswald, 2014). International common denominators of the concept “inclusive education” include the recognition and valuing of human diversity within education and the promise of quality of education for all in inclusive schools (Artiles, Kozleski, & Waitoller, 2011; Engelbrecht & Green, 2018; Swart & Oswald, 2008). Despite these common denominators there has been a growing recognition that multiple meanings are being attached to the concept in multiple cultural and historical contexts. The meaning of inclusive education can therefore take different forms in different and unique cultural-historical contexts. This implies that the contextualized nature of inclusive education usually reflects the outcome of historical and cultural choices as well as unique socioeconomic situations, thus compounding the problem of international transfer of inclusive education practices (Artiles et al., 2011; Pather & Nxumalo, 2012; Swart & Oswald, 2008; Walton, 2016).

In accordance with these common denominators of understandings of inclusive education internationally and the South African Constitution, a National Commission on Education Support Services (NCESS) and a National Committee on Special Needs in Education and Training (NCSNET) were commissioned to investigate the situation with regard to the education of learners with “special needs” as well as education support services in 1996. The final report from this investigation emphasized that the South African education system needed to become more responsive to not only learners with disabilities but also to the diverse needs of all learners; strategies were suggested for new policies (Department of Education, 1997). White Paper 6 of 2001 in South Africa defines inclusive education as acknowledging that all learners have the right to access education as well as the right to education quality and equal opportunities to learn within an equitable education context (Department of Education, 2001; Spreen & Vally, 2006). White Paper 6 clearly underlines the importance within an inclusive education system of accepting and understanding the difference between learners who are experiencing barriers to learning and development rooted in organic or medical causes and learners whose barriers to learning within the South African context are rooted in systemic difficulties, including poverty and under-resourced schools (Department of Education, 2001; Muthukrishna & Schoeman, 2000). White Paper 6 thus accepts that a diverse range of learning needs in South Africa arise from different factors and that inclusive education can be the educational strategy most likely to contribute to the creation of a just and democratic society (Department of Education, 2001; Engelbrecht, 2006). It is therefore important to note that the definition of inclusive education in South Africa does not only focus on learners with disabilities but also focuses on learners who are marginalized due to, for example, home language, socioeconomic background, social class, gender, or religion.

Against the background of this specific understanding of inclusive education within the South African context, creating inclusive schools should be regarded as both a process for and an outcome of human rights and equity in a democratic South African educational system. Within the framework provided by White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001) and subsequent national implementation guidelines, inclusive schools should be characterized by a focus on supporting and promoting school cultures that create a sense of belonging, acceptance, and meaningful participation by both teachers and learners and provide conducive and supportive learning environments. The basic premise of inclusive schools is that the success of all learners from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and diverse abilities is the responsibility of teachers who have a clear understanding of a variety of barriers to learning and who are willing to accept and effectively teach learners with diverse identities as full members of their classrooms (Fullan, 2001; Jordan, Schwartz, & McGhie-Richmond, 2009; Phasha, Mahlo, & Sefa Dei, 2017). Researchers (e.g., Oswald, 2014; Swart & Oswald, 2008) have found, however, that transforming mainstream schools into inclusive schools that support learners with a wide variety of learning needs against the background of South Africa’s complex history (including a narrow traditional focus on disabilities) is proving to be more difficult than anticipated.

The Development of Inclusive Schools in South Africa

Against the broad background of the historical legacies of education during the postcolonial and apartheid eras, be they race, language, class, or ability, challenges in developing inclusive schools cannot be separated from South Africa’s existing complex socioeconomic and sociocultural context as it shapes the way in which inclusive education is being implemented (Engelbrecht, 2011). Even though South African education has made good progress quantitatively since the late 1990s by increasing pre-primary, primary, and secondary school access to mainstream schools, a qualitative research analysis of mainstream education in general indicates that inequities of class, gender, ability, and geography do not translate into acceptance and full participation in education and the development of sustainable inclusive schools (Engelbrecht, Nel, Nel, & Tlale, 2015; Wolhuter, 2014). Research studies therefore have found that despite the publication of White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001), various implementation guidelines (e.g., Department of Basic Education, 2014; Department of Education, 2008, 2009), and the overall commitment of the government to the development of an inclusive education system for learners with diverse learning needs, complex and interrelated conceptual and practical challenges impede progress toward the development of inclusive schools in South Africa (Department of Basic Education, 2015; Engelbrecht et al., 2015; Engelbrecht, Nel, Smit, & Van Deventer, 2016; Donohue & Bornman, 2014; Geldenhuys & Wevers, 2013; Walton, 2011, 2016; Wildeman & Nomdo, 2007). The dynamic interaction between these challenges continues to influence the development of sustainable inclusive schools.

The Nature of White Paper 6 and Implementation Strategies

In interrogating the meaning of policy, international statements, and guidelines on inclusion in practice in various countries, the argument can be made that the idealism of policy does not translate easily into the realities within schools and wider school communities (Engelbrecht, Nel, Smit, & Van Deventer, 2016). This is also the situation in South Africa (Donohue & Bornman, 2014; Geldenhuys & Wevers, 2013; Walton, 2011, 2016; Wildeman & Nomdo, 2007). The implementation of inclusive education is particularly demanding due to the fact that substantive structural changes to the South African education system are needed in order to reconstruct the education system in such a way that it may contribute to the effective inclusion of all learners (Howell, 2018). This implies that ultimately schools and teachers are required to develop new ways of thinking and teaching so that all learners with diverse educational needs can participate in inclusive school communities. These diverse educational needs do not focus only on disabilities but also include needs caused by, for example, language, gender, and socioeconomic barriers. In various analyses of White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001), researchers indicate that despite the White Paper’s political symbolism in committing itself to an inclusive education system, there is a lack of clarity regarding strategic planning to reconstruct the education system. This includes vague implementation guidelines and ambiguous incentives and directives. This has led to serious implementation challenges, including creating unrealistic expectations in general regarding the ease of its implementation and sufficient funding in the future (Donohue & Bornman, 2014; Engelbrecht et al., 2016; Wildeman & Nomdo, 2007).

Understandings of Inclusive Education and Its Impact on Implementation

The development of inclusive education in South Africa originated, as in most other southern African countries, in a medical or charity discourse on disabilities that was itself a legacy of colonialism; churches and medical professionals from higher-income countries brought the development of separate special education provisions to the fore. A pervasive challenge has been that prevailing understandings about inclusive education in postcolonial countries still mainly reflect thinking based on the traditional separate special education approach with its highly specialized support structures (Engelbrecht & Green, 2018; Pather & Nxumalo, 2012).

Research studies in South Africa indicate that, based on the interventions initiated by churches as well as disability NGOs during colonial times and continued under the apartheid government until 1994, the majority of teachers and parents still regard inclusive education as an extension of traditional separate special education (Geldenhuys & Wevers, 2013; Engelbrecht & Green, 2018; Savolainen, Engelbrecht, Nel, & Malinen, 2012; Walton, 2011; Walton, Nel, Muller, & Lebeloane, 2014). White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001), despite its support for a broader socially constructed approach to diverse educational needs in its definition of inclusive education, also still depends on a medical approach when support for diverse learning needs are recommended, thus contributing to challenges in changing existing understandings of inclusive education. As a result, inclusive education continues to be conceived and understood by the majority of teachers and parents in South Africa in the following ways:

  • The narrow view that inclusive education is the physical placement of learners with disabilities in need of special support in mainstream classrooms, thereby placing the emphasis on special needs that are linked to disabilities within mainstream education and reinforcing the idea that inclusive education is special education renamed;

  • The view that meeting the social and academic needs of learners with diverse educational needs should be as far as possible in mainstream classrooms but preferably providing separate learning support settings by highly trained professionals (Department of Basic Education, 2015; Engelbrecht & Green, 2018; Goranson & Nilholm, 2015).

The emphasis therefore remains on physical access to education and on an understanding of “special needs” as disabilities, rather than on a norm of diverse learning needs within inclusive schools. It also reflects the still deeply embedded notion in South Africa, despite the general emphasis on equality and equity in education within a democratic society and a broader definition of inclusive education, of widely held medical-deficit assumptions about the nature and distribution of abilities (Engelbrecht & Green, 2018).

The implementation of inclusive education and schools’ decision-making in this regard are therefore continuously informed by school principals as well as teachers’ understanding of inclusive education rather than by the high expectations for all learners as expressed in policy implementation guidelines. Research findings have clearly indicated that decisions on which version of inclusive education should be the goal in specific school contexts are decided upon by school principals and teachers rather than by idealistic policy imperatives and mainly based on their existing beliefs in a traditional medical-deficit approach to learners with disabilities (Oswald & Engelbrecht, 2013). These differences in the understanding of inclusive education introduce the question of power and agency into local debates about inclusive education. Who, for example, should decide what version of inclusive education should be adopted in a specific school and who can address these power issues in explicit and systematic ways so that the inequitable educational experiences for some learners can be prevented (Artiles, Kozleski, & Waitoller, 2011)? Unfortunately few researchers have begun to document the consequences of different understandings of inclusive education and power issues within the South African education context.

Availability of Teaching and Learning Resources

Even though White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001) as well as subsequent inclusive education guidelines (e.g., Department of Basic Education, 2014; Department of Education, 2009) have created a framework for individual rights including access to and participation in mainstream schools in South Africa, a recognition of socioeconomic realities for implementation in a lower-income country has been neglected. The original intention to ensure equality and equity in the South African education system has, according to Spreen and Vally (2006), largely been subverted by the imperatives of budgetary constraints as well as complacency in believing that new democratic laws will ensure equality and equity. A situation has been created where service delivery has become a function of available capacity instead of delivering on policy demands (Wildeman & Nomdo, 2007). This continuing situation includes huge disparities especially in rural areas in the provision of adequate physical facilities and effective and adequate teaching and learning resources in mainstream schools, as well as a general lack of administrative and financial support from district governmental offices. Most teachers in rural areas, for example, report that they have to manage classes in excess of 40 learners per class, that there is a lack of textbooks and other learning resources, as well as in some instances a lack of electricity and proper sanitation, and that little if any support is received from district officials (Engelbrecht, 2011; Geldenhuys & Wevers, 2013). These funding constraints that affect the availability of teaching and learning resources, including effective support structures for teachers on district levels, therefore continue to complicate the implementation of the recommendations of White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001; Department of Basic Education, 2015; Donohue & Bornman, 2014; Walton, 2011). The ideal inclusive education classroom in inclusive schools as envisaged in research conducted in high-income countries is therefore far from the lived experiences of most teachers and learners, especially in rural South Africa (Engelbrecht, Savolainen, Nel, Koskela, & Okkolin, 2017).

Enacting Inclusive Education in Individual Mainstream Classrooms

Internationally as well as in South Africa it is emphasized that teachers can be influential role players and agents of change in the development of inclusive schools (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011; Swart & Oswald, 2008). Extensive research (Engelbrecht et al., 2015, 2016, 2017; Savolainen et al., 2012) indicates that, based on the Constitution, South African teachers seem to favor inclusion in principle but have serious doubts regarding their self-efficacy in its implementation. However, in enacting inclusive education, teachers’ practices are shaped not only by the capacity of their schools and school districts but especially by their own capacity to be innovative and creative in creating opportunities for every learner to fully participate in classroom activities (Geldenhuys & Wevers, 2013; Walton, 2011). A lack of teaching and learning support resources as well as their own learning experiences during their initial teacher education programs and their subsequent mostly negative experiences of managing diverse learning needs in their own classrooms influence the way in which they enact inclusive education. Their teaching strategies for example, instead of focusing on acceptance and meaningful participation of learners with diverse educational needs, mainly focus on an individualized approach based on a deficit view of difference to accommodate learners they regard as having learning difficulties in their own classrooms and not on the broader notion of diverse educational needs as formulated in White Paper 6 (Engelbrecht et al., 2015). Based on their initial teacher education experiences, teachers furthermore prefer learners with diverse learning needs to be supported in separate settings by highly qualified professionals and base this view on their personal lack of confidence in being able to diversify instruction and develop their own learning support strategies to meet a range of learner needs (Engelbrecht et al., 2015, 2016). In addition they blame their inability to extend what is currently available in their classrooms to be accessible for every learner on the current prescribed national curriculum. According to teachers, current curriculum constraints, such as prescriptive requirements for completing its contents, make it impossible to be creative and adapt their teaching strategies (Engelbrecht et al., 2015; Florian & Walton, 2018; Savolainen et al., 2012; Walton, Nel, Muller, & Lebeloane, 2014).

Initial Teacher Education for Inclusion

Research indicates that the contents of initial teacher education for inclusion plays an important role in South African teachers’ sense of self-efficacy regarding their role in inclusive education and enacting inclusive education in their classrooms (Engelbrecht & Ekins, 2017; Walton & Rusznyak, 2014). The prevailing model of initial teacher education at most teacher education institutions in response to the demands of White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001) tends to focus on an additional model approach where separate courses that typically focus on different kinds of disabilities and specialist support strategies are added to initial general teacher education programs. An analysis of the contents of these teacher education for inclusion programs in South Africa indicates that in most instances the contents are not extended to broaden the boundaries of inclusive education by integrating its contents into the broader curriculum and pedagogical practices of mainstream classroom settings as recommended in White Paper 6 (Owald & Engelbrecht, 2018). The majority of teachers who graduated from these programs therefore still hold deeply held deficit beliefs about the abilities of students with diverse educational needs including those with disabilities (Engelbrecht & Ekins, 2017; Oswald, 2014; Savolainen et al., 2012; Walton & Rusznyak, 2014). With specific reference to initial teacher education programs based on this approach, Oswald (2007, p. 146) points out that within the South African context these teachers have learned that certain students have so called special needs that can be met only through “special” learning materials and “special” teacher skills and in “special” segregated settings based on outdated medical-deficit approaches to disabilities. There is a clear lack of understanding of diverse educational needs and valuing learners’ differing experiences based on ethnicity, gender, culture, ability, and socioeconomic background (Owald & Engelbrecht, 2018).

Collaboration Between All School Community Members

The development of inclusive schools requires a move away from exclusion and isolation to an emphasis on mutual support within a culture of belongingness and participation. Collaboration between all school community members as an essential feature of inclusive schools mean that affiliations and alliances among community members are facilitated and mutual support is the norm. Effective collaboration therefore involves direct interaction between co-equal role players who participate voluntarily, share in decision-making, and set common outcomes (Sands, Kozleski, & French, 2000).

Education White Paper 6 (Department of Education, 2001) supports the notion of collaboration by recommending a school community–based approach to learner support. However, research within the South African context has indicated that developing collaborative partnerships within school and district-based support teams in inclusive educational contexts, and the utilization and acknowledgement of the expertise that exists, presents a number of challenges (Engelbrecht & Hay, 2018). For example, most teachers do not have any experience of collaboration as a style of interaction as co-equal partners with either colleagues or parents. In a research project in 2013 (Nel, Engelbrecht, Nel, & Tlale, 2013), it was also found that despite the awareness that collaboration between various role players is essential for the effective implementation of inclusive education, effective collaboration strategies are not in place in most of the schools that took part in the project. Teachers believe that they are not adequately trained or skilled enough to establish collaborative partnerships with parents and professionals. Creating and sustaining effective collaborative team approaches that include parents and teachers in inclusive schools remains challenging.

Conclusion

It is evident that an understanding of the South African cultural-historical and socioeconomic context in general as well as its impact on the development of inclusive schools is a necessity if equity in education for all learners is to be realized. As indicated by Chisholm and Leyendecker (2008), idealistic policies are usually re-contextualized during implementation through multiple processes that include the availability of resources, beliefs of role players, and teacher competencies. How acceptance and participation of learners with diverse educational needs despite a broader definition of inclusive education in policy documents has been interpreted within schools, as well as the lack of adequate resources, including technical and human resources, has shaped the way in which inclusive schools have developed in South Africa. The result has been that wider schools systems as well as individual teachers have focused on challenges rather than on identifying strengths on contextual levels that can contribute to re-visioning the way in which inclusive education is viewed and implemented. To facilitate the development of inclusive schools in the future does not mean that existing beliefs and practices should not change but rather that the existing knowledge and assumptions of teachers need to be taken fully into account in creating conditions in which sustainable inclusive schools can be developed by the South African government in full partnership with school communities (Chisholm & Leyendecker, 2008; Engelbrecht & Green, 2018). It also needs to be recognized that most schools have taken positive steps to allow access to learners who in the past were most likely to be excluded from accessing mainstream schools but that, unfortunately, many of these learners are still being excluded from full participation in the curriculum and culture of the schools (Engelbrecht et al., 2017; Singal, 2008).

The implication is that combining real initiatives and deliberate action (e.g., effective policies to advance redress, effective teacher education for inclusion programs, effective funding structures) with the establishment of a more fluid and broader definition of inclusive education that also allows individual schools to identify and further develop their own strengths, could lead to the development of sustainable locally situated inclusive school communities (Badat & Sayed, 2014; Engelbrecht & Artiles, 2016; Donohue & Bornman, 2014).

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Walton, E., & Rusznyak, L. (2014). Affordances and limitations of a special school practicum as a means to prepare pre-service teachers for inclusive education. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 18(9), 957–974.Find this resource:

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