At a recent GDE (Gauteng department of education) conference on inclusion, someone from the floor asked when we can expect full inclusion to take place in our schools. The speaker, an official representing the Department of Education (DoE), said that the date it is working towards is 2024.
For someone who believes passionately in an inclusive educational system, the statement came as a shock. I was under the impression that the implementation of an inclusive system is well on its way. I have obviously been living in cloud cuckoo land.
Five years ago, in the late 1990s, the discussions that took place around the subject of inclusion in South Africa proved that it was a hot topic even then. It was, after all, that era that gave birth to White Paper 6. Sadly, from what I heard at the conference, the process of inclusion seems to have cooled somewhat. Worse still, it seems to have regressed.
One good thing we heard at the conference however, was that 30 schools in the country, six of them in Gauteng, have been selected to become full service schools. The official unfortunately could not name them. ‘They know who they are!” was her reply when asked to identify them.
So where does this leave the process of inclusion? The White Paper may be in place but many questions again need to be asked. Is inclusion something that is too big to be implemented in our schools? Is it a cheaper option? What is the difference between mainstreaming and inclusion? Do we actually want inclusive education in this country?
The answer to the last question should be a resounding ‘yes”. To say otherwise would only prove that we have learnt nothing from the divisions and exclusivities of the past. We surely cannot afford to delay the process — the momentum and continuity will be disrupted and whole generations of children will lose out. This state of affairs would not only be a gross injustice to children with special needs; it would also be unconstitutional.
I say that the implementation of inclusive education needs to happen as rapidly as the implementation of affirmative action. Imagine the huge outcry had the government set the year 2024 as the goal for full equal representation and opportunity in business in this country.
The same howls of protest should accompany the snail-paced attempt of the DoE at creating equal opportunities for the many children who at present either remain unschooled or who receive hopelessly inadequate educational input.
We all know that affirmative action brings with it a huge number of problems. This state of affairs, however, does not detract from the determination with which it is happening. The same should be true for the introduction of an inclusive educational system.
The problems that accompany the implementation of inclusive education should without delay be identified and addressed with real resources and solutions. I am not convinced however, that the DoE is equipped to drive the process.
Despite the fact that it has some ill-informed and inexperienced officials, it still does have the expertise, it knows the theory and its heart is in the right place. But this is unfortunately not enough to ensure the correct procedures for implementing inclusion.
Lessons can instead be learnt from schools that are already practicing inclusive education. There are schools that have not waited around and that have already taken it upon themselves to employ adequately qualified staff to deal with children with special needs. These schools are the role models with which we should be interfacing and from which we should be learning.
Parents need to know their rights. It is often parents who want the best for their children who approach and challenge schools to weigh up the benefits of inclusive education.
And what are the benefits of inclusive schooling? In my experience, we as teachers tend to believe that it is our job to educate and nurture. The irony, though, is that very often it is us who learn more about life because of our interaction with those who have special needs. They are the ones who mirror our own vulnerabilities and keep us in touch with reality. The benefits of accepting and welcoming those who would otherwise be rejected or be seen as worthless vastly overshadow the problems that come to the fore.
In my opinion, children with special needs unwittingly challenge us to embrace the true meaning of ubuntu. Until inclusive education becomes a reality in our country, apartheid — albeit in another form — will remain with us.
A truly inclusive society will only come about as a result of a truly inclusive educational system. I hope that this will not only happen in 2024. I might never witness it. I may well be dead by then.
Jennifer Gous MA (AAC) is the principal of the Key School for Specialised Education in Johannesburg