Why inclusive education must work

Our system of education is failing those with learning disabilities, writes Catriona Macleod

Simphiwe, Thulani and Sipho have never met each other. But they have many things in common, the most striking of which is that the education system has failed them.

All three were brought to university psychological centres by their desperate mothers.
All three were in their teens and had repeatedly failed grades. All three were presumed by parents and teachers to be mentally retarded.

The assessment of profiles these boys reveals what is classically called a learning disability. In Simphiwe’s, Thulani’s and Sipho’s cases, their scores on intelligence tests revealed that they were functioning in the average to above average range of intelligence. Further analysis of the tests revealed, however, that there were severe discrepancies in their abilities, with some of the basic learning pro-cesses in each case being underdeveloped.

Had early detection of their learning difficulties resulted in referral to the educational support services, remedial steps could have been taken to obviate further learning difficulties.

Given the sort of educational neglect experienced by these boys, some have argued that the concept of learning disability has limited currency in South Africa. Instead, the term “disablement” is preferred. This highlights the failure produced in the interactive space between the child’s nature and the school system’s structure.

The Department of Education’s answer to children like Simphiwe, Thulani and Sipho is the Education White Paper No 6, entitled “Special Needs Education: Building an inclusive education and training system”. Previously, the historically white education sector was well serviced in terms of special educational needs. The historically black sector was completely under-resourced and underserviced. Inclusive education, as outlined by the white paper, is about maximising the participation of all learners and minimising the barriers to learning.

It concerns creating en-abling structures, systems and learning methodologies that meet the needs of all learners, as well as acknowledging and respecting differences. The emphasis shifts from special needs education to the education system as a whole.

According to the policy, a learner support team will be set up at each school, with support and consultation being provided by district support teams. Mainstream schools will cater for learners with mild learning difficulties, full-service schools for learners with moderate learning difficulties and special schools for learners with severe learning difficulties. Special schools will act as resources schools for full-service and mainstream schools in the vicinity.

While there are some difficulties with the policy, in principle it is sound. But where does it leave the likes of Simphiwe, Thulani and Sipho, who represent thousands of school-going children? What is the likelihood of the inclusive education policy actually making a difference?

Implementing inclusive education is going to be a long, slow process. Teachers are often resistant to change, reluctant to take on what they see as additional roles, and are not sure of the benefits. Most lack crucial skills. Many are unwilling to change from individual assessment and therapy to consultation with a learner support team and systemic work in the schools. They feel unsupported by the authorities, unrecognised in the work they do, and overwhelmed at the magnitude of the problem. There is, however, no alternative but to make inclusive education work, but children like Sipho, Simphiwe and Thulani will wait a long time before they are going to be given an opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Catriona Macleod is a senior psychology lecturer at Rhodes University

- The Teacher/M&G Media, Johannesburg, December 2001.

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