The international movement towards what is formally called "inclusive education" has seen the promotion of access and participation in regular classes for children with disabilities or other special needs.
It was expressed in the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation's 1994 Salamanca Statement, which described the fundamental principle of inclusive schools as being that all children should learn together while their individual differences and learning needs are accommodated and given appropriate support.
In South Africa, the 2001 Education White Paper 6, Special Needs Education: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System provided a 20-year developmental perspective on building an inclusive education and training system that will address barriers to learning and recognise and accommodate a diverse range of learning needs.
However, the intentions of the movement towards inclusive education in South Africa have not been entirely realised. The white paper has never been promulgated into an Act, and this has weakened its use as a reference in law. In turn, the reality in classrooms is that inclusion in education is proving difficult to achieve. One of the questions that arise is whether and how we are training our teachers into an inclusive pedagogy.
At last week's Teachers Upfront seminar, held at the University of Witwatersrand's school of education, which focused on how teachers can support inclusive education, Dr Tsediso Michael Makoelle of the University of Johannesburg said inclusive education is often misconstrued as being another form of "special education" — that is, something for disabled pupils only.
On the contrary, inclusive education promotes participation in regular classes for children with disabilities or other particular needs, whereas "special" (or "special needs") education provides high levels of customised support at designated schools for learners whose disabilities require this.
Makoelle emphasised the role of teachers. "It's often teachers who distort what inclusive pedagogy means and who themselves are barriers to inclusion. Some teachers think it's time-consuming, it can't be done, and that it's only for specialist teachers in special schools."
But Makoelle emphasised that, "if teachers change their beliefs and conceptions about it being possible and understand that no one is disabled but instead all persons are abled differently", it can be done. This means that the first step in achieving inclusivity is changing the attitudes of teachers.
But the teacher is just one part of a system of support to pupils. Jean Fourie of the University of Johannesburg argued at the seminar that establishing an inclusive education system requires more than just capacitating teachers: it entails building "trusting partnerships between teachers and caregivers or parents in the support of all facets of a pupil's needs".
These partnerships bring benefits to schools, such as improved pupil behaviour, better attendance, improved academic performance and a close collaboration between schools and pupils' home settings, which allow for the optimising of learning.
Fourie argued that schools should recognise families as the most important support system and welcome and respect them as partners in all decision-making processes.
How does one capacitate teachers for inclusion, though, when they are sometimes resistant to it? Dr Elizabeth Walton of the Wits's school of education said that teacher resistance is partly caused by deep-seated assumptions. "We have an assumption about pedagogies — that there are special ones for 'special' children and regular ones for 'regular' children, but this assumption is not borne out by research."
Inclusive education does not deny individual differences among pupils but instead suggests that such differences do not have to be construed as problems, Walton said.
Urging teachers to "choose an instructional strategy and way of teaching that will include all children in the classroom and allow them to participate rather than exclude them", Walton said that a good way for teachers to be inclusive is to "create learning opportunities in which everyone can participate, reject deterministic beliefs about ability as being fixed and see difficulties in learning as professional challenges for teachers rather than deficits in pupils".
This requires that teachers find different ways of working, engage with other adults involved, respect the dignity of pupils and work together to make inclusion happen. To do this, teachers must be committed to ongoing professional development.
A systemic perspective
Dr Hester Costa, director of inclusion and special schools in the Gauteng department of education, provided a systemic perspective on the issue. Introducing inclusive education systemically is necessary in order to ensure that all pupils attend school, and to this end the department enables provisioning with the support of school-based, district and provincial support teams.
This allows the department to handle both pupil and school needs, develop a sustainable approach and comply not only with the principles of inclusive education but also with the minimum standards that ensure quality education and support. Costa identified the support of school leadership and management as being key to the success of inclusion.
"If school leaders are not functional, very little else is functional," she said, emphasising that, in Gauteng, the inclusion strategy includes not only support provisioning, outside participation and teacher development but also the capacitation of school leadership.
Audience engagement in the seminar was an expression of the contestations that dog inclusive education. One principal said that large classes are counterproductive to inclusive education and that the reality in his school is that the numbers of pupils per class are too high to allow for inclusion.
A teacher spoke of the pressure inclusive education puts on parents and pupils, and another claimed that schools should fight for inclusion and force the shift away from the prejudices embedded in our social practices. A mother spoke of our joint responsibility for inclusion and society's low level of consciousness about it. She said that government's inability to pass an important law is linked to our social ignorance about inclusion.
No teacher now obtains an initial teacher education qualification in South Africa without being inducted into the principles of inclusivity, which is part of the qualifications framework for teachers. Many educational opportunities exist for teachers who wish to specialise in inclusive education. This is cause for hope, but there is a long way to go and work still needs to be done on achieving the vision of an inclusive education system.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive officer of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand's school of education and the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education