Inclusive basic education in south africa: issues in its conceptualisation and implementation

Issues related to the conceptualisation of inclusive education in South Africa

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3.3 Issues related to the conceptualisation of inclusive education in South Africa

Arguably, due to the history of exclusion along social lines and the resulting class differences, the discourse on equality in South African education has disproportionately concentrated on race and class inclusion to the further exclusion of other marginalised groups such as persons with disabilities.77 On the other hand, the term "inclusive education" as used in the (immediate) post-apartheid education policy had, as part of its central agenda, the inclusion of a range of previously excluded groups into the mainstream education system,78 as opposed to the near exclusive disability dimension with which it is often associated in international jurisprudence and literature. In the years following the adoption of WP 6, however, the tide seemingly changed to associating inclusive education in South Africa more with disabilities than with any other ground of exclusion.

WP 6 embraces the theory of system change as opposed to changing the individual, drawing extensively from the reports of the National Commission on Special Needs in Education and Training (NCSNET) and the National Committee on Education Support Services (NCESS).79 It is argued that WP 6 "reflects the struggles and settlements ...of a highly contested area of policy development in South Africa between 1996 and 2001".80 WP 6 is thus intended to guide the development of an inclusive education system that can accommodate the needs of all learners in the education system.

WP 6 is founded on two key principles: moving away from disability as an organising principle of special needs education (SNE), and favouring the availability of support programmes as opposed to the movement of learners between ordinary and special schools.81 However, despite this stated commitment, WP 6 failed to fully embrace the shift in approach to the education of children with disabilities as conceptualised by the NCSNET/NCESS.82 The NCSNET report sought to usher in a paradigm shift in the conceptualisation of education needs from a "special needs" to a "barriers to learning" paradigm.83 It departed from the pre-existing classification of learners as either needing less support (therefore able to learn in mainstream schools) or as needing "special" support (and hence needing to be educated in special schools).84 It was argued that the "special needs" approach failed to take into account the full range of barriers to learning that underlay the exclusion of certain groups of learners, such as their socio-economic circumstances, their social attitudes, their language, their particular physical abilities, and the inflexibility of the curriculum confronting them.85

The shift in paradigm was premised on the thought that focusing on these barriers as opposed to the "deficit" of the learners would facilitate an understanding of the causes of exclusion and the appropriate responses to it, in order to open access to all excluded children.86 The NCSNET/NCESS, therefore, envisaged a single education and training system with a range of learning contexts, offering a varied curriculum and support interventions to address the diverse needs of all learners. In such a system, special schools would provide a supporting role to the centres of learning.87 Evidently, the resulting approach adopted in WP 6 and the SIAS as highlighted above did not achieve this goal.

In addition to disability, WP 6 recognises a range of "learning needs" that have the potential to cause the exclusion of learners from education. These needs are similar to the barriers to learning identified in the NCSNET/NCESS report,88 suggesting that "learning needs" as used in WP 6 refer to "barriers to learning" as conceptualised by the NCSNET/NCESS. WP 6 also recognises that the learners who are most vulnerable to barriers to learning and exclusion are those with disabilities and impairments, and on that premise the Policy focuses mainly on children with disabilities.89 Arguably the eventual exclusive focus in WP 6 on the education of learners with disabilities is attributable to the aforementioned substitution of "barriers to leaning" with "learning needs".

There is, indeed, a "subtle but important distinction between ensuring that the [Policy] reaches and benefits the most vulnerable learners (i.e. learners with disabilities) and limiting the focus of inclusive education to only being about learners with disabilities".90 Though these distinctions seem merely semantic, in effect they fail to give full meaning to the new paradigm envisaged by the NCSNET/NCESS.91 This is because the concept of "learning needs" as used in WP 6 does not move far enough from the learner deficit theory so as to contemplate a barrier outside of the learner (such as his or her socioeconomic circumstances or physical environment), because "needs" inevitably invoke ownership - that is, whose needs?

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