BUILDING an inclusive system of education and training

2014-06-06 00:00

THE years 2013/2014 were declared “years of inclusive education”, clearly aiming at both strengthening the advocacy for the Inclusive Education (In.Ed) Programme and showcasing any progress.

It was launched in 2001 as a key transformational tool via the Education White Paper 6 (“Building an Inclusive System of Education and Training”) policy, with a 20-year time-frame for full implementation.

While the education bureaucracy in KwaZulu-Natal would believe it has a “good story to tell” about the progress made thus far, an examination of how it has managed and implemented the programme shows a different story altogether. But more of that later.

In KZN, prescripts of Education White Paper 6 are driven via the programme of “building schools as inclusive centres of learning, care and support” and the “structures strategy”.

Freeing each

person’s potential

For starters, two issues need clarification.

Firstly, the view that may be held by some that the inclusive education practice is a matter of dumping all children, no matter what level of educational support they require, into the same mainstream class is erroneous. Inclusive education respects the support needs of all our children and procedurally assists or places them as needed, within appropriate mainstream, full-service or special schools.

Secondly, while not the panacea for all ailments in education, the inclusive education programme offers the best hope of realising the constitutional undertaking to “free the potential of each person” whatever the level of that potential might be.

What is the

KZN story really?

In the decade preceding democracy, the Working Group on Support Services (WGSS), comprising representatives from the separate Education departments, pioneered the development of a new support model in readiness for a post-democratic unified Education Department. Psychological guidance and special needs (PGSES) sections in all the previous Education departments were assisting pupils via the time-intensive process of individual “testing and outplacement”. Scarcity of specialists, such as educational psychologists and therapists, meant the ratio of specialists to pupil population in the various Education departments ranged from around 1:3 000 up to 1:40 000.

Staff was basically buried under testing case loads. Replicating this testing model in a unified Education Department (DoE), catering for millions of children was unaffordable and unfeasible. At any rate IQ testing was falling into disrepute.

Teacher support

One of the strategies developed by WGSS was initiating teacher support teams (TST) at all schools. The TST is a historical foundation upon which the learner support team (LST) that currently forms part of the In.Ed. Structures Strategy rests. Both share the principles of early identification, timeous support, cost effectiveness, facilitating success and preventing dropping out. Like the TST, the LST is a small group of experienced teachers assisting and supporting other teachers. But for the LST to be effective, specialist staff from the districts must provide the necessary support.

Children do not all develop or learn identically. A teaching strategy may work for some but not for others. Managing the educational support needs, for example, of children who are withdrawn, attention disordered, epileptic, autistic, acting out, traumatised or even highly talented or overachieving may be challenging even for experienced teachers. Hence Professor Vuyisile Msila’s position that “all teachers need support from time to time” can be answered by a well-supported LST.

Highly committed staff

The second part of the KZN good story, concerns a small team of relatively junior but highly committed staff who got the In.Ed programme off the ground.

The tasks involved were, among others, undertaking the massive advocacy and training programmes on how the Structures Strategies at school, circuit and district levels needed to be set up and rendered functional by managers at the circuit and district levels; facilitating the building and equipping of support centres at full-service schools; overseeing care and support budget allocations to full-service schools and appointment of staff such as pupil support assistants, school counsellors and pupil support educators to full-service schools.

The Structures Strategy of the Inclusive Education Programme is built upon: the learner support team (LST), the educator support team (EST) and the whole support team (WST). These three structures operate at the school, circuit and district levels, forming a support hierarchy. A team at a lower level can appeal for more assistance to one at the higher level.

When all attempts at providing the child with appropriate additional support at the school fail, the matter is referred to the circuit and then the district level LST for additional support decisions. Placement in a special school is just one of the possible outcomes of that process.

Full-service schools (FSS) form a further, early helping hand for children requiring additional support. They are staffed with two pupil support assistants. A school counsellor and pupil support educator are also appointed to serve both that FSS and surrounding schools.

In 22 of the 128 full-service schools designated thus far, the activity rooms in support centres have been fitted with 20 computers carrying career guidance and educational programs.

All FSS support centres also have consultation rooms for visiting healthcare workers, a kitchenette for basic cookery skills, disabled-friendly toilets and showers. Utilised and managed effectively, the full-service schools’ support centre would be a hub of organised activity every day, supporting the children, selected by the LSTs, both from that FSS and neighbouring schools. Activities, including areas such as literacy, numeracy, career-selection skills, and speech and language therapy and hearing screening would result in services aimed at remediation and support being brought to children in their own locality.

End of the good story

That’s where the good story for KZN DoE ends.

Grave reservations arise, based upon observations over several years, regarding the education bureaucracy’s role in squandering the groundwork achieved in inclusive education thus far, and to how it has managed and implemented the Inclusive Education Programme in factually provable ways to support children and, inter alia, redress the disadvantages of the past.

Media coverage, following the 2013 matric results supports these reservations. “Massive systemic failures in our education system” (J. Naidoo, former MP) and “Help teachers help their pupils” (Professor Msila, Unisa) are just two of the many commentaries signalling an unfolding educational tragedy.

Diligent long-term implementation of the Inclusive Education Programme could have made a significant difference in raising the number and quality of matric passes, reducing the dropout rate, and nurturing the potential of our children of all ability levels throughout their learning journey.

In what ways has the DoE achieved an “education situation”, which Alistair Sparks describes as “wretched”?

Scarce skills specialists

Firstly, we have what one is forced to describe as bureaucratic mismanagement of the time of scarce skills specialists. The entire province has just around five therapists, 11 social workers, and under 20 educational psychologists ultimately catering for some two million children. Their roles, inter alia, include:

• supporting pupil support teams, pupil support assistants, school counsellors. pupil support educators;

• supporting therapists at special schools;

• overseeing the effective functioning of the support centres at FSS;

• responding to trauma incidents;

• developing teacher skills, inter alia, in preventing trauma; and

• collaborating with other departments such as health to identify children of school-going age with disabilities, who are not yet in schools, and rendering appropriate assistance.

Public opinion suggests grave concern among professionals and lay persons over both scarce skills specialist shortages, as well as the fact that appointed specialists are often unavailable because they are doing other things.

The standard approach by the DoE when these concerns (and more) have been raised appears to be that of “ignoring and avoiding”.

Scarce skills specialists continue to be regularly used for non-core roles, such as monitoring examinations, checking if schools are functioning on the first and last three days of each school term, and attending day-long meetings called in school time by head office personnel. The resultant loss in essential service to our children is around 50 days per scarce skills specialist per year (a provincial loss of 2 750 days), and the widespread deleterious impact of this upon all facets of education appears irrelevant to the DoE.

Reflection and correction

One manager indicated, in writing, that a mandate from the MEC and HOD enforced the above practice. The DoE appears deficient in the ethics of reflection and correction. Otherwise, correspondence submitted to it over several years, surely would have been taken seriously and an order issued to stop this malpractice. The above scenario co-exists in the education bureaucracy with:

• what could be called a pattern of generalised indifference regarding inclusive education as a system-wide programme;

• questionable appreciation of the constitutional right of every child to quality public education;

• support centres falling into disuse; and

• gross shortages of teacher aides, therapists and support staff at special schools.

So all factors considered, the KZN DoE’s inclusive education story emerges as a tragic waste of resources and disservice to children.

The DoE must reflect and correct now, or display the wisdom to seek help in doing so. Otherwise a rapid slide from Spark’s “wretched” to an educational catastrophe is likely — and soon.

• Logan Govender is the co-ordinator of the Voluntary Association — Concerned Educational Professionals. He is an educational psychologist and has served in many leadership positions in education, including that of organising secretary of Working Group on

Support Services.

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