As education systems internationally strive to improve access to quality education for all, amidst growing concerns about drop-out rates and youth unemployment, inclusive education is increasingly seen as one of the critical mechanisms to achieve real positive change.
When Cabinet approved the White Paper 6 on Inclusive Education in 2001, it set as a goal the full scale implementation of an inclusive education and training system at all levels by 2021.
After reviewing the progress made during the first 11 years of this period, the Department of Basic Education found that there has been significant progress in many areas of implementation. It is however, also felt that the progress should be accelerated and expanded across the system over the next few years towards 2021. Thus, I decided to declare 2013 the Year of Inclusive Education giving a clear mandate to all sectors within Education to take responsibility for ensuring that the constitutional right of learners with disabilities to access a full cycle of quality education and support is realised in special as well as in ordinary schools.
However, inclusive education is not only about learners with disabilities, but about all learners. There are still too many learners who are excluded from and within schools and whose needs are not met in such a way that they can reach their full potential. These are children from rural communities, children and youth who live on the streets, children from the poorest of the poor who have little access to the resources that urban children have. Also, learners who are different in some or other way, who speak different languages, come from different cultures, learn differently, are gifted or have emotional problems. Why should a learner with albinism or a learner in a wheelchair be referred to a special school because they do not feel welcome at their local neighbourhood school? How can we call ourselves a free and democratic society if these discriminatory attitudes still persist?
Everyone in education and in society as a whole should be working together to ensure that all persons strive for and achieve their full potential in schools that are themselves welcoming, enabling and geared to combat all forms of exclusion. Too many parents contact the Department on a weekly basis to complain that their children are not receiving the necessary support in classrooms to overcome their learning difficulties or that they are bullied and marginalised without the school having any systems or structures in place to combat this.
The challenges which children and youth who are excluded from school and from learning face, have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. This we cannot afford particularly when our societies, given the legacy of colonial pillage, are still faced with the triple challenge of inequality, poverty and unemployment.
The Department of Basic Education has achieved some critical milestones in 2013 which will be taken forward in a sustained focus on Inclusive Education in 2014.
The Curriculum for South African Sign Language has been completed and published for public comment. In 2014 teachers will be trained and the system prepared for the implementation of the new curriculum in 2015, starting with Foundation Phase and Grade nine. This will introduce a new era for persons who are Deaf.
A process has also been initiated to ensure that each teacher has the knowledge and skills to differentiate the curriculum. This would ensure that teachers are able to meet the needs of diverse learners in their day to day teaching by applying new methodologies, introducing early identification and remedial steps to prevent further learning breakdown.
Through the introduction of information technology and assistive technology, learners with specific learning support needs could be more effectively supported in ordinary classes. The Department is collaborating with key partners in business to expand its e-learning strategies.
The workbooks that have been adapted for braille, large print and augmentative and alternative communication, will assist hundreds of learners in special and ordinary schools to participate in lessons together with their peers. Furthermore, the Department is collaborating with stakeholders in the sector concerned with the education of learners with Visual Impairment to ensure that all teachers are fully skilled in Braille. In this regard an audit has been conducted on the status in schools for visual impairment and an intervention strategy has been introduced.
A revised Strategy for Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support has been finalized which will ensure that teachers and parents will receive the necessary support to ensure that learners can be included in their local neighbourhood schools.
I have also appointed an expert team in collaboration with the Department of Higher Education and Training to develop a skills curriculum and exit level qualification at NQF Level 1 or Grade 9 for learners who struggle to complete the academic general education and training band and would benefit from having access to vocational subjects at an earlier stage. It is anticipated that this process will be concluded by the end of 2014. The expert team is also responsible for developing a strategy to address the needs of children with severe and profound intellectual disability who are currently mostly out-of-school and attending care centres of the Department of Health and Social Development. My Department is committed to realize the right to basic education of these children within the next two years.
Finally, progress has been made with the development of a revised funding and post provisioning system which would ensure that there are more resources allocated to mainstream schools to introduce inclusive education but also to ensure that special schools have access to the resources required to provide specialised and quality education and support. There is a critical shortage of therapists and other health professionals in the country. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that the Departments of Health and Basic Education collaborate to make more effective use of the services of those who work in the sector.