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South Africa Is Ready For A ‘Re-look’ At Inclusive Education

Dr AVIVIT CHERRINGTON

AN education system that is truly inclusive seeks to foster a culture of competence and belonging by recognising the strengths, rather than the limitations, of human diversity.

Its underlying values and principles are interwoven into every aspect of quality teaching and learning, from classroom practice to school culture, and from curriculum design to national policies, thus contributing meaningfully towards a transformative social education that promotes democratic participation, mutual respect, and social justice.

To advance an education and training system in South Africa that is able to carry the responsibility of implementing such a vision requires critical and collaborative thinking beyond a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

We live in a country where a large percentage of children continue to be excluded from accessing quality basic education due to multiple barriers of ability, language, gender or poverty. It is therefore absolutely essential for all education stakeholders to question whether current inclusive education practices and policies ensure that every child is able to pursue learning to his/her fullest potential towards optimal development as an active citizen of society.

There is a need to re-look at the foundation of inclusive education in South Africa, and this starts with all key education agents actively engaging with key practices, policies and structures from school to national level. STADIO Faculty of Education and Humanities’ School of Education is launching a new part-time Bachelor of Education Honours in Inclusive Education [BEdHons (Inclusive Education)] in July 2020.

Such postgraduate programmes provide a much-needed springboard for building the critical voice and capacity of the country’s teachers, members of school management teams, and future education academics towards shaping education transformation in the country.

Inclusive education is traditionally focused on ways of integrating learners with differences into the mainstream classroom and requires teachers to adapt their teaching style and resources to ensure that all learners receive adequate support to function at a similar level. However, it is inherently part of the human condition that children will present with differences in learning styles, preferences, and abilities and thus teachers must be challenged to think more broadly about Inclusive Education as a means to maximise participation in education rather than just to minimise barriers to learning.

A truly inclusive learning approach acknowledges and respects that learners bring diversity into the classroom and seeks to foster potential and flourishing of each individual.

However, socio-economic conditions that prevail in many communities also play a significant role in influencing learning styles and abilities: children come to school hungry, with high anxiety due to the prevalence of community violence, or lack of parent support and involvement.

Access to quality learning is also hampered by poor infrastructure, over-crowded classrooms, an inflexible curriculum and ineffective school management encumbered by inadequate policies.

These factors make the issue of diversity and inclusivity in education a complex one.

The current challenges brought to light during lockdown and subsequent phasing-in approach to the re-opening of schools around the country have further highlighted the massive inequalities in the education system and what teachers are challenged with daily in the classroom.

It is also evident that schools are not just places for fostering academic achievement but essential in developing children holistically through health and nutrition programmes and psycho-social support. Relevant and contextual inclusive education training therefore is needed to consolidate and deepen teachers’ critical understanding and application of inclusive practice and policy in the context of the current local landscape.

All undergraduate education degrees in South Africa are required to engage students with the theoretical foundations and principles of inclusive education, however, it is up to the institutions themselves to map out how this topic is included in the curriculum. Some have designed specialised short courses or modules, while others choose to integrate the topic into the general education module.

However, beyond the initial four-year degree only a handful of public universities offer this specialisation at postgraduate level, and in the burgeoning arena of privately-funded higher education in the country STADIO’S School of Education is proud to be offering this specialisation as an Honours level.

The programme is aimed at examining inclusive education holistically from a social capabilities and systems perspective, encouraging students to re-construct education as an anti-discriminatory and non-exclusionary approach.

It is evident that inclusivity in education must move beyond the realm of inclusive education practitioners, educational psychologists, or remedial therapists to focus on promoting research and good practice at all domains of early childhood, basic and higher education. It is up to teachers and education graduates to re-define what inclusive practice, pedagogy, and policy should look like in the South African context, as well the broader field of transformative education.

As such, postgraduate degree programmes in education should also be designed to be inclusive, taking into account the many barriers that prevent practicing teachers and graduates from furthering their education at higher education institutions.

In line with current realities and the need to develop teachers who are technologically competent, the BEdHons (Inclusive Education) is delivered through the institution’s Flexible Hybrid Learning Environment (FHLE) model, which makes it possible for students anywhere around the country to further their studies part-time.

Study material is made available online through structured weekly “learning events”, which consist of presentations, readings, podcasts, discussion forums and webinars.

Unlike outdated higher education distance learning where students are mostly left to their own devices to work through the study packs and then required to submit assignments never having engage with their lecturer or peers, at STADIO’s School of Education students can conveniently access the relevant materials through their laptops or smart phones according to their work-home schedules while not losing out on opportunities to regularly engage in critical discussions with lecturers and fellow students.

The research-driven programme opens the door for developing education scholarship and engagement that seeks to widen current definitions within inclusive education for analysing inclusive classroom practices, examining the role of pedagogy and curriculum in fostering inclusive cultures, and evaluating whether current policies serve to inhibit or promote inclusivity in local and international education systems.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Avivit Cherrington is a senior lecturer at STADIO Faculty of Education and Humanities’ School of Education (formerly known as Embury), and is the programme coordinator for the Bachelor of Education Honours in Inclusive Education [BEdHons (Inclusive Education)]. She is a Research Associate at Nelson Mandela University, Faculty of Education specialising in research on community well-being and transformative social change, and is the Chairperson of the Community and Social Psychology Division of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA).

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