A mother in Manguzi in northern KwaZulu Natal told SECTION27 of her 17 year old son, Siyabonga Dlamini who has never been to school because he is deaf and has never had the opportunity to learn sign language. The child was put on a waiting list for a special school when he was 8 years old but at 12 he was rejected for being too old. For 17 years Siyabonga has been sitting at home unable to communicate with anyone aside from pointing, despite being perfectly intellectually capable of learning and contributing to society. This was just one of the worrying stories we heard when we looked into the state of inclusive education in the Umkhanyakude District.
In 2014, SECTION27 discovered 17 out-of-school learners with a range of disabilities in the Umkhanyakude District. This was the impetus for our work in the district and led us to uncover a system failing to include children who have disabilities of varying levels, as outlined in our report, Too many children left behind. The report takes a hard look at the state of special and full service schools in northern KwaZulu Natal.
The learners we came to meet, or hear of, have a variety of disabilities and face a wide variety of barriers. Some had succeeded in being admitted to schools but wanted to communicate to us the challenges they faced within the school system.
When we began working in the area, our intention was simple: to get these learners into a special school that would accommodate their needs. We began writing to the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, knowing that if we needed to we could take the Department to court to ensure admission of these learners. The South African Schools Act, 1996 is clear that all children between the ages of 7 and 15 must be in school and there are serious consequences for those who prevent this from happening. This element of the Act is predicated on section 29(1)(a) of the South African Constitution which states that everyone has the right to a basic education, and section 9 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability status. The Department reached a settlement with SECTION27 and admitted these learners to Sisizakele Special School in the District.
Following the admission of the learners, we kept in contact with the teachers at Sisizakele as well as the occupational therapists employed at the state hospitals in the area. Through them, together with the Disabled People’s Organisation, Siphilisa Isizwe, we discovered that the scope of the problem was much bigger than one group of out-of-school learners. There are in fact scores of out-of-school disabled learners in the District and unfathomable barriers to quality education in these schools once learners are admitted.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, a team from SECTION27 led by Silomo Khumalo and Tim Fish Hodgson met with almost 100 caregivers of children and adults with disabilities, whose rights to a basic education had not been met directly as a result of their disability. We discovered that the 17 children who had been accommodated were only a fraction of a huge waiting list for Sisizekele Special School, and that other special schools in the area had similarly long waiting lists.
We were also aware from our visit to the school and contact with the learners that Sisizekele Special School’s infrastructure was adequate to admit many more learners than were being admitted, and that the capacity constraints were largely due to inadequate post provisioning for teaching and non-teaching staff.
At the same time, SECTION27 began to think more clearly about inclusive education, what it means and what it requires. The Department of Education published White Paper 6 in 2001 which envisioned the implementation of inclusive education in South African schools within 20 years. This requires strengthening of special schools building and converting ordinary schools to full service schools, which will accommodate higher learning needs. All ordinary schools should be able to accommodate learners with physical disabilities without higher learning needs.
With this in mind, the team visited each of the three special and eleven full service schools in the District to assess the barriers to accessing these schools. What we found were schools in dire need of provision of basic services, better infrastructure, and access to transport for their learners. We found groups of teachers excelling beyond the circumstances of the schools, but also teachers who were improperly trained, without necessary assistance, teaching huge groups of learners an undifferentiated curriculum.
SECTION27’s report compares these realities faced by schools, learners and out-of-school children in the District with the legal and policy framework, 15 years into White Paper 6’s 20 year programme.
The research found that many learners with disabilities have no access to schools at all. This is in part because of a shortage of schools able to accommodate these learners, and partially because parents do not always know their children are educable or are aware that their children have the right to a basic education. It is clear that the Department needs to focus their school access campaigns on reaching parents of learners with special needs. But the school system itself needs to drastically change for all learners to be able to access education equally.
For example, we learned that there is only one school in the entire District where learners with disabilities are accommodated for high school. There are 14 schools in the District catering for primary school learners, and only one of these accommodates learners for high school. This singular high school is a full service school so it only has limited space for learners, and tends not to accept learners who do not come directly from their primary school. This means that most learners do not have the option of taking the National Senior Certificate examinations and so have virtually no chance of gaining employment. The District seems to have made an unfounded decision about what these learners are capable of and will not even give them the chance to prove themselves otherwise. This sentiment echoes through each of our findings.
It is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable group of people in our country. Children like Siyabonga become even more marginalised by the very system constitutionally obliged to protect them. It is time for systemic change to ensure the right to inclusive education. We hope that this report will help to contribute to that.
Kate Paterson holds a BA (Hons) from Rhodes University and an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand. She is an attorney working on the right to a basic education at SECTION27, a public interest law centre in South Africa.