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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versión On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versión impresa ISSN 0041-4751


ENGELBRECHT, Petra. The implementation of inclusive education: International expectations and South African realities. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2019, vol.59, n.4, pp.530-544. ISSN 2224-7912.

Education for learners with learning needs that can be regarded as challenging has changed over the past 30 years from education in separate school and classroom settings, especially for learners with disabilities based on a medical-deficit model, to education based on the internationally accepted belief that every learner has the right to be included in a mainstream classroom and school. This change flowed from a socially constructed view that stumbling blocks in society play an important role in discriminating against those who are regarded as being different. International organisations such as the United Nations and its agency UNESCO have played and are still playing a leading role in this regard. The publication in 1994 of the Salamanca Statement by UNESCO (signed by 92 countries, including South Africa) is regarded as a watershed event in establishing inclusive education as the guiding principle in the development of equitable education for all; the Statement argues that all learners should be accommodated in mainstream schools regardless of, for example, their physical, intellectual or emotional needs and differences or their home language. High-income countries with well-funded, well-established school systems were quick to follow this movement in developing policies and implementation strategies based on international guidelines. Lower-income countries were slower to follow the new approach and in many instances have simply tried to transfer strategies developed in high-resource countries to their own contexts. The focus of this article is to examine critically the implementation of inclusive education in South Africa against the background of international guidelines and efforts by UNESCO to monitor progress. Elements of education systems that are regarded as essential for the implementation of inclusive education and that were monitored for UNESCO's 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report on Inclusion in 2018 are placed within Bronfenbrenner's social-ecological model, in which the interaction between processes at different system levels is emphasised. These elements include laws and policies at national or macro-level, governance and finance at national and provincial levels (macro- and meso-levels), school curricula (macro- and meso-levels), facilities and infrastructure within schools and their communities (micro-levels). The development of inclusive education in South Africa should be seen as a logical outcome of the introduction of full democracy in the country in 1994 and the concomitant expectation that education would be transformed to recognise the rights of all to be educated. As a result, policy development in education, including policy on the development of inclusive education, took human rights as its point of departure, but it soon became apparent that the idealism expressed in policy documents was difficult to realise in practice. In analysing the implementation of inclusive education in South Africa in preparation for the international monitoring process, the following became clear. In the national legal framework, White Paper 6 (2001) is regarded as the point of departure to address inclusive education, the implementation of which is based on the South African Constitution (Republic of South Africa, 1996a) and supports inclusive education for learners with diverse learning needs. However, despite the fact that the White Paper acknowledges a socially constructed view of barriers to learning in an inclusive education system, researchers indicate that recommendations regarding implementation tend to be idealistic and that realities regarding available capacities and resources were not fully taken into account. Furthermore, a strong dependence on the medical-deficit model in the recommendations for learner support by advocating a continuum of support has led to both conflict and ambiguity in the understanding of what inclusive education really means among the members of the general public, teachers, learners and their parents. In connection with governance and finances, UNESCO regards the roles of intersectoral collaborative leadership and adequate funding as crucial. Although South African implementation guidelines since 2001 emphasise the roles of collaboration and participatory leadership, there is insufficient research-based evidence that indicates effective collaboration between different role players and effective leadership regarding the implementation of inclusive education in most schools. Furthermore, budgetary constraints at all system levels continue to have a negative effect on the implementation of inclusive education. This situation involves, inter alia, disparities, especially in rural areas, in the provision of adequate learning material in order to facilitate a more inclusive curriculum, inadequate physical facilities and a lack of effective learning support from district learning support teams, which lead to negative perceptions among teachers of their self-efficacy in implementing inclusive education. Teachers are regarded as key role players and teacher education for inclusion therefore forms an integral part of implementation strategies both globally and in South Africa. An analysis of the contents of initial teacher education programmes in South Africa indicates that an additional model approach is taken when a separate course on inclusive education is added to the programme as a whole, with the result that inclusive education is still regarded as "special" and "separate" and not an essential part of the knowledge and skills that every teacher should acquire. With specific reference to attitudes towards diversity, it is globally accepted that a society's attitudes towards diversity have an important effect on the implementation of inclusive education at macro-, meso- and micro-levels, and South African legal frameworks as well as implementation guidelines therefore stress its importance. However, these attitudes at meso- and micro-levels are affected by both the socio-economic contexts in communities and culturally relevant attitudes towards formal education, especially for learners with disabilities, in specific communities. It is therefore important to note that inclusivity in communities and education is a cultural product that has specific implications, depending on the community concerned. The discussion of internationally accepted elements of inclusive education systems and how they have developed in South Africa illustrates the importance of acknowledging the complexities involved in monitoring progress in unique national contexts. It is clear that insight into and knowledge of the dynamic interaction between unique cultural-historical and socio-economic contexts in national contexts are needed if implementation in a specific national context is analysed. The conclusion is that the time is right to question critically why there is such a strong dependence in South Africa on policies and practices developed in high-income countries. The collaborative development of more locally situated inclusive education approaches at all system levels that draw on the interaction between cultural-historical factors and socio-economic realities in South Africa is imperative if the vision of equitable access to, acceptance of and participation in mainstream education for all learners is to be achieved.

Palabras clave : inclusive education; diverse educational needs; mainstream schools; inclusive schools; disabilities; special educational needs; barriers to learning; learning needs; human rights; social-ecological model.

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