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South African Journal of Education

versão On-line ISSN 2076-3433
versão impressa ISSN 0256-0100

S. Afr. j. educ. vol.29 no.4 Pretoria Nov. 2009


A case study of a learner's transition from mainstream schooling to a school for learners with special educational needs (LSEN): lessons for mainstream education



Jace PillayI; Marisa Di TerlizziII

IVice-Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg and Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology. His main research focus is on community and educational psychology, anti-bias education, human rights and values education. E-mail:
IIEducational psychologist at St Stithians Girls' College. Her research focus is on inclusive education, cyber bullying, school violence and ethical testing in the South African context. She is an experienced school teacher and a guest lecturer at the University of Johannesburg




Currently there is an international shift towards inclusive education, a means of education according to which the learner is schooled in the least restrictive environment possible, to overcome his or her challenges to learning and development. Bearing this in mind we considered the experiences of a learner with learning difficulties who transited from a mainstream school environment to a school for learners with special education needs (LSEN).1 Inclusive education and ecological systems were the theoretical underpinnings of this study. The findings revealed that the learner benefited from placement within the LSEN environment on psychological, social, and academic levels. It appears that these changes occurred as a result of being placed in an environment that provided valuable and necessary resources to meet his learning needs, which were lacking in the mainstream school environment. Therefore, it seems that while inclusive education may be a way forward to access quality education for all, it can be argued that the current South African socio-economic environment does not necessarily allow for its successful implementation, as further access to resources and facilities need to be made available. These findings provide useful lessons at regulatory, infrastructural, and instructional functional levels for what is needed for learners with special education needs to succeed in mainstream school environments.

Keywords: case study; ecological; inclusive education; LSEN (learners with special education needs); mainstream; systems; transition



Introduction and background

South Africa's system of education has changed markedly over the last 14 years of democracy as human rights began to feature as a new cornerstone of the country's policy imperatives, extending it to include the right to education, free of discrimination and prejudice.

While the world moved towards inclusive education South Africa moved toward democracy and with this emerged a new Constitution of 1996 and a Bill of Rights outlining a right to access quality education, shifting (although not eradicating) previous discourses to welcome a rights discourse. This meant a change from the medical discourse, which considered the learner from a deficit perspective, to the rights discourse, according to which the learner's right to learn, is paramount. Consequently, the corresponding South African Schools Act of 1996, states that all learners have the right to learn and receive quality education to meet their unique needs. In 1996, the National Commission on Special Needs in Education and Training (NCSNET) and the National Commission on Education Support Services (NCESS) began a process of research into the field of special education and identified the need to integrate the separate systems of education to form a single comprehensive system to meet the needs of all learners. Subsequently, White Paper 6 was published in 2001, which outlined a route for South African education to move into the international trend of inclusion.

Inclusion is defined by Engelbrecht and Green (1999:6) as: "A shared value which promotes a single system of education dedicated to ensuring that all learners are empowered to become caring, competent and contributing citizens in an inclusive, changing and diverse society". In South Africa, recent policy documents such as the Guidelines for Inclusive Learning Programmes (2005c) provide classroom strategies for educators to make this vision a reality. To this end, the Department of Education has begun the conversion of 30 specially selected primary schools (representative of each school district) that will be made fully accessible to meet the requirements of learners who experience barriers to learning as "full service" schools. This pilot project will inform future inclusive education models and will include the training and empowerment of educators to identify, assess, support and intervene with learners that require additional support (Department of Education, 2001). Further policies develop strategies for the practical implementation of the White Paper, within a South African context, as well as outline funding to extend resources to all schooling environments. Some of these documents include the Conceptual and Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of Inclusive Education, Full Service Schools (2005b) and District Support Teams (2005a), the Guidelines for Inclusive Learning Programmes (2005c), and the Guidelines to Ensure Quality Education and Support: Special Schools as Resource Centres(2005d).

In 2008, the National Strategy on Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (SIAS) was launched, providing strategies for educators to implement the main elements of an inclusive education system in a collaborative working relationship with parents and learners. The aim of this policy is to improve access to quality education in South Africa, and include educators, parents and learners in the process of assessment, which is seen as a process to provide clarity on the support each learner requires, as well as provide guidelines for learner admission to special education environments, aiding in the placement of learners in the least restrictive environment (DoE, 2008a).

Consistent with the changes in policy, changes in ideology emerged. Firstly, the shift towards postmodernism sees the learner as an individual with assets (Landsberg, Kruger & Nel, 2005), as opposed to the modernistic view that the problem is within the learner, consistent with the deficit approach of the past (Becvar & Becvar, 1996:145). Lindsay (2003) cites the findings of a national UK-based study on the principles of inclusive education including the following: all children can learn; support is important for all learners who should be guided according to their own pace of learning. While this study may have been conducted overseas, the applicability to the South African context in terms of inclusion should be considered in line with the vision of White Paper 6 (2001).

At this stage it should be noted that we are proponents of the inclusive education model and have been instrumental in the writing and implementation of policies for the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), as well as the training of stakeholders, teachers and support staff at departmental and tertiary levels. It is from this perspective that we seek to deepen their understanding of the resources required in the mainstream level of teaching to best support the learning and developmental needs of learners. Donald, Lazarus, Lolwana (2002:19) define support as help "from within schools as well as to schools in areas such as school, health, social work, psychological and learning support, speech and hearing and physio/occupational therapy; and from other community resources". This suggests that inclusive education should be a school wide approach, characterised by a sense of community within the school environment. As such we approached this study as a means to uncover efforts which LSEN schools made to support learners that led to their academic success. It was hoped that in doing this lessons could be learnt from LSEN schools for the benefit of learners with special education needs in mainstream schools.

In addition, we recognise that South Africa is still growing and developing in the field of inclusive education and it appears that while some have accepted the ideology of inclusion, the reality is that South Africa, as a developing nation, is not equipped with resources and facilities required to meet the needs of inclusion. This considered it is still the trend in this country to refer to more specialised environments to meet the learner's best interests in providing learning support, therapeutic interventions and general learner support that cannot currently be provided within the mainstream school environment. This paired with the fact that many of the government LSEN schools are subsidised (more so than within the mainstream school environment), it would appear that the school fees at mainstream schools may not be sufficient to provide the facilities and resources that would be required for LSEN. There is the advantage of having available practitioners on site (such as speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists) to meet learners' needs as part of the school fee structure without the pressure for parents to transport learners to and from therapy in the afternoons when many parents are at work, of which, Mike Munch (pseudonyms are used for the participant and schools) is a case in point in this study.

Mike Munch was a nine-year-old learner who began his schooling in the mainstream school environment in Fraternity Primary School, a former Model C government school in Gauteng. In Grades R and 1, Mike experienced difficulties in a number of areas, including socialisation, concentration, handwriting and reading. These difficulties continued into Grade 2, and began to have a significant impact on Mike's progress. As a result, he was referred for assessment to an occupational therapist and an educational psychologist. The findings of these assessments revealed that Mike experienced difficulties in visual perception, auditory discrimination, that he had poor fine motor skills as a result of low muscle tone, poor focus and concentration, below average concrete and logical reasoning as well as a low self-esteem and social difficulties. After the assessments were completed, the Institutional Level Support Team compiled an Individualized Education Programme (IEP) to support Mike's needs. This programme included in-class support such as the use of a computer and computer-based educational programmes, tape aids and the use of additional materials in class. The programme also included weekly learning support lessons, paired reading in co-operative learning groups with older learners, and private occupational therapy, which was conducted outside of school hours. Further referrals to an audiologist and pediatric optometrist were made, but were not completed by the parents due to financial and transport constraints. A general visual assessment was conducted at school, revealing no difficulties. From these interventions, it appeared that while Mike made some progress in literacy (particularly through the use of reading and spelling programmes), he did not progress sufficiently across the literacy, numeracy and life skills learning areas in order to be promoted to Grade 3. Moreover, Mike required regular, intensive occupational therapy, as the weekly sessions proved to be insufficient. As a result, the support team at the school referred Mike to Denver School, a government school for learners with special education needs (LSEN).

Typically, Denver School was equipped to meet the learning needs of learners of average to above average intelligence who required support with specific skills in order to realise their potential (such as additional reading support, amanuensis, speech therapy and the like). This school provided learners with intensive therapy and learning support in a smaller classroom environment (Fraternity Primary's class sizes varied from 28–31 children in each class, and Denver School's class sizes varied from 14–18 learners), with specifically trained staff. Furthermore, the school provided on site occupational therapy and speech therapy, as well as social skills group classes and counseling. The school was located near the parents' home and school fees were affordable, comparable to those at Fraternity. In the light of this, Mike was referred to the LSEN environment, where we studied Mike's experiences of transition.


Theoretical perspectives of the study

According to Visser (in Duncan, Bowman, Naidoo, Pillay & Roos, 2007:104), "Changes in human behaviour may be possible when patterns of social and organisational relationships change, or the physical environment changes". While much literature exists to explain the transition from school to work or from the special school2 environment to the mainstream school environment, not much national literature covers the transition from the mainstream school environment to that of the LSEN school environment. Miller and Rice (in Billington & Pomerantz, 2004:48) indicate that the transition is one of "temporary boundary crossing", where learners take with them their loyalties, cultural and organisational meanings from the existing system into the new system, where they are visitors until they can internalize this information into the new system. These transitions have academic, vocational and social consequences and the educational environment of the school plays a major role in the efficacy of the transition. Learners entering into less supported environments, especially in terms of vertical transitions, experience negative self-concepts, poor socialization skills, stress and anxiety (Chadsey & Sheldon, 1998 in Greene & Kochhar-Bryant, 2003:9). In this case, Mike Munch moved toward a more supported environment which (based on the above statement) may infer that supported environments should provide learners with the opportunity to develop positive self-concepts, socialize more and feel more comfortable and at ease. Greene and Kochhar-Bryant (2003) indicate that most transitions affect a person's self-concept, their motivation, as well as personal development. According to the website Parentline Plus, "how a child copes with change can very much depend on the kind of support he/she receives". Furthermore, research (Newman & Blackburn, 2002; Engelbrecht et al., 2001, Donald et al., 2002) indicates that resilience may also contribute to a child's ability to cope with change. Donald et al., (2002: 204) indicate that resilience assists people to cope with change and define resilience as the ability to cope with difficulties and "bounce back".

We considered that Mike did not complete this transition without support, but was embedded within a support system that catered for his different learning needs (for example, he received occupational therapy, counselling, learning support, home and classroom interventions). According to Bronfenbrenner's theory of ecological systems, "an individual exists within layers of social relationships: the family, friendship network (micro-system), organisational, neighbourhood (exo-system) and culture and society (macro-system)". Each layer has an impact on other layers in an interdependent way (Visser in Duncan et al., 2007:106). The fundamental assumption of this theory is that "behaviour is the result of an interaction between individuals and the contexts that they are exposed to" (ibid., 103). Levine and Perkins (1997:113) explain the relevance of this type of approach: "to understand a tree it is necessary to study both the forest of which it is a part as well as the cells and tissue that are part of the tree" (in Duncan et al., 2007:103). The research focused on each level within the school context as it influenced Mike. An ecological systems approach provided a frame of reference for understanding Mike's experiences during the transition. Trickett (in Duncan et al., 2007:110) says that:

To think ecologically is to consider how persons, settings and events can become resources for the positive development of communities; ... to consider how these resources can be managed and conserved; and ... to approach [interventions] so that the effort expended will be helpful to the preservation and enhancement of community resources.

Using Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems approach we considered Mike's experiences of transition from an ecological systems approach, considering different levels within Mike's context, which influenced his progress from an individual, school, home and community perspective. The findings of this research were aimed at theorising Mike Munch's experiences to consider how resources could be concentrated in mainstream school environments in order to maximise learning potential to the advancement of the school and the learning community.


Research design

We chose to conduct this study as a qualitatitive, single case study, which, according to Handel, (1991); Runyan, (1982) and Yin, (1994) in Babbie and Mouton, (2001:280), is an intensive investigation of a single unit. This design is useful in gaining understanding of a circumstance within a specific context (Henning, Gravett & Van Rensburg, 2002; Lundeberg, Levin & Harrington, 1999). Mike's experiences of transition were considered within a natural context, which allowed for us to gain a close, in-depth, and first-hand understanding of a situation by using direct observations to collect data in natural settings and to consider the "real-life context" of the case, which was a naturalistic case study (Yin, 2001; Naumes & Naumes, 1999). In this instance, we wished to uncover the meaning and experience of the transition on the learner from the perspective of his context and frame of reference and the case study design allowed them to consider the case from different aspects in an in-depth way (Babbie et al., 2001:282; Richard, Taylor, Ramasamy & Richards, 1999). In this study we aimed to consider the case of Mike Munch in detail using a holistic, multiperspective analysis of this transition. The voices of the participants as well as their interaction were considered and compared to various theories and methodologies mentioned earlier (Tellis, 1997).

Data collection

Data were collected from the two different school environments to determine Mike's experiences in transiting from the mainstream school environment to the LSEN school environment. In the mainstream school environment, Mike's teachers were interviewed in a focus group session. The teachers were asked the following question: "What is your perception of Mike's experiences in the mainstream school environment?" Following the transition, the teacher, the speech therapist and the occupational therapist (referred to as the multidisciplinary team) were interviewed as a focus group. The question: "What is your perception of Mike's experiences in moving from the mainstream school environment to the LSEN school environment?" was asked so as to uncover more detail about the transition taking place between the two environments. The participants were informed that their responses should be based on their actual interaction with and experience o