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South Africa: moving from a centralised and segregated education system to a decentralised and inclusive education approach

Focus area:        School years

Topic: Inclusive Education

Henoch Schoeman

Director - Optima College

South African National Council for the Blind

PO Box 11149

Hatfield 0028


South Africa

Tel: +27 12 346 1179  Fax: +27 12 346 1149

E-mail:      henoch@sancb.org.za


South Africa has a fairly long history with regards to the education of learners with disabilities.  It started 1863 when the Roman Catholic Church established the first school for deaf children in Cape Town.

From the initiatives taken by the Catholic and other churches, the service gradually grew to the current 20 schools for blind, 47 for deaf, 54 for physically disabled and cerebral palsied, 2 for autistic and quite a number for intellectually disabled learners.  The establishment of schools for disabled learners was mainly due to private initiative (churches, other private organisations and individuals) and for specific disability groups.

As from 1928 the Government assumed responsibility for special education and managed and controlled it centrally from the head offices of the Department(s) of Education.

Because interest groups established the schools, the tendency was all along to establish them for a specific race group.  After the introduction of apartheid in 1948, a statutory position was established and education would henceforth be provided within racial boundaries.


With the change in Government in 1994 and the move towards an inclusive South African community, the education policy and practice would have to reflect the new approach.


The process started even before the new Government took over in 1994.  Extensive consultations took place and a number of important documents were published and discussed.  The debate led to the eventual acceptance of the South African Constitution (1997) with its human rights approach.  A series of legal documents aimed at restructuring the South African society, then followed. 

The Constitution set the pace for the new paradigm with clauses such as

*      “There may be no discrimination against any person on the grounds of his race, gender ... age, disability, religion, ... or language (Equity - 8).

*      Everyone has the right to basic education, including adult basic education and training and equal access to education (Education - 32).

Two Commissions of Inquiry into Special Needs in Education and Training and Education Support Services were appointed.  The Commissions submitted their joint report at the end of November 1997.  The Ministry of Education responded with its Education White Paper 6: Special Needs Education – Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, July 2001.  It sets out the intentions of the Ministry with regards to the implementation of an inclusive education system.  The following are relevant to this discussion:


In his Introduction to White Paper 6 the Minister of Education said “the Government is determined to create special needs education as a non-racial and integrated component of our education system”.  The Ministry wishes to achieve this through the following strategies:

3.1    Key Strategies

3.1.1 The qualitative improvement of special schools for the learners that they serve and their conversion to resource centres that are integrated into district-based support teams.

        This will be done after an audit of all special schools has been done.

3.1.2 The mobilisation of the approximately 280 000 disabled children and youth of compulsory school-going age who are outside of the school system.

3.1.3 The designation and conversion of approximately 500 mainstream primary schools to full-service schools, beginning with 30 schools in identified school districts.

        These schools will be equipped and supported to provide for the full range of learning needs amongst all learners.  Special attention will be paid to developing flexibility in teaching practices and styles through training, capacity building and support to learners and educators in these schools.

3.1.4 The general orientation and introduction of management, governing bodies and professional staff at schools to the inclusion model and the targeting of early identification of disabilities and intervention in the Foundation Phase.

        School-level support teams will be established to put in place properly co-ordinated learner and educator support services to support the learning and teaching process at school level.  Where appropriate, these teams should be strengthened by expertise from the local community, district support teams and higher education institutions.

3.1.5 The establishment of district-based support teams to provide a coordinated professional support service to special schools, full-service schools and other schools in the district.

        The district-based support team will comprise staff from provincial districts, regional and head offices and from special schools.  Their primary function will be to evaluate programmes, diagnose their effectiveness and suggest modifications.  By supporting teaching, learning and management they will build the capacity of schools.

3.1.6 The implementation of a national advocacy and information programme in support of the inclusion model.

3.2    Other relevant matters

3.2.1          Time frame

A time frame of 20 years is proposed for the implementation of the inclusive education and training system in South Africa.  The period has been subdivided into

*      Immediate to short term steps – 2001-2003.

*      Medium-term steps – 2004-2008

*      Long-term steps – 2009-2021.

3.2.2          Funding

Funding will have to be made available by the Ministry for the qualitative improvement of special schools, the establishment of full-service schools and access to the education system for the 280 000 children and youth who are not yet part of the system.

3.2.3          New Curriculum

A new curriculum, called Curriculum 2005, was recently introduced and has gradually been implemented.  A central feature of the curriculum is its outcomes based approach.  Disabled learners should be able to access this curriculum and develop competencies and relevant skills under the guidance of an experienced teacher.


Changing an education system and the approach to special needs education from a segregated and centralised system to an inclusive system, is a long and difficult process, even a costly process in terms of money and human resources.

However, as far as our organisation perceives it, inclusive education has come to stay.  Our challenge is to recognise the opportunities it creates and utilise them to the benefit of the visually disabled children of our country.

Although the process is still in its infancy and far from complete, it is already possible to identify a number of important lessons which will be discussed briefly, because they may be of value to countries which may find themselves on the road to inclusive education:

4.1    The introduction of inclusive education is deeply controversial and is an emotional matter and a process which needs to be handled with care.  The majority of educators in special needs education are committed to the cause and genuinely cares for the learners entrusted to them.

        To marginalise such educators is unwise and contra-productive.  They already have an understanding of the needs of disabled children and thus have a contribution to make.  They should be taken along in the process and if necessary, be assisted and trained to widen their scope of understanding.

This did not happen in South Africa and educators with relevant training and years of experience in the field of eg visual disability, were forced out of the system at Departmental as well as school level.

        The unfortunate result of such actions is clearly visible today.  Should one observe certain schools, one finds a shallowness in the understanding of the real needs of visually disabled learners and a lack of knowledge in crucial areas of teaching and learning, such as braille, orientation and mobility, skills of daily living, etc.

4.2           Existing education structures should not be dismantled before the planning for new ones has been completed and is ready for implementation.

To prematurely send out a message that everything done in the past was completely wrong and of no value, while no clear new plans are communicated effectively to the people concerned, creates great uncertainty.  Uncertainty leads to unproductiveness and other negative behaviour patterns.  The uncertainty of staff members often has a negative influence on their learners.

4.3    Before inclusive education is implemented, much preparatory work has to be done in all structures of the mainstream of education.  Both administrators and educators need to be reached.  This is of absolute necessity since the highest degree of resistance against inclusion comes from people in mainstream settings and not from special schools, as some people would like to believe.

        The way the emerging policy was communicated to the mainstream caused fear and misunderstanding.  The fears and ignorance of educators in the mainstream must be addressed before inclusion can effectively be implemented.

4.4    Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and community structures concerned with the education of disabled learners should be involved in the process, and not marginalised.  The same applies to universities and other institutions of higher learning.

Such community structures have much to contribute to the process.  However, should they feel unwelcome and excluded from the debate and branded as part of the ‘enemy’, they will not co-operate voluntarily and make their resources available.  They may even resist the process.

Unfortunately decision-makers in South Africa did not consider this reality.  As a result a number of churches and other private organisations have completely withdrawn from the process.  Further more, quite a number of NGOs are currently observing the process from the outside as spectators instead of being actively involved in the creation of a typical South African model of inclusive education.

When that happens, disabled children are at the losing end.

4.5    When implementing inclusive education projects, whether on a national level or as a more localised pilot project level, the assignment must be communicated very clearly.  The people concerned need to be orientated and trained thoroughly and monitored closely during the implementation and evaluation phases.

        To illustrate the above, I would like to refer to a current situation.  There are two different pilot projects in different parts of the country.  Opposite approaches were followed with the implementation of the two projects.

In the one instance, at a Danida sponsored project, thorough training was given and regular monitoring takes place.  The people concerned feel confident and the results should be positive.

At another project the staff of a school was given a vague assignment and told that their school is part of a pilot project which has a three year life span.  They received practically no training and very little follow-up takes place.  The project is already in its second year, but the staff members still find themselves in complete darkness.  They feel very insecure about what they have to achieve.  In this case the expected results may be very unsatisfactory.

4.6    One of the features of the new education legislation is the emphasis it puts on the involvement to parents in the education of their children.  Regulations determine that parents should be in the majority on governance structures of schools and that they be encouraged to be involved in all school activities.

        Parent involvement in special needs education is difficult but of critical importance to the success of the education of disabled children.

Unfortunately many parents in South Africa are not actively involved in the education of their children.  However, they need to be empowered to take up the responsibility with regard to the education of their children.

Legislation encourages parent involvement and we should utilise the opportunity which it creates.

4.7    The Ministry of Education has committed itself to the further development of special needs education and to remain engaged in the process.  This attitude of Government is greatly appreciated because we are aware of the fact that not all Governments of developing countries have the same commitment.

        Based on the human rights approach adopted by the Government, NGOs are able to keep the Ministry accountable for the process.  We are prepared to assist and support the process, but the responsibility remains with the Ministry of Education.


Although we can identify with the philosophy of inclusive education, we can only support it if we know that there will be a relevant support structure in place.  The following crucial elements were identified by Arne Husveg (Dec 2001) and form the basis of our vision:


5.1    At every site of learning where blind learners are enrolled, must be qualified braille instructors.  Without such instructors blind children will remain illiterate.

        Additional to the availability of braille instructors at inclusive sites of learning, a strategy should be developed to ensure that educators who teach at schools for the blind know braille within a limited period of time.

5.2    There must be access to material for braille teaching and learning at different levels of development and for the different age groups.

5.3    There must be instructors with thorough knowledge of orientation and mobility techniques.  Without such instructors, blind children will be deprived of the opportunity to achieve physical independence and leading a physically active life.

5.4    The education programme must contain individual instruction in “daily living skills” to strengthen the self confidence and individual capacities of blind learners.

5.5    At all central and regional resource centres there should be people with expertise in teaching blind learners.  They will have to advise educators and develop and produce tactile and other learning material.

5.6    At such centres blind learners must be granted the opportunity to attend courses, meet other blind people, learn from their experiences, build and strengthen relationships, develop their identity and acquire greater proficiency in compensating skills.

5.7    The education of blind learners should be monitored and influenced by their respective organisations , to ensure that their views are taken into account and serve as a credible quality control mechanism.

5.8    Any education programme must ensure equal access and quality services for all visually disabled people – blind or partially sighted, irrespective of gender, age, race, etc.

5.9    A variety of options where visually disabled learners can be accommodated and receive their education, must be available.

5.10  Parents must, as far as possible, be involved in the education of their children and be granted the opportunity to exercise their right to make choices regarding the setting where their child’s needs will be addressed most appropriately.

5.11  Collaboration between the Ministries of Education, Health, Welfare and Labour must be structured to avoid duplication and address gaps in service delivery.

Without such a basic support system in place, blind and partially sighted learners will be further disadvantaged in an inclusive education environment.  As one of the major NGOs that is active in the field of special needs education, we will unfortunately not be able to support the implementation of a system which disadvantages our children.

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