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date: 23 March 2019

History of Special Education in South Africa and the Challenges of Inclusive Education

Summary and Keywords

Altering a dual system of education (special and ordinary) in South Africa to an inclusive system requires substantial change in terms of thinking and practice. After almost 20 years of implementing Education White Paper 6 (published by South Africa’s Department of Education in 2001), it is very important that theories, assumptions, practices, models, and tools are put under intense scrutiny for such an inclusive policy to work. Such a single system of education should develop the capacity to address barriers to learning if it wants to include all learners into the system. What are the main barriers that deprive learners from access to a single system of education and what changes should take place so that a truly inclusive system can be created? South Africa introduced seven white papers in education but all of them were implemented in ways that were not entirely influenced by the theory and practice of inclusive education. Inclusive education requires the system to change at a structural level so that mainstream education takes ownership of the ideology and practice of inclusive education. This change should bring about consistency in relation to other white papers; for example, curriculum development, early childhood education, and adult education. In implementing inclusive education, South Africa did not take seriously the various barriers to inclusion, such as curriculum, in providing access to learners who experience difficulties. Thus, an in-depth analysis of the history of special education is provided, with a view toward specifying recommendations for attempts to create the right conditions for a truly inclusive system of education in South Africa.

Keywords: inclusive education in South Africa, special education, history of special education, curriculum development


Policy makers and policy implementers in South Africa have given short shrift as to how the history of special education has impacted educational thinking and practice. Despite the introduction of Education White Paper 6 (DOE, 2001) on inclusive education, very little attention has been paid to making a shift from a dual system of education (special and ordinary) to an inclusive one in terms of theory, assumptions, models, practices, and tools. Past practices and thinking seem to feature prominently within the education landscape almost two decades after the launch of Education White Paper 6 on Inclusive Education in 2001. For example, large numbers of children who are economically disadvantaged have been incorrectly categorized into special needs since they struggle to learn to read and write in their formative years. An enduring crisis exists in South Africa, the effects of which will continue to be felt for decades to come. Its impact is far reaching, from sprawling cities to rural farmlands. It does not discriminate against age, race, or class, but its destruction is felt most deeply among the poor. It is a crisis that perpetuates inequality and poverty and has the power to bring the country to its knees (Help2Read, 2016).

Large numbers of poor children are placed in the category of special education without a thorough examination of the barriers in the way of their learning, such as the curriculum, which is inaccessible to many of these children as a result of poverty. This categorization emerges from special education thinking, since the challenges are viewed as deficiencies within the individual. Little analysis of the range of barriers to these individual children’s education has occurred in an attempt to understand the challenges these learners experience; for example, language, inaccessible curriculum, and lack of parental involvement. In introducing a White Paper on Inclusion, one must look at issues of paradigms and paradigm shifts in implementing an inclusive education system. The big question is how do theories, assumptions, models, and practices shift when one develops an inclusive education system? This article introduces and discusses the history of special education in South Africa in order to shed light on current practices that hark back to the traditional special education system instead of an inclusive education system. How far have we departed from the dual system of special education and ordinary education?

Much of this situation is a result of the politicization of education and a performance culture that limits a commitment to social justice and the uplifting of the poor. According to Stephen Ball (2008), in the United Kingdom, education has become a major political issue, a major focus of media attention, and the recipient of a constant stream of initiatives and interventions from government. Ball argues that the same is true in many other countries around the globe. Within South Africa, the lenses of bureaucrats and people in government are focused on the performance of the system. Nothing else matters beyond grade 12 results and children’s performances in grades 3, 6, and 9. Many of these bureaucrats do not challenge the system when large numbers of children are not placed in facilities that require specialized support (i.e., those learners who are struggling with literacy and numeracy). These personnel are rewarded for efforts associated with the performance culture. They are less likely to pay attention to children who experience barriers to learning. Social justice and equity issues become less important since the key aspect of the system in terms of recognition and reward is for results for grades 3, 6, and 9, and grade 12 results. This phenomenon is not recent. Supranational organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for African Unity, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank play a crucial role in the process of education policy formulation and implementation across diverse sociopolitical contexts. Ball (2012) discusses the cosmopolitan nature of education policy reforms by exploring the ways in which global politics and policies are reciprocally related and have an immense impact on national reform efforts. These global agencies are key players in shaping the “context of influence” (Berkhout & Wielemans, 1999, p. 417) against which national education policy agendas are conceptualized, negotiated, and enacted, while it is frequently the case that they articulate contradictory responses to globalization (Vongalis-Macrow, 2005). As such, they confound the process of education policy formulation and implementation (Berkhout & Wielemans, 1999).

Profile of Learners and the Need for an Inclusive Curriculum

This article problematizes the labeling of children in South Africa who are referenced with intellectual difficulties in the American and European context. These large numbers of children who perform at similar levels in America and the European context are a product of poor nutrition, poor socialization into an intellectual culture, and all the social ills that are associated with the brutality of poverty. For example, more than 40% of people in the Western Cape, South Africa’s second richest province, earn less than $2 900,000 per annum (Western Cape Government 2011).

A closer look at the education profile in the Western Cape provides a bleak picture. According to the Western Cape Education Department (2007) developed by the provincial Department of Education, only 23.4% of the population of learners in the Western Cape complete grade 12. Over one third (36.5%) drop out during secondary school and just a small proportion complete primary education (7.9%). A total of 15.2% of the latter drop out during the primary phase, and 5.7% of the total learner population have no schooling at all. Enrollment and completion of schooling by the age of 17 is highest among White learners (100%); the enrollment and completion rates are lower among the African population, and the rate is lowest among Colored learners. For those African and Colored learners currently at school, only 37% by grade 3 level achieve grade-appropriate literacy and numeracy levels. At grade 6 level, numeracy performance drops to 15% and literacy performance to 35%. These statistics are alarming if we consider that the education sector receives 38.1% of the total provincial budget (Western Cape Education Department, 2007).

Many of these children are not socialized into a reading and numeracy culture in the formative years as a result of poverty and poor education levels among their parents. These children are South Africa’s lost generation, and they find themselves being part of a high attrition rate, almost 50%, as well as failure in literacy and numeracy. This article argues that the national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) curriculum has further marginalized these children and has entrenched the disabilist notions that existed in apartheid South Africa by not providing support in the formative years. The national CAPS, introduced in 2012, is a rigid body of knowledge that many children with dysfunctional and poor backgrounds cannot interact with because they do not have the oral language and vocabulary possessed by middle-class children. A study by Moodley (2013) found CAPs to be very burdensome and rigid. This article acknowledges the need for a stable curriculum instead of one that is constantly undergoing revisions, which is detrimental to the system, but the caveat is that the curriculum must be entrenched in the lived reality of the majority of the population. The main contention of this article is that the history of special education remains a driving force in shaping the opinions of South African educationists when making decisions about children. If children do not perform, their performances are labeled, and there is no examination of how the system restricts their entry into mainstream education.

The Expectation of Post-Apartheid Schooling in an Inclusive Setting

Given the launch of Education White Paper 6 on inclusion almost two decades ago, post-apartheid schools in South Africa should function as a major mechanism for the development of a democratic and egalitarian social order. In the apartheid era, schools did not provide opportunities for much social mobility and self- and social empowerment for the majority of the population. Therefore schools within a post-apartheid environment should constitute major sites of social and economic mobility. In this view, the economic, social, and political returns from schooling should be far greater for the disadvantaged. Curriculum becomes both a “selective tradition” and a practice that provides students with particular forms of knowledge that advances their social mobility. The history of South African special education provisions and education support services, like all other aspects of South African life during the colonial and apartheid era, was largely influenced by fiscal inequalities in terms of race and generally a poor quality of life for Black people. What influenced this racial disparity was the apartheid philosophy, which viewed people who were not White as inferior and second-class citizens. Through the introduction of Education White Paper 6 on Special Needs Education: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System with the advent of democracy, South Africa introduced inclusive education. In a country that was so divided in terms of class, race, and resources, it was a great opportunity to create inclusive conditions in schools with a view of shaping an inclusive society. The economic disparities were stark and was an area that required radical change. This article uses the lens of critical pedagogy to reveal that much more can be done from a curriculum perspective to create the conditions for inclusivity, particularly among learners who have intellectual difficulties largely as a result of socioeconomic challenges.

Children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, with intellectual challenges, are a unique group in South Africa. They are the learners who are part of the nation’s high attrition rate, and many of them struggle to learn to read. While the process of IQ testing is very problematic and resides within a medical model, it may be useful to try to understand these learners better by looking at the definition of children who have intellectual challenges. History has shaped the understandings of the present (2018), and that history needs to be engaged in order to make sense of the present. As the history of special education reveals, IQ testing belongs to that sad history, which privileged social and intellectual capital instead of the very elusive concept of intelligence.

Wrong Diagnosis of Poor Children

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD, 2017), one way to measure intellectual functioning is through an IQ test. Generally, an IQ test score of around 70 or 75 indicates a limitation in intellectual functioning. The term intellectual functioning—also called intelligence—refers to general mental capacity such as learning, reasoning, and problem solving. The results of IQ tests are often based on how learners are socialized into intellectual life and work. Learners who are poorly socialized perform poorly and those who are middle class are often the learners who experience success. Curriculum becomes both a “selective tradition” and a practice that provides students with particular forms of knowledge that advances their social mobility. The author argues here that the knowledge in the CAPs curriculum is biased toward the middle class as a result of social capital.

South Africa has had little or no response to these challenges, and such challenges may show a curriculum complexity that faces the entire country. Rejecting the conservative claim that schooling is a politically opaque and value-neutral process, critical pedagogy has attempted to empower teachers and researchers with more critical means of understanding the school’s role within a race-, disabilist, class-, and gender-divided society. The CAPs curriculum is not rooted in the lives of children but is a body of knowledge that is acontextual, ahistorical, and alien to the majority of learners. In addition to interrogating what is taken for granted or seemingly self-evident or inevitable regarding the relationship between schools and the social order, critical pedagogy is dedicated to self-empowerment and social transformation (McLaren, 1995).

This article contends that much more could have been done in structuring the curriculum through a search for an inclusive pedagogy for learners with intellectual difficulties. The introduction of CAPs and the move toward a performative culture is viewed by the author as inimical to the development of an inclusive education system.

The Need for a Critical Pedagogy and a Rights Model

The lens of a rights model is used here, which is consistent with critical pedagogy in understanding the influence of the history of special education in contemporary South Africa. Critical pedagogy provides rich insights into curriculum development and delivery, since it embraces social justice. Curriculum development is the most important vehicle in delivering a rights model. The rights model focuses on deficiencies in the system that prevent learners from obtaining access to education. It is a radical departure from the medical model which focuses on deficiencies within individuals. Inclusive education can only be possible if the curriculum takes all children into consideration.

The History of Special Education and Its Influence on Thinking and Practice

The following narrative provides an analysis of the history of special education and education support services in South Africa from 1863 to 1998. This narrative attempts to reveal the central strands of special education and how it influenced the placement of children in segregated settings. Only an understanding of this history will help to develop an inclusive system. In view of the complex developments in special education and education support services in South Africa, this overview has been divided into historical phases, as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1. Different Phases and Stages of Special Education Provision in South Africa




1. 18th–19th century

Lack of specific provision

2. Late 19th century–1963


Provision by church and private organizations; racist nature of state


Development of standardized tests


Development of medical model

3. 1963–1994


Beginning of institutional apartheid


Special education in racially segregated education departments


Special education in homelands/Bantustans

4. 1994

Developments in the new democracy

The fragmented nature of educational departments based on race and ethnicity caused difficulties in clearly demarcating phases. These difficulties included:

  1. (1) the introduction of homelands with their own separate policies (or rather, the lack thereof in some, which is manifested in very limited education provisions; for example, in the Transkei, Ciskei, and Bophutatswana);

  2. (2) different policies of the Department of Education and Training (also responsible for African education) and policies shaped by the different homelands; and

  3. (3) varying state policies with differing intervention time for Whites, Africans (divided into homelands and locally), Coloreds, and Indians.

Phase One: Absence of Provision (18th–19th Centuries)

In South Africa, as everywhere else in the world, the 1700s and early 1800s saw little provision for any type of special education need. This type of need was mostly seen as a sign of “divine displeasure” (Behr, 1980), a superstitious attitude that led to the chaining, imprisonment, and killing of people later recognized as mentally retarded, physically disabled, blind, deaf, etc. The divine displeasure attitude influenced to a large extent the treatment of people who were constructed as disabled within the South African context as a colonized territory. As a result of superstition within African communities, those who were constructed as disabled suffered a similar fate.

Phase Two: White-Dominated Provision, and the Important Role of the Church (Late 19th Century–1963)

Stage One: Church and Private Provision, and the Racist Nature of the State

The title of this phase is self-explanatory and intentionally used to reflect the oppressive nature of special education policy on the part of the state during the period from 1863 to 1963. This particular phase began to set the pattern for later years and is most striking in terms of racial disparities.

Initially no special education provision was made by the state for African children. It took a century for the state to provide subsidies for African deaf, blind, cerebral palsied, and crippled children. This only occurred in 1963.

Churches played an important role during this phase. They initiated the provision of special education for handicapped children in South Africa for both White and non-White children through the Dominican Grimley School for the Deaf in 1863. Churches continued to provide a service to non-White children in the absence of state provision for these children for the next century.

The state became involved in special education only in 1900 when it recognized the existence of White church-run schools and later promulgated Act 29 in 1928 (Special Education Act) (Du Toit, 1996, p. 8). In terms of this Act, the Union Education Department was thus able to establish “vocational schools” and “special schools” for White children.

Act 29 of 1928, although mainly concerned with White learners, provided the first signal of a model of special education in South Africa based on the medical model. The Special Education Act worked on the assumption that learners were deficient and their deficiencies were pathological, a viewpoint that was strongly influenced by medical thinking. The pathological perspective associated disability with impairment and loss and did not take systemic deficiencies into consideration.

While the church and other private associations and societies continued to provide support for non-White children, the state increasingly favored Whites. The former groups were responsible for establishing the Athlone School for the Blind for Colored children, a school for blind Indian children, and the Worcester School for Colored children with epilepsy.

The Special Schools Amendment Act, passed in 1937, created the first provision for hostels in special schools for Whites.

Stage Two: Development of Tests as a Precursor to Institutional Special Education and Education Support Services

The 1920s saw the first development of intelligence tests in South Africa. Eybers, associated with the University College of Orange Free State, published an individual intelligence scale called the Grey Revision of the Stanford–Binet Scale (Behr, 1980). The development of tests continued in White education and was followed by their implementation in schools. In 1924, a committee appointed by the Research Grants Board of the Union Department of Mines and Industries, under the chairmanship of R. W. Wilcocks, designed a test that came to be known as the South African Group Test of Intelligence. This marked the first connection between education and the labor market in South Africa and was the precursor of aptitude tests. Later, in 1926, J. Coetzee of Potchefstroom University published the first standardized arithmetic test in South Africa for Whites. In 1929, both the Wilcocks and Coetzee tests were used in the Carnegie Poor White Survey and later in the Bilingualism Survey (Behr, 1980).

M. L. Fick’s individual Scale of General Intelligence for South African Schools was used until the mid-1960s. This Scale was the precursor of categorization, labeling, and the exclusive special education system, since IQ tests were later used not only for Whites but for all children to assess “intelligence” and to place them in special education programs.

Thus, this Scale was also a precursor to the later institution of special education and created a place at a later stage for psychological services in schools (often associated with education support services), a basis for adaptation classes (Colored Education), adjustment classes (Indian Education), and remedial education.

Stage Three: The Genesis of the Medical Model

The 1948 Special Schools Act in White education introduced into special education a medical and mental diagnosis and treatment model. This model, which focused on the individual deficit theory and viewed the person as a helpless being, was firmly entrenched in medical, charity, and lay discourses (Fulcher, 1989). The medical model shaped and largely influenced exclusionary practices in the field of education, which had continued for decades after their introduction. According to Fulcher (1989, p. 27), the medical discourse

. . . suggests, through its correspondence theory of meaning, that disability is an observable or intrinsic, objective attribute or characteristic of a person, rather than a social construct. Through the notion that impairment means loss, and the assumption that impairment or loss underlies disability, medical discourse on disability has deficit individualistic connotations. Further, through its presumed scientific status and neutrality, it depoliticizes disability; disability is seen as a technical issue, thus beyond the exercise of power. Medical discourse individualizes disability, in the sense that it suggests individuals have diseases or problems or incapacities as attributes.

Thus, disability is associated with an impairment or loss. The entire focus is on the individual who is viewed as helpless and dependent. As a result, the person requires treatment and assistance outside regular education. No attempt is made to establish the deficiencies of the system. For example, a physically disabled person using a wheelchair requires a ramp to gain access to a mainstream school, which is not provided for by the system. Access to education is prevented as a result of barriers, which reflect a deficient system and not a deficient person.

This stage also saw the beginning of the professionalization and consequently the mystification of special education in South Africa for regular education teachers. Fulcher (1989, p. 28) is appropriate here in her comments about the medical discourse:

Finally, it professionalizes disability: the notion of medical expertise allows the claim that this (technical) and personal trouble is a matter for professional judgement.

Thus, regular education teachers may be led to believe that it is beyond their level of expertise to teach learners who are classed as disabled, that this has to be done by specialists, and that inclusive education is not a possibility. Fulcher’s comments (1989, p. 28) aptly explain why the proliferation of educational psychology and related disciplines took place:

A theme of professionalism pervades medical discourse and its associated discourses: psychology, social work, occupational therapy and educational discourse . . . Thus medical discourse, through its language of body, patient, help, need, cure, rehabilitation, and its politics that the doctor knows best, excludes a consumer discourse or language of rights, wants and integration in mainstream social practices.

Therefore, the depoliticizing, individualizing, and professionalizing of disabilities led to the notion that learners who are viewed as disabled had to be taught in special education schools or classes, while their rights and wants were ignored. Often parents of learners were intimidated by the knowledge of professionals and therefore did not challenge the decisions concerning placement of their children.

Phase Three: “Separate Development” and Its Impact on Special Education and Education Support Services (1963–1994)

Stage One: The Evolution of the Concept “Education Support Services”

The year 1948 ushered in the introduction of institutional apartheid into every facet of South African life. The National Party’s policy of “separate development” ensured the separation of Africans, Coloreds, Indians, and Whites in all aspects of their lives. This development had significant implications for special education and education support services.

While the concept of education support services (known traditionally as psychological services) evolved only at a much later stage in South African education, it must be noted that its precursor was the psychological services that were initiated after the introduction of separate development. After the promulgation of Act 39 of 1967 for Whites, the School Psychological and Guidance Services of the Education Department in the Transvaal saw an elaborate system of child guidance clinics established for each of the 24 inspection circuits. A clinic served a group of schools. Each clinic was supported by a multidisciplinary team consisting of clinical psychologists, vocational guidance psychologists, orthodidacticians, speech therapists, sociopedagogic psychologists, and occupational therapists. They did intellectual, scholastic, and emotional assessment of pupils and provided help in the form of psychotherapy, pedotherapy, and speech therapy. In addition, clinics were concerned with identifying and guiding children with learning deficits, cultural deprivation, and behavioral problems. Other provinces had similar services but not as elaborate as the Transvaal’s (Behr, 1980).

This system proved to be a possible model for education support services several decades later. Thus, the introduction of psychological services paved the way for the development of education support services.

In psychological services, major discrepancies existed along racial lines. As seen in Stage One, the four White Education Departments reorganized psychological services in the different provinces after Act 39 of 1967.

The Department of Bantu Education did establish a section with psychological services, but it was restricted to assessing all pupils in Form I and Form III to help teachers and lecturers assess teaching.

Psychological services for Coloreds were also instituted. At least one teacher in each school was concerned with guidance. Training was provided for secondary teachers responsible for guidance and who had taken psychology courses as part of their degree course. School psychological services in Indian Education focused mainly on assessing and placing pupils needing special education (Behr, 1980, p. 252).

Except for Indian education, which had several psychologists, an inspector of psychological services and a school guidance office, there is little comparison between the resources of White education and those of other race groups. This insufficient provision resulted in poor supervision of adaptation classes, remedial education, and facilities at special schools where they did exist.

Stage Two: Segregated Education Departments Take Control of Special Education and Education Support Services Provision

Education, as one of the pillars of separate development, was used as an instrument to ensure that all four groups accepted the idea of that policy. The passing of the Colored Persons Education, Bantu Education, and Indian Education Acts in 1963, 1964, and 1965, respectively, saw special education and education support services being taken over by the various departments.

The disparities in special education and education support provision were clearly racial and became very visible with the unfolding of separate development.

Table 2. Provision and Schools for Different Types of Disabilities







5 schools





2 schools




Cerebral palsy

4 schools




Physically disabled

4 schools





3 schools





2 schools




Mental retardation

41 centers










Provision existed



Provision existed

Educable mental retardation

Provision existed


Provision existed

Provision existed

Note: Adapted from Behr (1980, 1984) and Behr and MacMillan (1966).

Whites made up 17.5%, Africans 70.2%, Coloreds 9.4%, and Indians 2.9% of the population. Table 2 shows that special education provision clearly favored Whites. The problem regarding provision with regard to bias toward Whites is actually worse than it appears, since the development of non-White special schools had been initiated by churches and private organizations while special education for Whites had been provided mainly by the State.

Stage Three: The Bantustan or Homeland Phase

“Homelands” or Bantustans were created by the apartheid government to promote and politicize ethnic differences. The Bantustan concept was in keeping with the apartheid tradition of divide and rule. It also acted as a means to keep away from the cities large numbers of Black South Africans.

The conferring of Territorial Authorities to six homeland government departments with separate education departments in 1968 did not result in any significant changes for African children with special education needs. There is little information on the actual development of special education and education support in these territories (National Education Policy Investigation, 1992a, p. 36). However, it followed the pattern and trends of the separate development phase relating to the number of pupils in special schools as a ratio of total enrollment for the various races (National Education Policy Investigation, 1992a, p. 36):

  • Indians 1:42

  • Whites 1:62

  • Coloreds 1:128

  • Africans 1:830.

Stage Four: The New Democracy

The advent of the democratic government saw wide-scale transformation take hold throughout the country. The unification of 17 education departments into a single ministry of education was tantamount to a revolution. The disparities and lack of provision based on race clearly reflected the need to conduct intensive research, with a view toward providing a service that could benefit all South Africans. It was against this background that the democratic government appointed the National Commission on Special Needs in Education and Training (NCSNET) as well as the National Committee on Education Support Services (NCESS). The NCSNET and NCESS, established as separate entities by the Ministry of Education, decided to work jointly as a single group in the light of overlapping.

The work of NCSNET and NCESS lasted for one year, during which these bodies consulted widely with key stakeholders in education. Workshops and public hearings were held in all provinces, since consultation with all interested parties formed part of the terms of reference of the NCSNET and NCESS and since consultation was regarded as crucial.

The terms of reference adopted by NCSNET and NCESS had to heed the major proclamations and other policy documents issued during the period of transformation. For example, this is what the new Constitution (Act 108 of 1996, Article 9[3]) had to say on equality and discrimination:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. (Author’s emphasis)

The Constitution also prohibited discrimination of this nature by a person against anyone (Act 108 of 1996, Article 9[4]).

Under the rubric of “education,” the new Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996, Article 29[1]) read:

Everyone has the right –

  1. (a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and

  2. (b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

The White Paper on Education and Training (1995, p. 29) was also clear on the question of rights:

It is essential to increase awareness of the importance of ESS (Education Support Services) in an education and training system which is committed to equal access, non-discrimination, and redress, and which needs to target those sections of the learning population which have been most neglected or are most vulnerable.

Further, the Integrated Disability Strategy Document produced by the Disability Desk of the Office of the Deputy State President in 1997 offered very clear direction to the NCSNET and NCESS (Disability Desk: Office of the Deputy State President, 1997, p. 10):

An understanding of disability as a human rights and development issue leads to a recognition and acknowledgement that people with disabilities are equal citizens and should therefore enjoy equal rights and responsibilities. A human rights and development approach to disability focuses on the removal of barriers to equal participation and the elimination of discrimination based on disability.

In November 1997, in its report, Quality education for all: Overcoming barriers to learning, the NCSNET and NCESS recognized the need for all learners to gain access to a single education system and thus be able to participate in everyday mainstream economic and social life. The recommendations of the NCSNET and NCESS were largely phrased in the language of human rights, which differs radically from that of the medical perspective. It moved away from individualizing, professionalizing, and depoliticizing disability by stating that (Department of Education, 1997c, p.12):

It has already been asserted that barriers can be located within the learner, within the centre of learning, within the education system and within the broader social, economic and political context. These barriers manifest themselves in different ways and only become obvious when learning breakdown occurs, when learners ‘drop out’ of the system or when the excluded become visible. Sometimes it is possible to identify permanent barriers in the learner or system which can be addressed through enabling mechanisms and processes. However, barriers may also arise during the learning process and are seen as transitory in nature. These may require different interventions or strategies to prevent them from causing learning breakdown or excluding learners from the system. The key to preventing barriers from occurring is the effective monitoring and meeting of the different needs among the learner population and within the system as a whole.

In identifying both the system and individuals as having potential barriers to learning, the NCSNET and NCESS have moved away from viewing disability as only an individual loss or impairment. They suggested that barriers should be identified and dealt with in regular schools through the training of regular educators to identify and deal with barriers to learning. According to the Commission, these barriers could include: socioeconomic factors, attitudes, inflexible curriculum, inappropriate language teaching media, inaccessible and unsafe building environments, inadequate support services, a lack of enabling and protective legislation and policy, a lack of parental recognition and involvement, disability (learning needs not met), and a lack of human resource development strategies.

As part of the principles on which their work was based, the NCSNET and NCESS recommended (Department of Education, 1997a, p. 44) “equal access to a single, inclusive education system” in which:

Appropriate and effective education must be organised in such a way that all learners have access to a single education system that is responsive to diversity. No learners should be prevented from participating in this system, regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, language, or other differences.

A development that preceded the work of the NCSNET and NCESS was the introduction of the new Outcomes-based Education (OBE) curriculum. The NCSNET and NCESS called for a single curriculum and urged that diverse needs be firmly located within the general curriculum development underway in South Africa (Department of Education, 1997b, p. 16).

Another major development during 1997 was the publication of the National Multi-year Implementation Plan for Adult Basic Education and Training. For the first time, disability was taken seriously in adult education. Learners in adult basic education and training now included women with special needs, youths with special needs, and persons with disabilities capable of independent learning (Department of Education, 1997b, p. 13).

History helps in understanding the present and in making decisions for the future. While South Africa’s past practices in special education and education support services did little or nothing for most of the population, current policies in 2018 offer enormous possibilities. However, it is important for South Africans to learn from the past and not repeat those mistakes. Therefore, in building a new system of education, it is important that immediate steps are taken to give practical effect to the proposals of the new policies.

It is imperative that appropriate steps be taken immediately to make a single system of education possible as responses to policy development. In other words, practice needs to be consistent with what is being recommended.

A Way Forward in Departing From the History of Special Education

The social portrait of South Africa based on its second richest city suggests that a substantial part of the pupil population would benefit from an inclusive education system. Too many learners in the country remain on the margins of society as a result of historical factors such as race and class. To bring people to the center, an inclusive education system that addresses the theory and practice of change is imperative. What follows are a few ideas on the way forward.

First, education departments need to investigate their organograms with a view toward providing an effective inclusive service. While some provinces have made progress in this regard, the national Department of Basic Education and some provinces will probably find that they have to change their structures in order to make inclusive education work. There is no point in talking about an inclusive education system when old special education units are entrusted with the transformation to an inclusive education system. This is like saying racist people should transform the society into a non-racial one.

Second, university education departments should move away from professionalizing disability by having separate units known as departments of special education or educational psychology. While there are refreshing changes in policy, some universities still seem to be engaging in inconsistent practices. While they have made strides toward inclusive education in terms of vision and mission statements, they have not acted in terms of merging with the wider education faculty. If this does not happen, the position on inclusion on the part of universities is that inclusive education is merely an 8 to 5 schooling theory and not, as it is supposed to be, a social theory for an inclusive society.

Third, it is quite apparent that apartheid education had firmly established structures for mainstream education and special education which included separate personnel, curricula, and facilities. Anyone who deviated from the norm was regarded as the “other” in the schooling system. Victim blaming and the psychologization of school failure were central features of education during the apartheid era and special education. Schools and the curriculum were used as the primary means of reproducing the status quo. The medical model was the dominant model, and the focus of the cause of most learning challenges was located within the learner.

White dominance of special education and support with the best resources was a common phenomenon. For example, the School Psychological and Guidance Services of the Department of Education in the Transvaal, after the promulgation of Act 39 of 1967 for Whites, saw clinics established and staffed by clinical psychologists, vocational guidance psychologists, orthodidacticians, speech therapists, sociopedagogic psychologists, and occupational therapists (Behr, 1980). This proved to be a possible model for education support services several decades later (NEPI, 1992). This model will not work for South Africa, since it has to cater to a much bigger population and it is too expensive. The possibility of outreach teams that comprise various specialists can help create full-service schools all over the country.

Given the history of special education, it seems that the classist nature of South African society and the strong disabilist notions generated by the medical model reigned supreme in developing the CAPs curriculum. Its right and prescriptive nature alienated large numbers of learners who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Against the backdrop of the apartheid legacy, it is evident that the most disadvantaged learners are Black and thus experience the least success in the education system. Yet, after 15 years of funding education on a pro-poor basis, with the emphasis on equity, it seems very little has been achieved. According to the OECD (2008, p. 53), three international learning assessments of the outcomes of South African schooling: the Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA) project, conducted in 1999, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), conducted in 1995, 1999, and 2003, and the Southern Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SAQMEC), completed in 1991, confirm that South Africans are performing poorly and the education system is not delivering quality education. The high dropout rate and the low pass rates in literacy and numeracy suggest that much still has to be done. A guiding principle of the National Curriculum Statement for South African schools is social justice (DOE, 2001). Both literacy and numeracy are social justice issues, as a lack of literacy and numeracy excludes one from mainstream economic and social life (Bearne & Marsh, 2007). Teaching young children literacy and numeracy through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (ECD) establishes a sound base for learning and is an important strategy for reaching the goal of social justice. Therefore, it is important within the South African context to take the issue of inclusion seriously. By paying attention to the theoretical model and its implications for practice, many South African children can survive in a truly inclusive system.


Widespread disagreement exists in South Africa about the performance of the education system. What is clear is that poor learners are not achieving much success in the system. In order to assist teachers, it is important to understand the impact of poverty on children’s performance. The ideology and practice of inclusive education is undoubtedly a very useful tool for teachers and educationists in South Africa. Serious thought must go into the planning and implementing of an inclusive system. Much of the failure and poor performance of the education system is directly related to the disabilist notions engendered by the special education history of the country. What is missing is a sociological imagination in understanding poor performance. It is rooted in poor curriculum thinking and implementation. A large number of students bear the brunt of this serious lack of awareness and the country will continue to use its schools to reproduce the status quo if serious thinking does not go into the structure of the education department and how special education has influenced its polices. Opting for performance culture and testing will only frustrate the authorities but, more specifically, the teachers who have to struggle with these learners


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