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January 2011



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First Published Tuesday, 9 December 2008

South African school

TUCKED away in one of Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs is an independent school for children with special needs.

Although Bellavista School in Birdhaven cannot compete with the city’s wealthy private schools on resources and range of extra-mural activities, it represents one aspect of what’s available for special needs children in SA.

It has on-staff therapists and teachers who are trained to deal with myriad problems from spina bifida and blindness to autism and attention deficit disorder.

On the other side of the coin are children with special needs who never make it to school because they are hidden by their families or there is simply no school in the area equipped to deal with them, and special schools are every bit as poorly resourced as the 42% of SA’s 25043 “ordinary” public schools that are overcrowded and poorly resourced.

Even in well-resourced urban schools there are challenges, the biggest, most common of which is a negative attitude towards children who are disabled or different in any way, says the education department’s deputy director- general of general education, Palesa Tyobeka.

Every year at least some of the children who are accepted to Bellavista come from top-notch schools across SA and as far afield as Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia.

Most are suffering from low self-esteem after struggling in these schools, says principal Jackie Staniforth.

“Those high-pressure (independent and top public) schools have got to take another look at their teaching methodologies in order to become more inclusive,” says Staniforth.

“They need to look at their philosophies and think: ‘Are we an exciting and inclusive school, or a depressive school where anyone who thinks differently is out?.”

Many children need only a few years in Bellavista’s nurturing environment to learn coping techniques and regain self-esteem, before they can slot back into an “ordinary” school, she says.

While many public and independent schools try hard to welcome all, there are others that in no uncertain terms reject children with any sort of learning difficulty or other disability, says the president of the Southern African Association for Learning and Educational Difficulties (Saaled), Dr Melodie Hougaard.

Hougaard, a medical doctor, learned about inclusion in the most profound way possible — her fourth child, a son, is learning impaired.

“(John’s birth and development) was the biggest lesson for our family. He has set the values right,” she says.

Hougaard’s family was very focused on traditional indicators of success, but has learnt that “to be number one is not necessarily what counts most”. “What counts most is that you are a rounded, complete person, generous of spirit.”

What is encouraging for those who believe in inclusive education is that Hougaard’s son, who attended Bellavista until Grade 7 and then went to Johannesburg’s prestigious St Stithians College, has matriculated and is studying sports management.

Hougaard fought hard to have her son admitted to St Stithians so that he would be exposed to a wide variety of extra-mural activities most special needs schools simply do not have the funds to offer.

She also believes strongly that if SA is to be an inclusive society where everyone’s difference is welcomed, school is a good place to start re-educating South Africans.

Much of the problem is seated in fear that allowing disabled and learning impaired children into an “ordinary” school will result in a drop in standards, but Hougaard says research has shown the opposite to be true.

A wider range of the children do well because teachers have to employ a variety of teaching methods, and everyone, even if not disabled, learns in different ways.

There is no doubt that disabled and learning impaired children benefit from going to an “ordinary” school, says Caroline Taylor, a researcher at Inclusive Education Western Cape, which is an informal network of parents and professionals with an interest in inclusive education.

Twenty to 25 years ago it was uncommon to find Down’s Syndrome children in the UK who could read, now it is hard to find those that cannot and it is because of the UK’s inclusive education policy, she says.

But experts warn that for inclusive education to work there has to be buy-in on the philosophy from everyone concerned.

Geoff Cohen, principal of Cape Town’s Herzlia Schools, has completely bought into the philosophy.

The Herzlia schools serve 1900 pupils in three primary schools, one middle school, a high school and five pre-schools, scattered across Cape Town and are known for their academic excellence.

For the past 12 years the schools have also accepted children with difficulties from physical disability to attention deficit disorder.

Cohen says the whole school community has benefited from this.

“It’s given the (special needs) children a sense of belonging … It’s good also for the others (who don’t have special needs). They learn to live with everybody,” he says.

The school takes the view that if it can possibly take on a child, whatever their problem, it does. That has meant some fairly steep learning curves — a new one each time a new child arrives with a new problem — a lot of extra administration and the expense of the physical modifications that have been made to the school buildings.

But the largest expense of all is the extra staff the school has taken on.

All of this is worth it, says Cohen.

“Disability and difference are a normal part of life … Schools are a microcosm of society and we (South Africans) need to learn as soon as possible that all people have their particular strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

Sue Blaine

Source:   http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/topstories.aspx?ID=BD4A90065

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