There is a line in South Africa’s Freedom Charter, which was drafted 60 years ago, that foreshadows the country’s current attitude to education. It declares:
The doors of learning and culture shall be open to all!
Twenty-one years into its life as a democracy, South Africa appears at first glance to have met the Freedom Charter’s challenge. Almost 97.5% of the country’s children aged between seven and 17 are attending primary or secondary schools.
The picture was very different during apartheid, particularly for black South African children at every level of schooling. In 1982, only 57.4% black children attended primary school and just 17.2% were enrolled in high school.
But access hasn’t improved across the board. Not all children have fared well. An estimated 200 000 children and adolescents do not attend school, many of whom have disabilities or special needs. The school gates are closed to these children partly because teachers lack the skills needed to teach learners who have disabilities or need extra support.
The solution seems simple: if teachers haven’t been properly prepared to help differently-abled pupils, why don’t we just train them better?
A disconnect between workshops and the classroom
South Africa has followed international trends by making a policy commitment to inclusive education. The Department of Basic Education defines this as “the process of addressing the diverse needs of all learners by reducing barriers to and within the learning environment.”
Canadian academic Tim Loreman says that educators cannot be expected to teach inclusively if they don’t have a positive attitude to learners with disabilities. Teachers need access to classroom strategies that give all their pupils the opportunity to learn and must be committed to collaborative, lifelong learning.
The Provincial Departments of Education, universities and various non-governmental organisations offer workshops and short courses to boost teachers’ knowledge, skills and attitudes to enable them to teach inclusively.
Most of this training is not held at schools. Teachers leave their campuses, are lectured by experts and then return to their posts. The assumption is that after being trained, teachers will apply their new knowledge in the classroom.
Professors Norma Nel and Oupa Lebeloane, Helene Muller and I wanted to investigate whether this was the case. We surveyed 19 teachers who attended a workshop about aspects of inclusive education. Initially, the teachers all said they were satisfied with the training.
Eight months later we interviewed ten of the teachers in two focus groups to see how they had implemented the workshop’s lessons. With only a few exceptions the answer was, “I haven’t.”
The teachers gave a number of reasons, including their perceptions of:
High learner to teacher ratios. Teachers said it was difficult to give extra attention to struggling learners because they felt their classes were too full.
A lack of teacher assistants, particularly to help learners with additional support needs;
Inadequate space in their classrooms, particularly where learners used wheelchairs;
The pressure of covering the fast-moving curriculum as well as preparing pupils for the government-mandated Annual National Assessments, which test literacy and numeracy levels.
Crucially, teachers felt that the challenges of the school environment made it too difficult to translate the principles presented in the workshop into specific lesson content. One said:
You can train us until we are blue in our faces, we are still going to struggle.
The teachers didn’t believe that more workshops would solve these problems. Instead, they suggested bringing learning support specialists into schools to help adapt the curriculum to their learners’ diverse needs. These specialists could also guide teachers’ efforts to differentiate their lessons and assessment to ensure inclusive learning.
Teachers also shared a deeper misgiving. Despite the policy on inclusive education, they were not all convinced that children with learning difficulties and other disabilities should be in mainstream schools. Teachers complained that they weren’t consulted properly before their school was made accessible for disabled children.
Rethinking professional development for teachers
This study and others like it emphasise that in-service professional development is far more complex than merely “workshopping” teachers on topics that are deemed important. High-quality, well-delivered courses and workshops are needed for teacher professional development - but they are not a magic potion.
Effective professional development must acknowledge the interplay between the content of workshops, teachers’ attitudes towards their own learning and the challenging realities of South African classroom life.