Disabled and out of school

Over 58,000 children with disabilities may be out of school in the Western Cape

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Photo of two kids
Children playing at home on the Cape Flats. Photo: Masixole Feni

Noreen* picks up her 8-year-old foster son Johnny*, who has briefly paused outside their Lavender Hill residence, and carries him into the house. On the walls inside are photos of Johnny smiling.

Johnny lingers in the sitting room for a moment but, clearly unamused, ambles off into another room. Children’s television can be heard in the background.

Johnny, who turns nine in August, is not in school, in spite of three years of efforts by Noreen to get him admitted. Johnny has brain damage, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and does not speak. After suffering abuse from his biological mother at three months, his eyesight is damaged.

He attended crèche from when he was about three years old. When he was five, Noreen started actively looking for long-term educational options. She had known of Johnny’s disabilities early on and knew he needed to learn at a “special school”.

But it was only when she started looking that she found out about the waiting lists for special schools or schools that cater to students with disabilities.

“It’s not a clear message,” she said. “There’s no information regarding special needs.”


A Department of Basic Education (DBE) report, updated on 26 February, estimates that nearly 600,000 children with disabilities are out of school, 58,017 of them in the Western Cape. This data is from statistics in the GHS and Annual School and Annual Special School Surveys of 2012, but the department says it is impossible to determine exact numbers.

There were 5,552 learners on special school waiting lists in 2014, with 147 of these in the Western Cape, according to the report and data provided by provinces in 2015.

More recent statistics had not been provided to GroundUp by the DBE at the time of publication.

In August 2015, a report called Complicit in Exclusion by Human Rights Watch highlighted problems with inclusive education for South African children with disabilities.

The report demands that the national and provincial departments of education address problems with waiting lists and specifically calls for a centralised register of waiting lists that would be available to parents and civil society organisations.

Elin Martinez, a researcher for the report, says that although the DBE responded, there has been very little visible change.

She suspects the authorities underestimate the number of children on waiting lists. The government has also not published an accurate number of children with disabilities who are out of school, she said.

Besides confusion surrounding the data, waiting lists themselves create a slew of problems beyond the obvious issue of time, said Martinez. Special schools are intended for children with severe or multiple disabilities. However, this has been forgotten, and students with mild or non-severe disabilities are referred out of mainstream schools, only to end up on a waiting list they should not be on, she said.

“A child with Down syndrome who should be in a mainstream school is made to wait years for education,” she said.

No schooling while waiting

Teachers in mainstream schools should not be blamed for trying to refer students elsewhere, although they still need to take responsibility, says Vanessa Japtha, advocacy officer at Inclusive Education South Africa (IESA). Teachers are not provided with the support to accommodate students with disabilities in mainstream schools, adds Caroline Taylor, IESA’s information and support service manager.

They also are generally not taught how to identify barriers for these students.

Once teachers notice a problem, they are expected to try to identify the barriers to learning that the student is facing, and provide appropriate intervention. If this does not solve the issue, a team within the school examines whether they can provide this student with enough support to keep the student in the school. If this is impossible, the team may recommend that the child be assessed by a psychologist, who might then refer him or her to a special school.

This process refers children out of mainstream schools, instead of ensuring support to allow them to remain in the mainstream schools, Taylor says.

A school doctor, who wished to remain anonymous because she is not authorised to speak to the media, says it is impossible to expect teachers in mainstream schools to handle students with disabilities when they already need to teach 40 to 50 students.

Part of her job is writing letters to the psychologists who assess whether a learner needs to be placed in a special school.

Mainstream schools must have access to more resources, she says, and teachers need to be better equipped to handle students with unique needs.

What the DBE has done

DBE has planned to provide training for teachers, but Taylor and Japtha remain sceptical that this will happen effectively and with sustained support for teachers.

In 2014, the minister of Basic Education approved a Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (SIAS) policy that focuses on improving access to education for students with learning barriers. The policy includes protocols and forms that teachers, School-Based Support Teams (SBST) and District-Based Support Teams should use “in the process of screening, identifying and assessing barriers”.

“The policy advocates a shift from a system where learners are referred to another specialised setting other than the school nearest to their home, where a request is made for assistance to be delivered at the current school,” it states.

A presentation by the DBE in March 2016 lists achievements in teacher training since 2014 and 2015. This list includes training of support teams in screening, identification and support policy and training of teams and teachers to “deepen knowledge of Curriculum Differentiation in all subjects and in remedial education, making use of remedial teachers in the system”.

The presentation also shows that just under 7,000 teachers have been trained in screening and support and 17,540 teachers have been trained in the curriculum needs for children with disabilities.

DBE did not provide further comment to GroundUp on this issue.

Children who have been put on a waiting list for a special school will remain in the mainstream school until they are admitted. But this only applies to students already in a mainstream school.

Parents who have been told their children will need to be placed in a special school when they are of school-going age, can often only get them onto a waiting list at age six, and the children may find themselves out of both mainstream and special schools while on the waiting list, Taylor said.

Because of a lack of clarity, the path to education for these children may seem especially daunting, Japtha says.

Waiting for years

When Noreen first began phoning schools when Johnny was five, she was told there was a two-year waiting period and that she should make an appointment with the Western Cape Education Department. Noreen was told to contact a Cape Town special school. The school said that although Johnny seemed to be a candidate, they could not admit him until he was out of nappies. As soon as he could use a toilet, they said, he would be accepted.

For over a year, Johnny was toilet trained at a hospital in Mitchells Plain. But when Noreen went back to the school afterwards, he was not on the waiting list. After some back and forth between Noreen, the school and the department of education, Johnny underwent two rounds of assessments by the school until Noreen was told there was no space available.

“They said they had no problems with him. He coped well, he listened well, he interacted well with the other kids,” she said. But there was still no availability. “After all this, now they can’t give me a time, a period or whatever?” she said.

In mid-May, the school phoned her asking her to finally fill out forms, saying that there should be a place for him when the next school year starts in January. However, Noreen still must call in December to verify the availability. “They said check in December, but I’ll check in October,” she said.

Although some have suggested that Noreen place Johnny in a special care centre instead of a special school, she refuses. “There’s no stimulation for Johnny there. I can put him there, but he’s going to go backward,” she said. Inclusive education advocates who have worked with her agree, Noreen said.

Noreen knows other parents who have had a difficult time getting information. One mother she knows has a child with Down syndrome, who attended crèche with Johnny. The child went through the same assessments at the Cape Town school that Johnny did. However, when the school told the mother there was no space, she gave up.

Blouvlei School

Blouvlei School in Retreat is a special school with 180 students between the ages of 6 and 21. They have a range of disabilities, as a result of accidents, abuse, problems at birth, and infections, among other causes.

More than 50 students have been screened and are on a database for Blouvlei, hoping to get onto a waiting list and then into the school, says Cordelia Romes, the principal.

Romes says Blouvlei does not have the space or capacity to deal with more students because typically they stay for more than ten years at the school.

There are 83 special schools in the Western Cape, and 453 in the country, according to the DBE report.

Waiting lists are not the only concern for parents of disabled children. Income and a lack of support systems obstruct some children’s right to education. According to Blouvlei’s website, “A few parents are very involved and actively help the school. Other parents are still struggling to come to terms with their children’s disability. Teachers sometimes feel that parents see Blouvlei as a ‘dumping ground.’”

Ninety percent of Blouvlei’s learners are from “sub-economic” households.

With the geographic effects of apartheid still gripping South Africa, some students live far away from special schools, Taylor says.

Parents might be wary of sending children farther away to school because they are unsure of the support their children will receive at the school, she says. And though some parents might be eligible for exemption from school fees, there is no exemption from transport costs.

Noreen and her husband do not have children of their own. “[Johnny] came into our lives and we’re so attached to him.”

“He needs to be in the school that he needs to be in,” she said.

*Names have been changed to protect the source’s identities.

TOPICS:  Disability Rights Education

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Eastern Cape children with disabilities are also struggling to find placement in special schools. It is not an unusual scenario to see a nine-year-old who has never been at school.

The other two common scenarios are crèches that do not want these children after they are five-years-old and mainstream schools that deny education for these children once they identify them for special school. The right to basic education is often violated, and inclusive education not implemented.

The waiting list for placement is more than three years. I have done lot of advocacy for these children and engaged the Department of Education with no success

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