The guidelines for inclusive education were published in 2005, but the barriers to accessing mainstream schools remain a reality that hinders policy implementation. SAALED is an NGO made up of volunteers- teachers, doctors, parents, etc - who are passionate about inclusive education. The organisation provides newsletters, conferences (local and international) and workshops on overcoming the barriers to learning by children with disabilities. Barbara Raymond, MD of SAALED, believes there are a number of reasons why the implementation of inclusive education has lagged.

A co-ordinated approach

According to Raymond a co-ordinated approach is lacking. "There are many organisations and NGOs which are working for inclusive education; however they all work separately of each other. If we could lobby together as one group we would be so much more powerful. A co-ordinated approach within inclusive education from all the all role players is also needed. Co-ordination between the Departments of labour, Education, Health and Social Services needs to improve. There is no point in the Department of Labour setting a target of 2.5% if the other processes to provide the necessary skills are not in place. The whole system of support is not co-ordinated. For example principal training and teaching assistance is not in place."

Transformation training

Many principals and educators think of the White Paper 6 roll out and implementation as abstract. Schools don't realise it is here to stay and that it is not going to disappear. It is important that principals buy into the idea of inclusive education and undergo transformational training. "Transformation training for principals is one of the key elements here," says Raymond, giving an example of a visually impaired child who has been attending a mainstream school in Soweto since the beginning of his high school career. The new principal has informed the parents that the learner will have to find an alternative school.

The fact is that every child is entitled to the best education at the best school possible. Think of the UK, USA, Canada, Finland and Australia. Inclusive education is the norm, not an issue. However, for this to happen here, funding has to be adequate.

The main hurdle: funding

Special schools are earmarked to become excellence centres providing support for mainstream schools but, whilst funding to special schools has been reduced, the funding for inclusive education is not coming through. Funding needs to be at the top of the education list. Inclusive education leads to inclusive employment making funding an imperative for meeting employment targets.

Enriching humanity

In schools where inclusive education has been introduced at an early level, children see their commonalities, not differences, and they grow up without prejudices. These children are enriched in humanity and support each other as their awareness stems from empathy rather than pity. "The younger children are placed in integrated classrooms the better. As such we are working in baby care centres, working with the caregivers and teaching them an awareness of disability so that children with disabilities will not be shown away but accommodated. Awareness and training starts and then moves up the education chain." Raymond concludes: "Inclusive education is about what you can tap into and not what you cannot do. It is an ongoing process and no one needs to be a specialist - everyone supports the child together." It is a Human rights issue. "The children are there, but nothing is happening. The roll out has been too slow, despite more schools being earmarked for training etc."

Any school can do it

A rural community school in KwaZulu-Natal proves that there is no excuse and that, when the principal buys into the process, inclusive education will succeed. When principal Gogo Masondo was approached by the parent of a hearing impaired child she began transforming herself and her school. She achieved inclusive education by using whatever resources she could gather proving what can be achieved with passion, heart and community support. She spoke at a conference in Ireland of how she upskilled herself and continues to do so. She is a principal with passion!

What she did required her to take a risk and that is required of all principals. This is not the easiest path, but it is the most rewarding, and shows that passion is at the heart of the process. "We have the best legislation and framework, but the implementation lacks if the heart is not there." Geoff Cohen, director of education, Principal Middle School, Herzlia School agrees wholeheartedly and he should know, having embarked on this journey 15 years ago. Herzlia is a community school with 10 campuses, five pre-schools and three middle schools. It is a Jewish school that is open to all and has always been in the top 10 schools for Matric results.

Each child is special

Cohen was approached by a group of parents who had children in special schools but wanted their children to attend Herzlia. "On a whim I met some of the children and their parents and from these interviews decided, with the school authorities of course, to run a pilot project."

Five children were enrolled and one special education needs co-ordinator employed as a class manager. The children's disabilities varied from CP to spatial difficulties and the children were not placed in a separate classroom. "We felt very strongly about the children. Our guiding philosophy was Maslowâ's needs, but turned upside down so that belonging and self-esteem were at the top. We believe that if children have a sense of belonging and self-esteem then they will do well in their education."

"The majority of our staff embraced inclusive education and that first year we had all sorts of training from new ideas, brainstorming, coming up with programmes etc to make it happen." It took off from the Middle School into their other schools and today they have many children with a variety of needs. They do not see them as children with disabilities.

"We have 1,950 children in our school and we consider each one a special needs child. We treat each child as an individual and our teachers adapt to this. While some things are simple to do, such as bigger text in an exam paper or making the layout of an exam paper clearer, other things are harder to do. But it is all for the benefit of the children. It has enriched the school and the standard has not, as some people believe, dropped."