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The critical need to ensure inclusive education for every child

The critical need to ensure inclusive education for every child
Pupils at Tumelo Primary School in Meadowlands, Soweto, in January 2023; Inclusivity in the classroom benefits all children. (Photos: Papi Morake/Gallo Images; iStock)

Inclusive education is what every school should strive for, especially in a country with so many inequalities. Mark Potterton and Justine Kimbala give some suggestions from their experience with refugee communities.

Around the world, children are excluded from schools because of disability, race, language, religion, gender and poverty. Inclusive education means that all children are in the same classrooms, in the same schools. When all children, regardless of their differences, are educated together, everyone benefits — this is the cornerstone of inclusive education.

Inclusive education systems recognise the unique contributions that learners of all backgrounds bring to the classroom, and allow diverse groups to grow side by side to the benefit of all.

The challenge for education systems is to make sure that schools provide effective ways to give all children this fair chance. Unfortunately, the inequality that is prevalent in our society and schools makes this difficult. And with overcrowded classrooms and overstretched or inadequate support systems, effective inclusion isn’t possible.

The refugee and migrant children we teach live on the edge of the eastern inner-city suburbs of Johannesburg, where foreign and South African communities live side by side. The children and their families live in flats, factories, warehouses and abandoned houses that are not maintained, in areas of the city neglected by the authorities.

The competition for scarce resources in these densely populated areas where there is high unemployment is a source of tension, discrimination and hostile and xenophobic attitudes towards foreign nationals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Heed the signs of the rage building against foreign nationals and fanned by those in power

The limited access to state and private social services in these areas is also a challenge for foreigners as priority is given to South African nationals. The lack of documentation is often a reason foreign nationals are unable to access essential services, and language has also been found to be a significant limitation in securing access.

A common barrier to education is a lack of space or overcrowded classrooms, which makes it hard for teachers to meet the needs of all their pupils. Many refugee children in Johannesburg are in local schools that may already be at or over their capacity.

Refugees in Johannesburg face a higher cost of living than those in rural settings. They rely on social services and NGOs wherever they can, and make ends meet among limited livelihood opportunities. Some children may also be expected to work rather than attend school. Parents struggle to provide basic needs for their families, and it is difficult for them to prioritise education for their children, especially where school and other fees are expected.

Families are sometimes fearful of moving around the city or sending their children unaccompanied to school because of a lack of documentation and fear of physical, sexual, xenophobic or gender-based violence.

Refugee children experience displacement and trauma differently, but many need assistance as they begin school for the first time or attend school again after a prolonged absence. Living in overcrowded and stressed environments also adds to the trauma they face, and the support they receive in their classrooms impacts their interest and ability to continue schooling.

We see the classroom as a second home for learners, where they spend a significant amount of time with their teachers. It is important to create a supportive and nurturing classroom environment to promote the children’s growth and development.

Five useful strategies

We use several strategies to support learners who struggle. First is responsive teaching, which involves understanding and valuing learners’ cultural backgrounds, their experiences and their identities.

Teachers can incorporate culturally relevant content, examples and teaching methods that resonate with diverse student populations. This approach fosters a sense of belonging and relevance for all learners.

Second, recognising that learners have different learning styles, abilities and needs, teachers need to use differentiated instruction. This involves tailoring teaching methods, materials and assessments to accommodate a range of learners. To do this effectively, teachers need to provide varied instructional formats, offer multiple pathways to learning and adjust content complexity to meet individual learner needs.

Third is designing lessons to remove barriers by providing multiple means of representation, expression and engagement. By offering diverse ways for learners to access and demonstrate their understanding of content, this framework promotes inclusivity and ensures that they can all participate and succeed in the classroom.

Fourth, creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment is essential for fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance among all learners. Teachers can establish clear expectations for respectful behaviour, promote empathy and understanding through activities and discussions, and actively address any discrimination.

And fifth, incorporating collaborative and cooperative learning activities encourages learners to work together, share perspectives and learn from one another. Cleverly planned, group work promotes social interaction and peer support, which can benefit learners of diverse backgrounds and abilities. Teachers need to ensure that everyone participates and provide  scaffolding and support for learners to achieve their goals.

Implementing these strategies requires continuing reflection, collaboration and time for professional development. Teachers also need to be able to draw on the help of psychologists, therapists and other experts to ensure that classrooms are inclusive and responsive to the needs of all learners.

Celebrating each bit of progress

Justine Kimbala has more flexibility in her class, and she doesn’t stick rigidly to the timetable, especially when she has the children the whole day. She gives them choice and additional time to complete work.

She also takes the time to celebrate even the smallest successes, recognising and appreciating the progress made. She says negativity destroys learners and ultimately destroys us too.

“The challenge I face in my classes is that I only see the learners for three hours a week and don’t always have adequate time to accommodate their different needs, and this means that they miss out. My experience seems to be like that of many other teachers who don’t have the time to easily offer additional support to the children struggling.”

Potterton says: “Kimbala reminds me to stay positive no matter what, to remain focused on the difference we make in our learners’ lives, and to remind myself of the purpose of being a teacher. She says we need to focus on the progress of learners and not on perfection.”

Instead of stumbling over the challenges or setbacks, Kimbala says, “let us celebrate the progress that learners are making, no matter how small”.

Potterton says: “She reminds me that every learner learns differently and to adapt my teaching methods to accommodate various learning styles. She reminds me of Sipho, a child who is not visual but very good at using his body, and we celebrate that”.

Kimbala creates a strong connection with learners and their parents. These positive relationships foster trust and make it easier to address any challenges that arise.

“As teachers, we need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the child’s wellbeing and success,” she says.

We recognise that every learner is unique and that, as teachers, we must adapt our teaching methods to accommodate diverse learning styles and abilities. By involving parents as partners in education, reflecting on our teaching practices and celebrating successes along the way, we make a meaningful difference in the lives of our students.

Our challenge is to create inclusive learning environments where every child feels valued, supported and inspired to succeed. DM

Mark Potterton and Justine Kimbala work in the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Education Project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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