In this, the last broadcast of the Phepha uFunde series, the focus was on schools for learners with special education needs. Prof. Metcalfe framed this well when she said that these schools are an important part of the education system, and that the challenges they face in effectively responding to the pandemic are far more complex to address than those experienced by mainstream schools.

I’m glad this was the focus of the last broadcast, as this often overlooked, neglected, and under-resourced sector of our education system continue to be marginalized in the public focus and discourse on education in our country.

In a country that espouses ubuntu as a concept and practice that encompass humaneness, compassion, and a sense of caring for one another’s wellbeing, we can certainly do more in terms of recognizing the rights that all our children have to a quality education. We must also recognize the responsibilities that we all have as members of society in fostering individual and societal well-being, especially amongst the children and young people who may require this the most.

There are a number of lessons to take away from today’s session, and we can all learn from the leaders and teachers who are working in schools that serve learners with special education needs.

Firstly, the teachers and leaders place the key focus of their work on where it belongs – the child, and this is seen nowhere more clearly than in these schools.

“Know thy child,” is the educational embrace and orientation of the teacher. It is about knowing the whole child, which includes the social, emotional, mental, physical and academic needs of children in the contexts in which they live, learn and play. Focusing on the whole child also includes finding ways to meet these aforementioned needs as they arise.

Logan, Theunis, Karen, Michelle, and Upsana all spoke authoritatively about the effects of Covid – 19 on children with special education needs, especially around the wearing of masks and physical distancing. They also mentioned the need for children to be active and have some form of structure and routines that could be followed. These educators had to innovate under the present circumstances to meet the children’s learning and development needs. They are showing us what a learner-centred approach to schooling really is, and the commitment that’s required to educate the learners.

Secondly, these leaders and educators all demonstrate an unwavering belief in the ability of learners with special education needs to learn and develop. This is a really important point to make. In society, we sometimes hold “deficit” theories and views that define learners –  especially learners with diverse education needs – by their weaknesses rather than their strengths, and they are regarded as being helpless. These views are dangerous, as they often evolve into stereotypes that lead to the stigmatization and marginalization of individuals and groups of people.

Deficit theories not only apply to learners with special education needs. It can also be found in how we engage with and teach children from different class and cultural backgrounds – where children from poor families or different backgrounds are treated differently, and low expectations are held for their academic performance. When this occurs, we unwittingly contribute to the pernicious cycle of school failure and disengagement, drop-out, and eventual poverty that entraps so many of our young people.

All learners have abilities and can learn, and the role of our school leaders is to engage the deficit views that are sometimes present in the schooling processes. This can be done through ongoing professional conversations that form part of reflective practice in the school. These conversations can shape the thinking of staff and change teaching practice in powerful ways if they are embedded in a school culture that is characterised by care and a sense of belonging for everyone in the school.

The third key lesson we can learn from the teachers working with learners with special education needs relates to the attributes and attitudes they bring into the school and classroom. As they described their responses to the changes in schooling brought about by the pandemic, we see patience, resilience, innovation, adaptability, positiveness, and a “can do” attitude in their actions. Mr Ngcobo from the DBE summed this up best when he said that ultimately, the work of these leaders and teachers serves to give us hope. What we have been seeing in these schools is hope in action.

The fourth and final lesson is about the transformation that has taken place in these schools over the last few months. Karen summed this up well when describing the work at their school, where they moved from a situation in which, “things cannot happen … to making things happen.” This is an apt description of agency – the ability of an individual or group to purposefully act on a situation and change it.

The exercise of agency is what we need in education in our country right now. When we do this together, we will find that the obstacles to providing all of our children with a quality education, including the ones with special education needs, are not insurmountable. We can increase the opportunities to learn for all our children and young people, and, in so doing enable them to realize their full potential as human beings and as citizens of our country. This is the educational and moral imperative of our time.