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Teachers need help to identify learning disabilities in the classroom
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 15/06/2021

Less than half the schools in South Africa are confident in their ability to screen learners for visual, hearing or learning difficulties.

“The poor ability of educators to screen learners means many learners with less obvious disabilities are unlikely to be identified in schools. As a result, many learners with disabilities will not receive the support they need to participate fully in learning," says Nicola Deghaye, a doctoral student within the Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) Group in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University (SU).

In a recent study, published as a working paper of the Department of Economics and the Bureau for Economic Research at SU, Deghaye explored aspects of disability support and accessibility, as well as teacher training for the inclusion of learners with disabilities in our public schools. She says a lack of data on these issues has hindered accountability for policy implementation and made budgeting for inclusion difficult.

As part of her study, Deghaye analysed the 2017 School Monitoring Survey (SMS) and compared these results against the 2011 survey to determine whether any progress has been made in implementation. The SMS is one of two nationally-representative data surveys which provide indicators of disability-accessibility and the preparedness of teachers to include learners with disabilities in public schools. She also compared the 2017 survey against the Department of Basic Education's Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support policy of 2014 and against promising indicators of school- and teacher-level inputs and processes to identify key measurement gaps.

Deghaye says her analysis has shown that while several schools have a teacher who has been trained in identifying or supporting learners with learning difficulties, many of the current training programmes do not teach educators how to adjust their teaching methods or the content of the curriculum to effectively reach diverse learners.

“While the proportion of schools with at least one teacher who has some training in identifying learning barriers or supporting learners has increased to 74%, only 57% of these teachers had covered the critical topic of curriculum differentiation. Only 43% had been trained on adjusting assessments to address learning barriers (such as allowing learners extra time, setting more concrete questions for certain learners, or examining certain learners orally).

“These are critical skills which all teachers need to be able to adjust teaching materials and methods to accommodate learners with learning difficulties or disabilities in a regular classroom.

“Educators who have been trained to identify or support learners with difficulties or disabilities are more likely to be confident in addressing learning barriers."

Deghaye says her study also found that more schools have established school-based support teams.

School-based support teams are made up of a group of educators in a school who meet regularly to support teachers in identifying learners who are struggling, for whatever reason. The team assists the teacher in formulating and implementing support plans for learners and liaises with the district where additional support is needed or a formal assessment is required.

“We have made substantial progress in establishing school-based support teams in schools and more of these teams are receiving support from their respective districts. We have also made excellent progress in providing wheelchair-accessible toilets."

Unfortunately, progress on school-based support teams as well as disability support and teacher training to promote disability inclusion has been uneven across provinces, says Deghaye.  

“In 2017, only 39% of schools in Limpopo had school-based support teams in place. Very few schools established school-based support teams in KwaZulu-Natal between 2011 and 2017.

“In turn, school-based support teams in Limpopo and the Eastern and Northern Cape were much less likely to receive support from the district than teams in the North West province. For example, school-based support team in Limpopo were 44% less likely to receive support from the district than those in the North West."

“Schools in Gauteng, the Free State and the Western Cape were more likely to have at least one trained teacher than schools in other provinces. In 2017, more schools in the Western Cape received visits from specialists (such as psychologists, therapists and learning support educators) or from health services than schools in any other province." 

According to Deghaye, these provincial inequalities are likely related to uneven funding of inclusive education between provinces.

She says schools must be empowered and helped to form school-based support teams.

“Collaboration between the school health programme and school-based support teams must be strengthened, as part of improving teachers' understanding of the screening process."

Deghaye says her findings on the remaining gaps in accessibility of schools will allow much more accurate budgeting for the implementation of school-level reforms.

She adds that further data is needed on the accessibility of learning materials and attitudinal barriers in ordinary schools, and the support provided by special schools.

Photo courtesy of Freepik.


Nicola Deghaye



Martin Viljoen

Manager: Media

Corporate Communication and Marketing

Stellenbosch University

Tel: 021 808 4921