‘Special’, independent and accessible: are all three possible?

| April 6, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Margaret Johnson

The Key school was established in 1975 by concerned professionals and parents to cater for children with autistic spectrum disorder, given the complete absence of educational provision for children with autism in the schooling system in Johannesburg.

When it emerged that the school was non-racial, a subsidy received from the then-apartheid government for a period of two years was withdrawn by the late 1970s. Since that time, the school has received no financial support from government.

Sustaining The Key School
The school has been challenged to continue providing high quality education and care for children with autism. It is increasingly in the unfortunate position of having to turn away children who desperately need its specialised educational services because their parents cannot afford the fees – currently R 4 550 per month (including all therapies but excluding after-care). The school is registered with the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) as an independent school, and efforts to engage the GDE to transform the school into a state school or to apply for a subsidy have thus far been unsuccessful. At the same time, the fees cover only a third of the costs, making the school heavily reliant on donations.

Who is responsible for funding education?
For the past 35 years, The Key School has largely been the financial responsibility of parents. If parents cannot afford the fees, children either remain without any schooling or attend ordinary early childhood educational facilities, such as crèches. (The school caters for children between the ages of two-anda-half and 12.) A previous Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal, reaffirmed in his introductory comments to White Paper 6 that government hopes to “… convince the thousands of mothers and fathers of some 280 000 disabled children – who are younger than 18 years and are not in schools or colleges – that the place of these children is not one of isolation in dark backrooms and sheds. It is with their peers, in schools, on the playgrounds, on the streets and in places of worship where they can become part of the local community and cultural life, and part of the reconstruction of our country.” Since the publication of White Paper 6 in 2001, government has struggled to provide good-quality public education and, specifically, has failed to make serious headway in supporting the provision of special needs education.

Government’s delivery agreement and plan, titled Action Plan to 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025 (published as Government Notice 752 of 2010), does not elaborate further on what it will do to address the challenges of providing special education, as it seems already too overwhelmed by the problems of basic education and improving the overall quality of schooling.

Caught in a vacuum
Schools like ours are caught in the policy and institutional vacuum. Children and their parents need institutions like ours, but there is little effective support from government, given the huge needs in basic education provision. The tension for The Key School is that no parent asks for a child with a disability and, in addition to numerous challenges – including practical, emotional and social ones – they also have to carry an enormous financial burden without much assistance from government, which is yet to “create special needs education as a nonracial and integrated component of our education system” as envisioned in White Paper 6. There is therefore a contradiction between being accessible to families with children with autistic spectrum disorder, being a ‘special school’, and being independent. It is important to bear in mind that a child with autism is ‘weighted’ at six1. This means that our staff and all other costs, including fees, should be factored by six.

Constrained by commitment
Parents who choose independent education generally have the financial means to exercise that choice, but parents with a child with autism do not necessarily have the financial means to access our school. The Key School is constrained by its commitment to remaining accessible. We are not a business but a non-profit organisation and a school endeavouring to continue providing a very necessary service. The Key School could transform itself into an elite organisation that is run on tight business principles, but is choosing to continue its struggle to remain an accessible facility. The school continues tirelessly to engage government to take responsibility for providing education for all children, including those who may have autism.

We are aggressively promoting the best way forward for the provision of high-quality education for our children. We are doing this in partnership with our Patron, John Vlismas, our parents, our neighbourhood, and the corporate social investment community. We plan to extend our outreach and advocacy efforts in Johannesburg and further afield in neighbouring provinces.

Margaret Johnson is a mother of a child with autism and Outreach Off icer of The Key School. She writes in her individual capacity.

Note:
1 Dr Jenni Gous, the Principal of The Key School, explains that the Department of Basic Education ‘weights’ children according to their disabilities. A child with cerebral palsy is weighted at three, and a child with autism at six, because one autistic child with autism needs ostensibly as much attention/intervention as six children. Adds Gous: “At our school where we have 30 children, the number of children according to our weighting is 180 – this figure affects subsidies and post levels for Principals, who get paid in notches according to how many children they have in their schools, as well as how many staff they are allowed to employ, etc.”

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Category: Autumn 2011

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