In the southern suburbs of Cape Town, St George’s Grammar School is the eclectic cousin in the community of schools. The school has a rich tradition of diversity, being among the first independent schools in South Africa to admit pupils of colour in the late 1970’s.
In 2002, the school management team appointed a diversity coordinator who held the position for 12 years and established a strong anti-bias practice, which has influenced the development of a strong ethos of respect, kindness and acceptance in the school. The school also developed a philosophy of inclusion.
Inclusion is widely misunderstood and under-valued: in a school setting, a philosophy of inclusion should create an environment that enriches multiplicity and surpasses the superficial understanding that diversity is achieved if there are people of colour in a school. Inclusion guides us to embrace the wider and deeper nuances of difference in order to foster an inclusive community and ultimately an inclusive society.
The philosophy is underpinned by a social model based on principles of social justice, equity and solidarity in which difference and human dignity are valued. The model recognises that barriers to learning can arise in cases where interactions between students are negatively affected by a range of possible factors, which may include differences in their contexts, cultures, and social and economic circumstances. Thus, all students will have barriers to the type of profound learning that society requires in order to eliminate social unrest and political polarisation.
What is an inclusive environment?
The opposite of inclusion would be homogeneity. In the context of the current watershed moment on our society, brought to a head by the #blacklivesmatter and #yousilenceweamplify movements, South African independent schools are at last being challenged to heed the voices of those who are made to feel excluded, inferior and unseen. The commitment being made to transformation and diversity in schools is to be applauded, but it should not be tied only to issues of race, religion and culture.
‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.’ – David W. Orr
In an inclusive environment, people view the multitude of differences – in family structures, sexual and gender identities, barriers to learning, disabilities, socio-economic statuses etcetera – as resources to support learning, rather than problems to be overcome.
An inclusive environment is essential in order to provoke the necessary discomfort to initiate reflection, questioning and debate that leads to ‘unlearning’ and enables truly free-thinking. In this kind of community, norms cannot be static; they are amended, or developed, together with openness and respect, through the sharing of diverse perspectives.
Inclusion compels change at St George’s
At St George’s Grammar School, we have learned from our eclectic identity that inclusion compels change and that it generates neither constancy nor complacency. The makeup, needs, interests and priorities of each student are ever-changing. Our parent body is drawn ideologically to an inclusive environment and is diverse, but united in its absolute regard for the intrinsic worth of every individual. By its nature this type of environment challenges stereotypes, biases and entrenched perceptions on a daily basis.
Students, staff and all members of the community will constantly reflect upon and reframe their thinking if opportunities for relationships, understanding and dialogue are created. As Madeleine Grumet, professor of education and communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US, stated, ‘Curriculum is the conversation that makes sense of things.’
A complex identity
In an inclusive environment, the Grade 3 child studying Grade 7 mathematics is inspired by the courage of the Down Syndrome child who speaks in assembly; and the whole school community weeps together when a boy with cerebral palsy crawls determinedly across the stage to receive an academic award. In philosophy class, the child with mixed-race parents can discuss her experience of the marginalised thinking of society, and another can openly share his experience of having a transgender sibling. These types of opportunities for moral, humane learning occur every day.
A school that strives to accommodate all pupils is disconcerting to the mainstream parent, who for the most part seeks the time-honoured pursuits of academic and sporting excellence, with a respectable dose of cultural enrichment on the side. On the other hand inclusive education has a complex identity that is comfortable with paradox.
St George’s offers not only comprehensive support for pupils with barriers to learning, but also designs individual educational programmes for pupils who require extension. We understand that many label the school as ‘remedial’ and yet for our matric results we maintain a consistent position among various top 20 schools in the Western Cape. An inclusive environment by its nature cultivates critical thinking that infers academic excellence.
We must all disrupt the current identity of schools if we are to contribute more meaningfully to society. We must establish environments that promote the development of peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. St George’s Grammar School believes that a philosophy of inclusion is an essential step to making this happen.