This article has been published in Enabling Education 10
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Title: Transforming Schools: Using the ‘Index for Inclusion’ in South Africa
Author: Engelbrecht, P, Oswald, M and Forlin, C
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2006

Petra Engelbrecht , Marietjie Oswald and Chris Forlin

The Index for Inclusion* was used in three primary schools in the Western Cape Province of South Africa over a two-year period, funded by UNESCO. This opened practitioners’ eyes to the wider definition of inclusive education – as an initiative for developing inclusive school communities and for identifying barriers to learning and participation for the benefit of all teachers and all learners. Lessons were learned about leadership, parental involvement and professional development.

The Index assisted in an honest process of reflection on school cultures, policies and practices, and in identifying and addressing priorities as part of the schools’ development plans. At first, most teachers were not familiar with White Paper 6 or the broader definition of inclusive education. They saw inclusive education as focusing specifically on including learners with disabilities. Our experience showed that inclusive education can only be implemented through an ongoing process of trial, reflection, development and collaboration. Once contextualised for South Africa, the Index appears to provide an appropriate model to assist in the development of more inclusive schools.

Five themes were identified as critical components for the development of more inclusive schools:

  • an inclusive school philosophy
  • democratic leadership, structures, processes, values
  • collaboration with all relevant role-players
  • addressing learner diversity and behaviour
  • addressing bullying in schools.

Education White Paper 6 (special needs education): Building an inclusive education and training system

Barriers to learning and participation in schools in South Africa arise from: socio-economic deprivation, negative attitudes to and stereotyping of difference, an inflexible curriculum, inappropriate languages or language of learning and teaching, inappropriate communication, inaccessible and unsafe built environments, inappropriate and inadequate support services, inadequate policies and legislation, the non-recognition and non-involvement of parents, and inadequately and inappropriately trained education leaders and teachers. Previously marginalised and disadvantaged schools in South Africa face particular challenges. Overcrowded classrooms, poverty stricken communities and a lack of resources place a strain on teachers that cannot be ignored, and all these factors are also counterproductive to the implementation of inclusive practices.
Department of National Education, Pretoria, 2001


Working and social patterns in every school are influenced by the style of leadership. School principals have a considerable impact on the way teachers and other role-players are prepared to embrace change, new perspectives and practices. Democratic, transformative leadership promotes collaborative problem solving and sustainable transformation. In two of the schools, the leadership style made implementation of the Index difficult; while the third is thriving due to the principal’s democratic leadership.

Parental involvement

The South African Schools Act (1996) acknowledges the rights of parents to play an active role in the learning process of their children. Yet, traditionally, parents tended to be excluded from participating in their children’s education. White Paper 6 stresses that the active involvement of parents in the teaching and learning process is central to effective learning and development.

If parents are to become involved in their children’s education, however, they would have to be invited, motivated and empowered. The role of the principals in two of the schools was a major barrier to greater parental involvement. Their autocratic leadership styles caused tension and unhappiness; parents did not trust them and did not feel welcome in the schools.

Professional development

The management teams and teachers in some previously disadvantaged communities still struggle to accept ownership for their own professional development and growth. They have been disempowered to such an extent during the previous exclusionary regime in South Africa that they tend not to acknowledge their own abilities, know-how and the fact that they do have at least some of the answers at their disposal. This seriously threatens the sustainability of the Index process in the two schools with autocratic leadership.

Article written by: Petra Engelbrecht, Senior Director of Research, and Marietjie Oswald, both at University of Stellenbosch; Chris Forlin, Hong Kong Institute of Education. Research conducted in collaboration with: Christell de Koker and Michelle Munro, University of Stellenbosch; and Leon de Jager and Abri Arendse, Western Cape Education Department, South Africa.

Contact Petra: Private Bag X1, Matieland, South Africa. Email:

* For more information on the Index, visit or ask EENET