SECTION27 notes with concern media reports this week containing allegations about the living conditions and treatment of children with disabilities at Sisizakele Special School in the Umkhanyakude District of rural northern KwaZulu-Natal. Quoting teachers and learners at the school, the report contains serious allegations that children living in hostels “are being beaten by their house mothers and are living under appalling conditions”. Specific problems alleged include the absence of beds in hostels for the last two years, poor maintenance, unhygienic living conditions and “meaningless” curriculum. We note too allegations of victimisation towards teachers who have raised concerns about the issues at Sisizakele.

SECTION27 is a public interest organisation that has been working in Manguzi, a town less than an hour away from Sisizakele Special School. We have been specifically working with a Disabled People’s Organisation for more than a year to improve access to appropriate and quality education for children with disabilities. SECTION27 presently represents 55 parents of children with disabilities in the Manguzi area. Our experience working in Manguzi has revealed the following problems facing children with disabilities in accessing education:

  • Many of the children with disabilities are either not in schools or attend schools inappropriate for their needs;
  • Children often remain on waiting lists for special schools for a number of years;
  • Children who are eventually placed at special schools must often travel far distances to get to school and are therefore often forced to stay in hostels with little parental contact or support during school terms;
  • Parents express significant concerns about the safety, education and care received by their children in special schools. This is particularly the case for parents of children with severe disabilities who are totally dependent;
  • Parents complain about high transport and hostel fees which are debilitating to them financially as a result of their reliance on social grants; and
  • Special Schools are not equipped with sufficient educator and non-educator staff to cater for the educational needs of children with varying intellectual and physical disabilities.

On 25 August 2015, SECTION27 wrote to the MEC for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education (KZNDoE) and the District Manager of the Umkhanyakude District requesting a meeting to discuss these issues and to engage the department in the development of a plan for the improvement of the provision of education for children with disabilities.  The KZNDoE has not responded to this request.

The allegations emerging from media reports, which are confirmed by SECTION27’s interaction with parents of children with disabilities in Manguzi, must be understood in the context of education for children with disabilities in the Umkhanyakude District as a whole and KwaZulu-Natal more broadly.

In a report presented to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Basic Education in June 2015, the Department of Basic Education was frank about the serious systemic challenges faced by children with disabilities in accessing quality education throughout South Africa. According to the report mere access to special schools remains a challenge for many children with disabilities, with almost 6 million children (597 953 children) with disabilities out of school. In KwaZulu-Natal, the report estimates that 137 889 children are out of school and a further 1 111 are on special schools’ waiting lists. SECTION27’s work with parents of children with disabilities in the Umkhanyakude District provides strong reason to suspect that reported waiting lists significantly underestimate the number of out of school children with disabilities in KwaZulu-Natal.

Once children manage to access special schools, the challenges revealed by the DBE’s report mirror the allegations reported in the media this week about Sisizakele Special School. The report highlights various serious problems including “extremely poor conditions” and “an alarming number of cases of abuse” in special school hostels. The report concludes that:

“there is a serious concern about the standard of curriculum delivery in special schools. There is evidence that many are simply day care centres with little attention being given to ensuring that learners have access to the National Curriculum Statement on an equal basis with all other learners in the system.”

SECTION27 calls on the KZNDoE Education to take the rights of children with disabilities to equality, dignity and basic education seriously and to take comprehensive, appropriate and urgent action.   We intend to again approach the KZNDoE in the next week to request a meeting to engage the Department in respect of the many concerns that are being raised by our clients in respect of their children and to follow up on the allegations contained in this week’s media reports about the conditions and treatment faced by learners at Sisizakele Special School.

For more information contact: Ntsiki Mpulo, 082 782 7143, mpulo@section27.org.za