Policy engagement workshop in South Africa: Why we need many voices in the same room.

Nicole De Wet-Billings, University of the Witwatersrand

On the 15th of September 2022 we held a hybrid workshop to present the results of our research and to request engagement on our proposed policy recommendations. We were joined by representatives from the education sector, non-government organisations and researchers. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Tanya Bekker, from the Wits School of Education whose presentation on inclusive education provided a background to the education landscape in South Africa as well as highlighted the challenges and causes of the difficulties in achieving inclusive education in the country. This keynote address gave ample and thoughtful insight into the plight of children, parents and educators in general in the country. This also generated a discussion among the participants on the difficulties that migrant families experience and the role of the state in providing quality education experiences.

We then had a presentation of our research findings by Dr. Khuthala Mabetha. The presentation covered the project overview, methodology, some of the descriptive statistics from South Africa and then an extensive discussion on the themes resulting from the fieldwork. In detail, the barriers to inclusive education for refugee children with disabilities was covered. Dr. Mabetha’s presentation ended with our proposed recommendations for discussion.

The final part of our workshop was the open floor discussion on the themes. We were given extensive feedback which included unpacking our recommendations, ordering the recommendations by importance and capturing the need for policy to be better communicated, understood and practiced. With our colleagues from the Zimbabwe site in attendance, we also had a discussion about what the differences and similarities are between the two countries and had a brief discussion about what we could learn from each other moving forward.

From both the presentations and the discussion it became clear that in order to achieve inclusive education for refugee children with disabilities in South Africa, more is needed. Our main challenges relate to staff, teachers and parents not being aware of the national policy nor the requirements for refugee children to enrol in schools in the country, xenophobia and the additional costs to parents for special schools, among others. We needed to present these results to a wide-ranging audience of teachers, parents, academics and even lawyers who work with refugee and other vulnerable migrant populations because the experience and expertise of these individuals assisted our study in two ways. First, the various nods and expressions of agreement validated our research results and we discovered that we were in fact reflecting the experience of refugee children with disabilities exclusion to quality education in South Africa. Secondly, having these voices in the room allowed us to relook at our research recommendations and make these more meaningful, practical and relevant to the lived experience. With the assistance of the group we were able to reorder our recommendation be more astute in our phrasing of what needs to be done by government and civil society to improve the access and experience of education for refugee children with disabilities in South Africa.

Major considerations for policy resulting from stakeholder engagement:

  1. Access and experience of education are not separate and should both the borne in mind in equal measure when discussing the learning needs of refugee children with disabilities
  2. The policy on inclusive education as well as the rights of refugees is not well-known to parents or teachers in the country. Therefore, efforts to increase visibility and understanding of the policy need to be made.
  3. To assist with the above, efforts to reduce xenophobia and create a more inclusive environment for refugees in the country is needed. That is, at all levels of government and civil society, positive attitudes, perceptions and behaviours toward non-citizens needs to be improved.  
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