With more than 3 000 special needs pupils in the Eastern Cape waiting for spaces in the few available schools, many are forced into mainstream schools – setting them up for lifelong failure.
This is according to principals at some of the 13 special needs schools in Port Elizabeth, where waiting lists can reach hundreds at any given time.
Making matters worse for these schools is the fact that, while the provincial Department of Education supplies teachers, no provisions are made for other much-needed staff members – scribes for those who cannot write, remedial teachers and occupational therapists, among others.
In answer to a parliamentary question last month, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that nationally 9 606 special needs pupils had not yet been placed in schools.
Facing by far the greatest problem is the Eastern Cape, where 3 244 pupils are without schools.
With only 13 state facilities in the Bay area, the number of special needs pu- pils far exceeds the facilities and teachers available to them.
Additionally, boarding facilities are desperately needed as many children in rural areas cannot access schools because none are available in their areas.
Merryvale principal Mario Engelbrecht said: “We need to face the fact that children with special needs cannot follow ordinary programmes at ordinary schools.
“Pupils need to acquire skills that will equip and allow them to be independent at least by the age of 18,” she said.
“At schools such as ours, we focus on giving the children life skills which prepare them for life ahead.
“It is unfortunate that we don’t have [space] for a bigger intake each year. Already we are sitting with a waiting list of about 150 children.
“Our hostel accommodates about 60 children and our classes are not bigger than 13 because the ratio should be about 1:10 [one teacher to 10 pupils].
“We are very aware of the demand but we have children who need individual and special attention so we cannot have classes with a lot of kids in them.”
Cape Recife principal Jacques Hugo said the school had been feeling the strain of inadequate help from the department.
“We have about 412 children at our school – vulnerable children who need individual attention, so we’ve in a way come up with solutions on our own,” he said.
“We do a lot of fundraising. The money goes towards hiring new staff for pupils who are physically challenged and can’t do much for themselves – like a scribe for a child who can’t write, and more occupational therapists.
“The government does not provide that,” Hugo said.
“Also, we’ve taken some of the space initially meant for hostels and put it to use for teaching and other activities that need the space.”
The operations director at the Victory Kids private centre, Zeidie-Lee Muller, said due to the desperate need, the school was looking at expanding. At present it caters for 30 pupils. “Victory Kids has been running for the past 12 years and is an early intervention centre for kids with autism, Down Syndrome, speech delays and any other special needs,” Muller said.
“We have about eight kids to a teacher who [during] the day get a oneon-one session, an individual education plan, and therapy.
“We are a nonprofit organisation and we have five to six parents calling in each day asking for space for their kids.
“Hopefully, next year we will be looking at about 40 children.
“Parents call from Mthatha, East London and other parts of the Eastern Cape.
“Unfortunately we do not have boarding facilities but we are very aware of the expansion that needs to take place.”
Education spokesman Malibongwe Mtima acknowledged that more schools were needed and said the department was working on solutions.
“Khanyisa [school for the blind] and Quest [for autistic pupils] were upgraded and expanded between 2014 and last year, he said.
“Six schools are being established in areas where there are no special schools – Cradock, Butterworth, Mount Fletcher, Fort Beaufort and Libode.”
Mtima said the Mount Fletcher school was already operational and had admitted 73 pupils. A mainstream school in East London was being converted into a special needs school, with 113 pupils now enrolled.