M-decree viewed through the South African lens of inclusion

From October 24-28, 2016, a South African delegation of education experts visited Flanders for an in-depth exchange on inclusive education. VVOB connected this group with a variety of players in the Flemish educational field, resulting in a wide variety of mutually inspiring learning experiences. Everyone agreed on one thing: the question is not whether education should be inclusive, but rather how it can be made as inclusive as possible. Moreover, it has become clear that inclusion must be embedded in a broader diversity policy.

The M-decree of 21 March 2014 for children with special educational needs is still applied in schools in Flanders today, to ensure children with a disability or learning impairment have a place in the regular school system (as of  September 1, 2022, the M-decree will be replaced by the learning support decree, which will be phased in with the associated new learning support model, ed.) South Africa already started with the implementation of its White Paper 6, which prescribes inclusive education for all children with any learning difficulty, in 2001. Both Flanders and South Africa are experiencing challenges in the realisation of inclusive education, but also have successes to celebrate.

Who is who? 

“I noticed that in Flanders there is still a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about the way forward. And that diversity, in particular, is also a major challenge for Flanders.”- Robyn Beere, Director Inclusive Education South Africa

“In South Africa, parents play a central role in the decision-making process and the guidance of children with special learning needs, much more so than in Flanders.” - Philile Mbatha, Head Inclusive Education of Mpumalanga Province South Africa

“We should not associate inclusive education only with children with disabilities. Learners may also encounter external learning barriers, such as language or socio-economic barriers.” - Mirna Nel, Professor Inclusive Education, North-West University (NWU), South Africa

“Flanders is lagging behind in inclusive education policy at the international level, but the M-decree has created a momentum that Flanders should really make use of.” - Marie Schoeman, Head of the Inclusive Education Department of the Federal Ministry of Primary Education

“In South Africa, training still remains too much of a talking shop. The co-teaching approach used in Flanders is very interesting in practical terms.” - Bukelwa Qwelane, Head of the Inclusive Education Department of the Free State Province

A walk through the Flemish educational landscape

The South African delegation was presented with a full and diverse programme. To get a taste of the Flemish school system, participants accompanied educational personnel during their daily inclusive work, such as a teacher trainer supervising a student during a class session, a researcher attending a meeting about a research proposal on 'inclusive education', and a pedagogical advisor coaching teachers. Throughout the week, the delegation also visited several schools that are each, in their own unique way, making inclusion a success story.


In a workshop organised by GO! Education of the Flemish Community, each delegation member spoke about inclusive education to small groups of pedagogical supervisors and future students. They shared their experiences, vision and lessons learned with each other and reflected on similarities and differences between the education systems. Topics ranged from the role of in-service teacher training, which is compulsory in South Africa, to the advantages and disadvantages of an education system that grants schools a great deal of autonomy (as in Flanders) on the one hand, and an education system that works very prescriptively (as in South Africa) on the other.

The next day, the focus was on pedagogical supervisors' challenging role in the journey towards a fully inclusive education system. The delegation was invited to participate in a learning day on competence guidance, organised by the pedagogical guidance services. At the plenary session, Marie Schoeman outlined the South African education system, which was followed by a workshop with Robyn Beere and Mirna Nel elaborating on the dangers of labelling children with certain learning disabilities. The delegation also held a meeting with researchers from Ghent University and Arteveldehogeschool, who are associated with Potential-Power to teach all, an inter-university cooperation on (student) teacher competences for inclusive education.

Panel discussion ‘One year of M-decree: what can we learn from South Africa?’

A high point was the popular and inspiring panel discussion with Marie Schoeman, Mirna Nel and Robyn Beere, as well as Ann Martin (director of the Odisee teacher training college), Mieke Leroy (parent with direct experience), Elisabeth De Schauwer (professor at Ghent University) and Inge Ranschaert (educational supervisor at Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen with direct experience). Marijke Wilssens (Arteveldehogeschool and Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen) was an excellent moderator.

The panel was presented with five propositions on which they, as well as the audience, could vote.

1. Inclusive education can only work if there is an inclusive policy

The audience and the panel unanimously agreed with this statement. Inge Ranschaert said: "The M-decree is a necessary first step, but the policy should also be clear about where we want to be twenty years from now." Marie Schoeman also thought a broad inclusion policy was necessary to build on: "But in addition, a society also needs financial and social support for inclusive education." Ann Martin agreed: "Funding reflects vision, but the vision for inclusion is missing in Flanders."

2. When resources are scarce, the focus should be on all children rather than on particular target groups

In contrast to the broad inclusion policy in South Africa that embraces every child and all types of learning disabilities, the M-decree focuses mainly on children with disabilities. "Sometimes I am embarrassed when I look at countries that are doing much more about inclusion with far fewer resources," Elisabeth De Schauwer started. "After all, it's about our children and the extent to which they can participate at school and in society. That is why we must have the courage to make the special education system a support system for all schools. But the mind-set is simply missing." Marie Schoeman thinks financial concerns in Flanders are a poor excuse: "You have far greater resources than South Africa. As they say where I grew up: you are complaining while holding a loaf of white bread under your arm!"

3. Inclusive education can only succeed if all teachers are trained, both pre-service and in-service

In South Africa, in-service training is compulsory, but not in Flanders. But does this not undermine the chances of success of inclusive education? According to Mirna Nel, it does: "Teachers need to be given the tools to correctly identify learning barriers. Once there is a better understanding, a mind shift will follow." Robyn Beere also found in-service training essential for teachers to be able to address diversity: "Teaching is not a static profession but must always take into account and respond to changes in  society." What about future teachers? Inge Ranschaert was clear: "Diversity should be the starting point in teacher training from day one."

4. Parents fighting in uncertainty for inclusive education for their child can pave way for vulnerable parents and their children

Parents determined to get their child with a disability into mainstream education may be more advanced in their struggle than parents with less time, knowledge or resources. "There is uncertainty about how to involve parents in the implementation of the M-decree, but they are indispensable," acknowledged Elisabeth De Schauwer. Robyn Beere emphasised the role of parents as a valuable resource: "After all, they know from their experiences at home how their child performs best. Use that knowledge!" Mieke Leroy is the mother of Wout, a boy with Down syndrome: "Thanks to Wout's presence, my son's schoolmates grow up with an open attitude and a rich perception of diversity.”

5. Inclusive education only works in an ideal situation with two teachers, one of whom has received specific training

At first glance, co-teaching in Flanders seems an ideal and simple solution, but Marie Schoeman nuances: "I think co-teaching is a useful strategy in transition periods, but it should not be a requirement in the longer term. The entire panel agrees that teachers should not feel that they can never do it alone. As Robyn Beere says: "Inclusive teaching is good teaching, and good teaching is inclusive teaching. No matter how diverse a class is, every teacher needs to be able to manage it well to make sure that every child learns.”

A visit to the Children's Rights Commissioner

The exchange week ended with an animated visit to Flemish Children’s Rights Commissioner at that time, Bruno Vanobbergen, and policy advisor Jean Pierre Verhaeghe.

The South African delegation was particularly fascinated by his role as children's ombudsman, which does not exist in South Africa. Marie Schoeman, in particular, was very interested and said she was greatly inspired heading back to her desk at the Department of Primary Education.

Seven tips for inclusion

The South African delegation visited different types of players in the education field who, from their specific perspectives on education, each brought a unique focus to the discussions. While the various educational support services highlighted teachers' resistance to the M-decree, the delegation spoke with school leaders from inclusive schools about flexible teaching methods that address all types of learning barriers, and with the Children's Rights Commissioner about education as a basic right.

The delegation's visit to Flemish educational institutions and the panel discussion resulted in a number of diverse tips for school leaders, teachers, teacher trainers, supervisors and experience experts in Flanders to work with to make inclusive education a reality for all children experiencing learning difficulties, not just for children with disabilities.

1. Develop your skills
2. Discuss and learn from colleagues           
3. Increase parents' involvement in school policies
4. Appreciate diversity in the classroom (peer learning)
5. Value every talent
6. Be flexible about language
7. Ensure a smooth transition to higher education levels

Best practice

Get inspired by the way in which South Africa is building more and better inclusive education. In this video, Robyn Beere outlines the situation in South Africa and presents her team from Inclusive Education South Africa (IESA). They talk about how their programmes aim to create an inclusive culture, where children from different backgrounds and with all kinds of learning difficulties feel welcome in an inclusive environment, so they can develop into active citizens who will one day be part of this inclusive society.

Mirna Nel's message on inclusive education.
Watch this video about inclusive schools in South Africa that, despite difficulties and with limited resources, manage to create an inclusive culture where diversity is recognised as a valuable resource and every child is supported to realise their full potential.