Inclusion alters the whole system
Is it really possible to effectively educate children with and without special needs in the same class? Here, LMU’s Joachim Kahlert and Ulrich Heimlich discuss the results of their study of inclusive education in Bavarian schools.
The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Germany is a signatory, stipulates that children with disabilities are entitled to inclusive education at all levels. Prior to the ratification of the Convention, German schoolchildren with special educational needs owing to long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments were routinely assigned to dedicated schools, where they were taught by teachers trained to deal with their specific handicap. Now parents in Germany have the right to decide whether to send their disabled child to a mainstream school or an establishment that caters for his or her specific learning needs. Over the course of the past three years, LMU’s Joachim Kahlert and Ulrich Heimlich have studied the impact of the inclusive option on mainstream schools, and their pupils and staffs. In the course of their study, the authors visited over 70 schools in Bavaria, and interviewed pupils and their parents as well as teachers and school principals. “Building up a form of schooling that is both inclusive and effective is a complex and challenging task. It is not just a matter of providing a little supplementary support in the form of educational or diagnostic measures. It demands changes at many levels in the everyday running of the school. In fact, inclusion alters the whole nature of the school as a system,” says Ulrich Heimlich, Professor of Education for Learning Difficulties at LMU.
The results of the study demonstrate that the success of the inclusive approach is crucially dependent upon the degree of collaboration between “mainstream” teachers and specialist educators. This demands effective cooperation between teachers whose professional backgrounds are quite distinct, which in turn can transform the whole approach to teaching in mainstream schools. “The staff in an inclusive school must adapt their teaching styles to the needs of those pupils who require a specific form of presentation of the subject matter, or extra encouragement, or more detailed directives,” says Joachim Kahlert, Professor of Primary Education and Didactics at LMU. “This also promotes a greater awareness of the individual needs of each and every pupil in the class – an attitude that cannot be taken for granted in mainstream schools. Particularly in secondary schools, teaching tends to be more performance-oriented, focusing on the better pupils to ensure that the overall level of accomplishment remains high. But when the concept of inclusion is effectively implemented, the whole class benefits. Indeed, many teachers who have experienced the resulting change told us that they have no wish to go back to teaching as they once did.”
Fostering a spirit of cooperation and togetherness in the class also requires particular attention. “In inclusive classes, there are clearly marked differences in learning needs and learning ability. But such differences can be productively utilized to enrich the learning environment and enhance the learning experience for all sides,” says Heimlich. For example, some inclusive schools have introduced partnering schemes, in which pupils with special needs are paired with particular classmates. “In this way, children not only learn the subjects on the normal curriculum, they also have the opportunity of forming early relationships with disabled persons, and such experiences are invaluable.” Indeed, according to the poll carried out among teaching staff during the study, inclusion-oriented education fosters the development of trust between teachers and pupils, such that interactions in class are characterized by a spirit of mutual respect.
“Making a school truly inclusive in character is a huge challenge. There have been positive developments and we found a high degree of commitment and dedication to the task among teachers and pupils, but their working conditions need to be improved,” says Ulrich Heimlich. In particular, teachers do not have enough time to respond adequately to the greater demand for interaction and discussion with pupils, parents and special educators. Better facilities and structural modifications are urgently required, such as the provision of barrier-free access. The supply of appropriate learning materials for special-needs education is also inadequate. “Diversity poses a professional challenge for teachers, but acknowledging and embracing diversity is a matter for society as a whole. Schools can play a pioneering role in this respect, but it is not something that can be left to schools alone,” Kahlert points out.
Diverse approaches for diverse needs
As the evaluation carried out by the LMU project team shows, granting parents the right to choose the learning environment in which their child’s special needs can best be met has had a very positive impact. “The fact that more disabled children now have wider opportunities to participate in social life is certainly a good thing. However, this does not mean that attending an inclusive school is always the best option for children who have special educational needs,” Kahlert says. Children with intellectual disabilities who attend mainstream schools may run into serious difficulties when they reach the age at which peer groups begin to form, for instance. “One must always consider the individual case. Individuals differ from each other, and catering for diverse needs requires the use of diverse approaches. It is worth noting in this context that countries which decided to abolish dedicated special-education schools years ago have come to regret taking that step, because it has led to the loss of irreplaceable skills and resources.”
In Bavaria, the schools themselves decide whether or not they wish to be recognized as inclusive schools. Conversely, special-needs schools are increasing admitting children who have no learning difficulties, and some of these have now set up classes designed to accommodate such children on a permanent basis. “Many parents find this model very interesting and, in some cases, there are long waiting lists for admission. The fact that special-needs schools have emerged from their marginal niche and have become an integral part of a differentiated school system is a striking tribute to the quality of education that they offer,” says Ulrich Heimlich.
The research project on the “Development of Inclusive Schools” was designed to document and evaluate the implementation of measures to cater for the needs of disabled pupils in mainstream schools in Bavaria. The project was supervised by Professors Joachim Kahlert and Ulrich Heimlich at LMU and Professors Erhard Fischer and Reinhard Lelgemann at Würzburg University.