Ending Segregated Education: European Commissioner Calls Out Vested Interests in “Special Education”

By Catia Malaquias, 8 October 

At Starting With Julius, we have often said that we can’t expect the existing education system and those invested in it to drive the cultural and structural change necessary for a genuinely inclusive education system that is welcoming and supportive of students with disability – Governments and elected politicians must show social leadership on inclusive education (see “Creating Inclusion – Where to turn for Leadership?”).

Further, Starting With Julius has emphasised the need for the Australian Government to provide the Australian community, and particularly families with children with disability, with evidence-based information as to the relative academic, social and independence benefits of students with disability learning alongside, with and from their same-age non-disabled peers in regular classrooms (see “Choosing Segregated Education – Parental Choice or Parental Concession?”)

Last month the European Commissioner on Human Rights released a position paper entitled “Fighting School Segregation in Europe through Inclusive Education”.  The paper notes that:

“Separate schooling of children with disabilities is a widespread practice across Europe notwithstanding the fact that Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) imposes on states a duty to ensure that children with disability can access ‘an inclusive, quality and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which the live.'” [p7]

The same is true of Australia, where segregated education settings have in fact increased over the last decade relative to regular classroom settings.

While inclusive education is usually discussed by recognising its benefits for students with disability whilst emphasising that it does not prejudice the “integrity” of the general education system or compromise the learning of non-disabled peers, the European Commissioner argues that the status quo – the segregation of students in special schools, support units or quarantined to the corner of mainstream classrooms – in fact compromises the performance of the general education system:

“Available studies indicate that school segregation has negative implications not only for minority or vulnerable students themselves but also jeopardises the overall performance of education. Tackling school segregation is not only necessary to safeguard the right to education and equality in the education systems, but also key to improving the effectiveness and performance of the education system as a whole. … The countries with the highest index of social inclusion in schools … are also the ones that performed best in the mathematics test in the PISA 2012 survey.  These results are attributed to the ‘peer effect’, namely the positive outcome derived from the fact that students with learning difficulties benefit from sharing the educational space with their more advantaged peers. … Conversely, a high concentration of students with learning difficulties in the same [segregated] classroom lowers educational quality and the expectation of teachers regarding their pupils’ potential for progress.” [p13]

The European Commissioner candidly identified as a key factor in the entrenchment of segregated education the resistance of the incumbent system and associated “vested interests”:

“Strong vested interests in the area of education can explain a certain passivity on the part of states in tackling segregated education. Decision-makers and political leaders, school administrations, teachers and families can sometimes actively resist changes that may alter situations of relative privilege in education.  The capacity of these actors to articulate their demands and to raise their criticism of government policies is much higher than the ability of vulnerable families to fight for the right of their children to education.

The reluctance to include childen with disabilities is exacerbated by the wide margin of discretion which schools often enjoy when it comes to providing reasonable accommodations to these children so that they have access to education on an equal footing with others.  Schools often put forward economic arguments to deny these children the specific support they require to be able to access mainstream education.

Financial arrangements can also strengthen resistence against desegregation, especially as far as special education is concerned. Professional groups involved in special education, such as teachers, psychologists and testing centres frequently oppose desegregation in order to protect vested interests.” [pp 10-11]

In other words, the incumbent industry of “special needs” – the “special” education providers, medical and allied health practitioners invested in treating “special needs”, the parent media platforms that sell segregation as “special” etc – are also compromising the necessary transition to inclusive education, notwithstanding the research evidence.

After 5 years of assessing and being disappointed with “on the ground” compliance within Europe with Article 24 of the UNCRPD, the European Commissioner on Human Rights has released a ‘road map’ to the desegregation of education. One key recommendation is the raising of community awareness by Governments and politicians of the benefits of inclusive education:

“One of the main obstacles to school desegregation is the lack of awareness in society about the importance of inclusive education for social cohesion. Therefore, launching campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of school segregation, and at the same time to stress the multiple benefits of inclusive education on aspects such as educational performance, reduction of school dropout, labour market integration and social cohesion, can have a positive impact on the attitudes and expectations of society as a whole. …

Furthermore, inclusive education requires a mentality shift at a societal level, from seeing certain children as a problem to identifying existing needs and improving the education systems themselves.  It is crucial that society at large, decision-makers and all the actors involved in the field of education fully understand the need for this paradigm shift.

Explaining inclusive education and raising awareness of its importance must therefore be integrated into the political discourse.” [pp 21-22]

Another key recommendation of the European Commissioner, also lacking in Australia, is the adoption of national desegregation strategy:

“States tend to be more reactive than proactive when facing problems of educational exclusion and school segregation, an approach which is not likely to result in structural and sustainable changes.  They should instead adopt comprehensive desegregation strategies with clear targets, sufficient resources to implement them and a clear and ambitious timetable. The commitment to desegregation should be supported at the highest level of state authorities.” [p20]

We in Australia, like Europe, cannot look to the education system to reform itself.  Further, we cannot look to the conflicted “special education” system, and the “special needs” industry built around it, to lead that reform.  Australia is guilty of trusting both of these avenues to deliver a better outcome for students with disabilities – the result, not surprisingly, has been a relative increase in segregated education.

It is time for our political leaders to arrest and reverse the slide to the greater segregation of those that would benefit most from being educated inclusively alongside and with their non-disabled peers in regular classrooms representative of their communities.

The right to receive an inclusive education is a fundamental human right of our children – it is not a right to be compromised by weak leadership and vested interests.

[Cover photo © Aman Bhargava]

Thank you for visiting our website.  You can also keep up with our mission for #edinclusion by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter @StartingWJulius