It’s not enough to attach a label

By Heinrich Greving, January 2014

Putting all pupils in an inclusion class is a long way from achieving inclusion. It makes greater sense to maintain various school types but to make the transition from one to the other easier.

Picture: © Charlotte Fischer

A contribution from a sociological perspective

The teaching in inclusion classes can sideline pupils. That becomes apparent in inclusive schools in which the classes for the children with a so-called disability are separated from those for the other children by a park. The former classes contain little guidance or preparation for work. In a research project of the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Münster, students undertook a survey of teachers in an inclusion-oriented (special-needs) school which was aiming to become inclusive and found that they hardly even knew for which fields of work they could prepare their pupils. Many of the teachers did not believe that the pupils would be able to hold down a job. Logically such lessons do not lead into a communicative and cooperative space but leave the pupils in a situation of exclusion. Such school and education processes reproduce phenomena of social inequality.

An educational progression which has already been interrupted quite early on leads to further social inequalities. Gender differences and inequality related to origin also have a clear effect on education. Thus for example far fewer pupils with a migration background move on to more academically oriented secondary schools after primary school. Furthermore, the quota moving from first stage secondary education to second stage secondary education is significantly lower.

The exclusive character of our education system can be seen particularly in the transitions between the various school forms. What happens in class also reflects the structures of society. If a society primarily displays exclusive patterns of behaviour, they are also reflected in the school forms. That is shown in the empirical surveys on the permeability of the different schools: it is rarely the case that pupils in special-needs and lower secondary schools find their way into higher education. This is significantly easier to achieve for pupils in more academic types of secondary school. A similar thing can be said about pupils with a so-called migration background: they move more rarely from primary school to secondary schools with an academic orientation than children who are not from a migration background. “On the one hand, a large part of the inclusion effect is dependent less on formal than on actual openness and permeability of the education system. This, in turn, is only partly determined within the education system. It frequently tends to be external prerequisites which determine the incentives and actual opportunities of access to education,” the Tübingen sociologist Stefan Hillmert says.

Inclusion must thus be seen as “a challenge for schools to develop” (Schwohl/Sturm) in general. This means that the education policy framework with regard to inclusion must be queried and changed as necessary (Herz). It is not enough to claim that inclusion is necessary and important for everyone in the school sector and at the same time sweep differential measures for people with disabilities off the table with a stroke of the pen by abandoning financial, staff, building and conceptional measures and transferring them to the mainstream (school) sector – such an approach turns inclusion into a model for budget cuts in education policy at regional and local level. Inclusion understood wrongly in this way masks latent hostility towards people with disabilities and without thinking gives it encouragement.

Homogeneity – ability – selection

If we believe the Hamburg education researcher Helmut Richter, ordinary education is made up of three phenomena: homogeneity, ability and selection. Homogeneity appears to promote performance, heterogeneity reduces it so that groups who take people with disabilities into their learning processes are deemed to reduce performance – which brings a range of problems with it. However, the discussion about homogeneity has itself not been homogenous in the last twenty years; various studies have produced various results. There does nevertheless appear to be a consensus that homogenous teaching structures reflect political and sociological societal processes. Society (if such a thing exists at all) appears to prepare pupils for the basic orientation that they will be judged by performance. The economic processes in society are performance-oriented and schools are meant to prepare pupils for that – something which they indeed do!

Neither can ability be judged in isolation from the society in which it is meant to be applied. Whether and how ability is exploited, whether ability may even be genetically determined – all these things are the subject of debate. Here it must be noted, however, that “the question about the constitutional origin of ability is always methodologically connected inseparably with the culturally determined purpose of ability” (Richter). Ability is relative and how it is measured determines inclusion or exclusion.

Not having selection at the level of the education system transfers the problem to the next highest level and leads to entry controls at the transition to the subsequent education system: if differences in the various educational needs are denied, there is a lack of permeability in the next highest system.

The whole organisational form of schools and the way teaching is structured must be understood as a mirror of society: if the latter contains mechanisms of exclusion, they will also be found in school. If, however, school reacts to society’s exclusion mechanisms with a cooperative educational approach, if for example it offers practice placements in collaboration with local industry and tries to ensure a successful transition from school to working life, if it organises common lessons for all groups of pupils about common subjects (as proposed by Georg Feuser years ago) and similar things, it could happen that heterogeneous school forms can indeed contribute to realising inclusive mechanisms for everyone involved – and that applies particularly also with regard to people with the most severe disabilities. All school forms must thus attempt to ensure that it is possible to move between them, for example between special-needs school and basic secondary school, so that pupils can obtain a higher level of educational qualification or can prepare in good time for working life.

About the author: Dr. Heinrich Greving is professor of special-needs education at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Münster as well as of education for people with disabilities at Hamburg University.