Most German schools can exclude children on the basis of physical or mental disability. Yet that contravenes a UN resolution that has now been approved by the government in Berlin. Bremen is the first city to adapt.
The UN says learning together helps children
The majority of mainstream German schools are still legally entitled to exclude physically or mentally disabled children on the basis of their handicap.
The education board in the northern city-state of Bremen has become the first to promise to stop this practice, but a federal government ruling in Berlin means that all of Germany's school authorities will soon have to follow suit.
Bremen is not abandoning the concept of specialist schools for disabled children, but it is promising not to exclude children from its mainstream schools on the basis of their disability. The only schools which the change in policy doesn't affect are the so-called 'Gymnasien' – high schools set aside for German children with top academic scores.
Bremen's senator for education, Renate Juergens-Pieper, has come under fire from the local press who say that the transition has been too hasty, and that children with special needs can be better looked after in specialist institutions.
"This argument is a typically German one," Juergens-Pieper, from the Social Democrats, said. "We have this structured school system here, in which we are constantly trying to divide kids into categories – based on their strengths, their weaknesses, and so on. Most other countries got rid of that system long ago."
Inclusion vs. specialization
Teachers with disabled children in their classrooms are to have an assistant with specialist experience, as schools try to ensure a smooth transition.
Some children can still be turned away by schools
"We have a clear mandate, we can't experiment here," said Gerd Menkens, the headmaster of Bremen's high school 'am Pfaelzer Weg', which is preparing to accept disabled children in the next school year. "The new plan simply cannot fail, legally, it must be a success." The elementary school for children aged six to 13 that is partnered with this school has already started integrating its classes.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding the incoming legislation is the possibility that disabled children could be left behind in larger classes.
"The most important thing is to teach all the children at their individual levels of performance," said Helmut Brandenburg, a father of two, one of whom is disabled. "Some schools can do that already, but an awful lot of them cannot."
"My biggest worry would be that the child was left behind, so to speak, not developing, and not integrating into the normal class. Disabled children will start on a level playing field but, if neglected, they could lose touch with the class and end up isolated."
Classrooms all across Germany will have to adapt - eventually
A recent UN report on education in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, criticized the state for failing to start implementing the decision made in Berlin early in 2009.
"The political will appears to be present," wrote the report's author, Vernor Munoz, "but there is a big difference between words and deeds."
The local minister for schools has spoken out in favor of the new legislation, but as yet there has been no local legislation to accompany this.
"It is not acceptable if children go to the same schools but are put into different classes," the report also stated.
Many schools across the country already have physically and mentally disabled students, but they have the chance to choose whom they accept, and sometimes turn away children they feel they cannot cope with.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Susan Houlton