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Educational inclusion gets a boost in Germany

Dagmar BreitenbachJuly 1, 2015

Personal experience with educational inclusion boosts acceptance, a study presented Wednesday by Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation shows.

classroom, desks, child in wheelchair
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Anspach

68 percent of the parents whose children attend inclusive schools said they were pleased with their children's education, compared to 58 percent of parents whose children visited regular non-inclusive schools. Teachers at inclusive schools were also rated as slightly more competent, committed and supportive.

More than 4,300 parents of children aged six to 16 were polled earlier this year by Infratest dimap on behalf of the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank.

Education for all

It's not a nationwide normality in Germany, however. Only one out of three parents interviewed nationwide for the study said their child attends an inclusive school. It actually wasn't until 2009 that Germany ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The accord establishes the rights of people with disabilities to social participation, equal opportunities, accessibility and non-discrimination: contracting states must ensure that people with disabilities have access to "inclusive, quality and free lessons in primary and secondary education."

The number of children with disabilities who go to regular elementary and high schools rather than specially-established schools for the disabled is on the rise in Germany. In the 2013/14 school year, that was more than 30 percent of the roughly half a million children with special educational needs. At less than 20 percent, the percentage of disabled inclusion was significantly lower seven years ago.

Practical, strategic change

Earlier this year, a UN expert committee as well as independent monitors for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities urged all German federal states to introduce inclusive education in the mainstream education system. Faced with financial constraints and teachers not sufficiently trained for inclusion, however, many of the states have been reluctant to move on the issue.

Boy and girl, heads bowed, at desk
The goal: participation in the educational systemImage: DW/C. Rometsch

"Special educational schools often prove as a one-way street for the further development of children," the German Commission for UNESCO says on its website. "Almost three quarters of all students at special schools do not achieve a secondary modern school qualification."

Quality education regardless of special educational needs

The UN criticized that some German federal states haven't yet sufficiently changed their legislation to make room for inclusion, while others haven't tackled the issue at all. The percentage of children with disabilities now attending regular schools is highest in the states of Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein, Berlin and Brandenburg.

North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state, started inclusion in regular schools last year. The study offers "encouragement and momentum for inclusion", NRW Education Minister Sylvia Löhrmann said.

People whose children attend an inclusive school are less likely to be skeptical of inclusion, the authors of the Bertelsmann study say, adding that it makes sense to gradually extend the inclusive school system.

Bearing that in mind, it's important to train more teachers on how to teach inclusive classes, says Jörg Dräger, a member of the Bertelsmann Foundation board.

General attitudes differ

According to the study, 70 percent said it is important for society that children with and without handicaps learn together, but 60 percent felt that handicapped children would still be better off attending special schools, and one out of two people questioned said that children without handicaps are slowed down in inclusive schools.

However, "most teachers and parents want children with and without a physical handicaps to go to school together," Udo Beckmann, chairman of Germany's Education Federation (VBE), concluded. He added that it's up to politicians now to provide he necessary conditions at the schools.