Sweden has taken a move away from the international trend in special needs which is preoccupied with how more inclusive learning environments can be created. Instead the Swedish system seems to be heading towards more segregated educational solutions.
The issue of inclusive education has a long history by now but it seems important to scrutinize the main arguments for and against inclusion as well as the empirical evidence bearing on this issue when inclusion becomes challenged as in the case of Sweden.
Two positions on inclusive education
On the one hand, we have those who believe that placement in ordinary classes is a matter of democracy and rights. On the other hand, we have those who advocate placement in ordinary classes if it is proven to be more effective.
Many thus believe that it is a democratic and human right for students in different types of difficulties / with disabilities to be allowed to participate in the ordinary school environment. Throughout history, people with disabilities have been more marginalized than perhaps any other group in society and have been relegated to institutions and special solutions on the side.
This marginalization has been criticized on ethical and political grounds. The Norwegian researcher Peder Haug (1998) has perhaps most thoughfully developed these arguments in relation to the development of the school in the welfare state. Haug, like the European Commission presently, see inclusion almost as a prerequisite for building a democratic society. Students should not be singled out and expelled but be part of a community in school that prepares for active participation in a democratic society.
Many further argue that other students learn from the fact that students in difficulty are present in the classroom by becoming more alert to and tolerant of the fact individuals are different. It is further argued that teachers can learn a lot from working with students in different types of difficulties provided that they receive the right support and help.
The efficiency position fits well with the philosophy of New Public Management and its economic metaphors where educational achievement is the main currency in which the school is evaluated. The arguments for inclusion are based on the idea that students in difficulties / with disabilities going to regular classes will be stimulated by the other students thus raising their educational achievement. Correspondingly, it is believed that special educational groups and resource schools set too low requirements and dilute curricula.
Arguments against students in difficulties/with disabilities going to regular classes
These arguments have often been based on the premise that segregated educational solutions are for the pupils’ own good. In this way pupil in difficulties/with disabilities must be saved from the prejudices of society and also have an educational situation tailored to their specific needs. Small and quiet environments with persons specially trained to take care of / teach these students are deemed to be beneficial for them.
These students’ needs will thus be met by creating adapted special environments. These special environments also provide opportunities to meet other students in the same situation and to make friends.
It is further often claimed that placement in a small group is time-limited, a way to prepare students to be able to function in the regular class.
In the school context, the argument has sometimes been that pupils in difficulties/with disabilities create problems for the other students, even though it (so far) has been difficult to express such an opinion in public in Sweden. Such arguments are most often used when it comes to students who disturb the order in the school.
An additional argument for segregated educational solutions is that it has proved difficult to create environments that is genuinely inclusive in ordinary classrooms.
What about research?
The main conclusion from research is that placing pupils in difficulties in regular classes does not seem to affect their performance negatively. However, it should be pointed out that this field of research faces several methodological challenges so one should be very cautious when drawing conclusions. Research further shows that teachers and parents are generally not entirely positive to inclusion, but their attitudes are often not related to the nature of the environment in which the pupil is placed (see below which factors are usually pointed out as essential for creating an inclusive environment). It is thus difficult to draw any major conclusions from these studies of attitudes.
It should be pointed out that the research I have invoked here has largely been conducted on the basis of the efficiency position. Many who advocate the placement of students in difficulty in regular classes believe that it is not an empirical question whether such a placement is good or not since participation in regular education is a fundamental democratic right. An analogy can clarify: We do not mean that it is an empirical question whether the public's voting rights are good, but it is something we value as such.
It sounds strange when the politicians who have been responsible for the development of the Swedish school system in recent years claim that "inclusion" has gone too far, when it is a fact that the Swedish educational system has become increasingly segregated. From being seen by many as an international forerunner, not least in terms of equivalence, the Swedish system has become increasingly divided. This applies both when we look at educational performance and when we look at who end up in the same schools and classrooms. Housing segregation and school choice are important factors behind this development.
However, it is not this segregation that is meant by the statement that “inclusion has gone too far” but the question of where students with disabilities / in other types of difficulties should get their education. It is obvious to many that the Swedish school system has not succeed in creating the necessary environments for many of these students, even if we must not forget that some good educators have succeed well in integrating students with difficulties in ordinary classrooms.
It is, according to most, a lot of factors that must be at hand for a placement in a regular class to succeed for pupils in need of special support / with a disability: visions, adapted teaching and assessment, acceptance, support, resources, well-developed leadership and a working collaboration student health-special educator / special teacher-teacher to name the most important factors. If all these factors are present and it still does not seem to work with a placement in a regular class for a pupil, naturally other educational solutions such as a smaller group should be considered.
It is the case that these environments have been not been at hand for many pupils in the Swedish school system. Thus, the need to segregate is probably more a sign of the lack of system difficulties rather than the occurrence of pupils who are, almost by nature, impossible to include. It becomes cynical to say that inclusion has gone too far if the problem is that teachers and students do not get the support they need.
A hypothesis that seems to have some support is that the free choice of school means that students with disabilities risk being seen as a burden and are being excluded by schools and / or other parents / students. That free school choice also meant to opt out of others was one of several aspects that were not given the necessary consideration when introducing free school choice in the Swedish school system.
The fact that some independent schools also focus on students in need of special support (e g students with NPF) can also increase the proportion of segregated solutions in the Swedish system. From the democracy perspective on inclusion advocated by, for example, Haug and the European Commission, this whole development is of course very worrying.
The focus in the Swedish school system is on goal fulfillment (knowledge goals). The idea that students in different types of difficulties will find it easier to achieve the knowledge goals in smaller groups is however something that is not supported by the research as discussed above. It could be argued that placement in smaller groups means that responsible politicians do not have to address more general problems in the Swedish school system.
It is a little bit frightening that the Swedish school system is becoming increasingly divided based on categories such as class, ethnicity and functionality. To a large extent, we have regained what the Swedish educational professor Tomas Englund so aptly called "the paradise lost", that is, parts of the bourgeoisie's dream of a return to the old parallel school system. The lifeline that many Swedish school politicians seem to stick to is that if more students reach the knowledge goals, then the crisis identified is over. Although I am the first to emphasize the importance of basic knowledge, there are two major problems with that attitude.
Firstly, there is a lack of a more basic analysis of knowledge and its role in schooling and, secondly, there is a risk of missing other basic goals such as increasing the pupils desire to learn, to educate for democracy, the development of virtues as responsibility, personal development (which is a value many teachers highlight), promotion of community and last but not least the promotion of health.
It is lastly important to point out the almost non-existent trust in the political governance that seem to exist among Swedish teachers. It is frightening that about only one in ten teachers has confidence in school politicians.