In 1994, a number of representatives of different educational systems and organizations gathered in the Spanish city of Salamanca to discuss special educational issues. The result became what is commonly referred to as the Salamanca Statement (see link below), which is considered as the international breakthrough for the inclusion thought in education. The word had been used in other contexts before but now it became a keyword in the special educational field at the international level.
The Statement says in a clear way that a whole new way of looking at special educational issues is needed. Schools should become built upon the inclusion-principle. The situation where students in need of special support /with a disability attend special schools or participate in other types of segregated special education or in some instances do not attend school at all was to be radically changed. These students would now get their education in as regular a context as possible. In order for this to succeed, a large number of measures at different levels of society from policy down to the classroom need to be taken according to the Statement. If schools open up to diversity, it is also believed that a number of positive effects in other areas will be achieved:
“… regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combatting discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.” (p ix)
While the first part of the document is the statement itself, the second and by far largest part consists of pieces of advice and proposals for action at a variety of levels in order for education systems to succeed in this new way of working. The overwhelming impression is that the document is built upon principles and argumentation for those principles. Sometimes reference is made to experience, but never to specific research although probably the signers of the document mean that their convictions have support in research.
Based on the fact that inclusion is understood in different ways in different contexts, it may be a point to more specifically look at what is meant by inclusion in the document. I intend to briefly discuss two questions in relation to this: What children / students is the document concerned with? What is meant by the term an "inclusive school"?
Who is the document about?
Although in some places it is stated that inclusion is about the situation of all students, the main impression is undoubtedly that there are students in different types of difficulties that is focused by the document.
“The guiding principle that informs this framework is that schools should accomodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions. This should include disabled and gifted children, street and working children, children from remote or nomadic populations, children from linguistic, ethnic or cultural minorities and children from other disadvantaged or marginalized areas and groups.”
While the first half of the quote points to the fact that it is about students regardless of their characteristics, the groups that are explicitly mentioned are essentially defined by having problems or being marginalized in other ways. In many places, however, the document only mentions students with disabilities.
It is important to note that the placement of students in different types of difficulty in common classes is not emphasized as an absolute principle but as something that should be strived for:
“Assignment of children to special schools – or special classes or sections within a school on a permanent basis – should be the exception, to be recommended only in those infrequent cases where it is clearly demonstrated that education in regular classrooms is incapable of meeting a child´s educational or social needs or when it is required for the welfare of the child or that of other children.” (p 12)
Another section of the document states that it is difficult to establish general principles regarding exceptions to placement in ordinary classrooms and suggests that such issues must be settled on a case-by-case basis. However, the document affirms the need to create special environments for children and students in need of sign language communication.
What does the term "inclusive school" mean?
"The inclusive school" is a central expression in the document and the document often uses the phrase "the principle of the inclusive school", which is formulated as follows:
“The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together, whenever possible, regardless of any difficulties or differences they may have. Inclusive schools must recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students, accommodating both different styles and rates of learning and ensuring quality education…. “ (p 11).
I think this quote is illustrative in two ways. On the one hand, it indicates the importance underscored in the document that all pupils (although focused on students with disabilities in the document as a whole) are entitled to meet high quality education. On the other hand, it shows ambivalence in what is meant by an inclusive school.
We can read the quote as saying that the fundamental principle is defined by the fact that students are placed together, "learn together". Then, these "inclusive" schools must also act in a certain way. It is the interpretation of "must" that becomes important here. Do schools that are inclusive do these things because the authors of the Statement mean that they have to do so? Or do they have to act in this way in order to be able to call themselves inclusive? If you adhere to the latter interpretation, it could have been expressed more clearly, such as with the following wording: The fundamental principles of the inclusive school are that a) children should learn traits and b) are ensured a high quality education.
In the Salamanca Statement, the word inclusion in its various forms is thus used in an ambivalent manner. Sometimes it is used to indicate where the student gets his/her education (e.g a) above), and as in the following example:
”While inclusive schools provide a favourable setting for achieving equal opportunity and full participation, their success requires a concerted effort…” (p 11)
It seems thus theoretically possible, based on the quotation, to have failed "inclusive schools" because the quality of the education is not made into a defining part of the term. On the other hand, of course, it is understood that students should have a good situation in the "inclusive" school, but that is not what defines the term in the quotation above. In that case, one could have written: Schools have to exhibit equal opportunities and full participation in order to be labelled inclusive.
In the preface to the document written by Federico Mayor as Representative of Unicef we meet another way of using the word "inclusion":
These documents are informed by the principle of inclusion, by the recognition of the need to work towards ”schools for all” – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs. (s iii)
Mayor's text is not unambiguous either, but seems implicitly to mean that inclusive schools are defined not only because they are open to all students but also by exhibiting certain characteristics.
Thus, we encounter different ways of using the word "inclusion" and its various forms in the document, the same words thus expressing different concepts.
The Salamanca Statement - A Challenge
I have just touched on some aspects of the Salamanca Statement. In particular, I have wanted to illustrate that the document does not categorically advocate that all students should attend regular classes, although it is undoubtedly what is preferred and deviation from this should be seen as rare exceptions. I have also shown that inclusion is given different meanings in the document. But there is also much else to analyze, for example, how the relationship between ordinary teaching and special education is expressed. In this regard, the document is not as radical.