Blue Jeans. White blouse. Bright smile. Hair tied up into a ponytail. At first glance, there is no significant difference that makes the petite ten year old with the green framed glasses stand out of the dozens of fifth graders excitedly waiting in the crowded assembly hall. It is Alina’s first day at secondary school and although she has never been to this overwhelmingly huge campus before, she has probably caused more trouble than her naughtiest classmates ever will. The reason might be irreversible yet conspicuous, as she has not done anything wrong. Alina simply has Down’s syndrome.
Alina might be fictitious, but she symbolizes what many students with special educational needs experience in the German school system on a daily basis, particularly in the western state of Germany, North Rhine Westphalia, as education here is regulated by the state.
In North Rhine Westphalia, around 28.6% of the students with a special need in education already attend a regular school instead of a school for children with special needs, which is just below the national average of 31.4%. This appears as quite a small number, considering that according to the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, those children have the right to sit in the same classroom as all the other children their age.
Based on this UN right, the North Rhine Westphalian state government passed a law in November 2013 allowing parents of children with special needs to choose on their own behalf whether to enroll their children in a regular school or a specialized school for children with special needs.
Before Alina and the other children with special needs came to the school, there was a huge debate going on. Parents were worried their ‘normal’ children were going to be neglected, students were intimidated by stories of ‘the savage and aggressive disabled’ and teachers did not know how to work with the children who were soon going to sit in their classrooms. Teacher education does not cover teaching students with special needs; aspiring teachers for children of special need to attend a totally different university course of usually 12 semesters. Just before the summer holidays, there was a special topic day on inclusive learning and there were workshops for both, teachers and students. Still, almost no one felt prepared for the upcoming school year, and no one really knew what to expect.
One could say that the new law hit the North Rhine Westphalian schools by surprise as there was less than a year between the passing of the law and the beginning of the first classes inclusive of special needs students. Schools were almost forced to take in students with special needs, as they did not have the choice of not participating in inclusive education due to the new law. There was no ‘master plan’ and professional support was rather insufficient, so the schools had to deal with the programming for inclusive classes on their own.
Cluelessness leads to insecurity, which led to doubt and doubt leads to fear. Fear leads to rumors and rumors lead to even more cluelessness. It is a vicious circle, which makes it even harder for schools to find a proper way of establishing a steady curriculum for inclusive classes. Also, as there is basically a school for every type of learner in Germany, separation is what most people have grown accustomed to. Inclusive learning is a totally new concept to the German school system.
Alina attends lessons with the other students in her class, but instead of doing all the things alone, she has a professionally pedagogically trained learning supporter on site who helps her during the lesson. Sometimes, the other children are jealous. They say Alina is cheating. But without this support, Alina would not understand what the teacher is talking about. Most of the time, she gets different tasks than her classmates, tasks adjusted to her educational level. Sometimes, especially in math, languages and science, she does not even take part in the lessons and goes to a different room with her learning supporter. While her class learns about fractions, Alina tries to count to 30. She will most likely drop out of school before her classmates graduate.
The main idea of inclusion is not tolerance. It aims not to assimilate but to truly include people with disabilities in our society. This can only be done by treating everyone equally. For the time being, this does not fall in line with what is portrayed as ‘inclusive learning’ at most schools in North Rhine Westphalia. Students with special needs are educated in different groups that are physically separated from the regular class. They often get ‘special’ support and ‘special’ work and in general, are treated in a very different way to their classmates, which is the complete opposite of what inclusion actually aims for.
When Alina comes to school in the morning, lots of children run up to her to say ‘Hi’ and to hug her. Her classmates hold the door for her while she walks around the building daydreaming, and older students help her when she gets lost on the playground. During biology class, the girls let her play with their hair. In physical education, one boy showed her how to properly throw a frisbee disk. The parents and teachers say the inclusive class has the most positive class atmosphere in the entire grade and everyone just seems very caring about each other.
Although the attempt of inclusion is headed in the wrong direction in North Rhine Westphalia, real ‘inclusion’ is needed more than ever. It is a step towards a more peaceful coexistence and more tolerance, open-mindedness and respect within our society. Those values are probably three of the most important ones to be taught to a child, especially in times of rising racism and right wing conservatives. Why do we not start early, with inclusion in primary school? However, the entire concept still needs to be developed so that both sides – with and without special needs – can benefit from it.