University of Edinburgh

Newsletter No 11: Spring 2001

Inclusion classes in USA, Austria and Italy

by Marianna Buultjens

Over the course of this school year I have had the privilege of seeing inclusion in action in three different countries: USA, Austria and Italy. Educational systems differ one from the other, and even within the one country, especially if there is a federal system of government, one state can vary in its interpretation of policy from another. Bearing in mind these caveats, are there any lessons that Scotland can learn from examples of inclusion in other countries?

The first school visited was Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, DC. This school ‘seeks to meet the needs and expectations of a multicultural and multilingual community, with programs to treat diversity as an asset, (my italics) to support second language achievement and to encourage the active involvement of families. Eighty-five percent of our students are speakers of languages other than English.’ (Bancroft Elementary School leaflet: Celebrating Diversity). This is a thriving school of 600 pupils with three pre-school classes on the Head Start program. The headteacher is a dynamic but most approachable woman who inspires her committed staff. She has secured optimal public funding for her school in the very competitive environment of US educational funding system. There are many interesting aspects of this school but for the purposes of our newsletter I will confine myself to describing how the classes with children with special educational needs are provided for. I use the term ‘inclusion’ for the examples in all three countries, though ‘integration’ was used interchangeably in Austria and Italy and both words used with varying meanings in USA.

Most of the classes in the school have two teachers, one whose first language is English and one who is bilingual. Forty-seven members of the staff are bilingual with Spanish and Vietnamese being the two main languages. In inclusion classes there is a third teacher to work along with the other teacher or teachers. The headteacher was gratified by the number of her staff who have gone on to do a Master’s in special education while working in the school. The atmosphere of the inclusion classes was of relaxed and confident activity and children and staff were welcoming and friendly. There are ‘advisors’ on the staff (one young man for special needs) and the headteacher was justly proud of their success in achieving 100% attendance of parents at their parent conferences (parent evenings): ‘We believe that parent involvement with the school increases the achievement of all students’.(Ibid)

The second school, Informationhauptschule, Vienna, (ICT High School, the equivalent of a middle school), had some similarities with Bancroft Elementary. It is an inner city school with more than ninety percent of its pupils with a first language other than German. The children were mainly Turkish, Kurdish or from former Yugoslavia. This school also had a dynamic female headteacher who had built up what was a failing school into a thriving 400 school roll while other schools round about are losing pupils. The multilingual approach and support of special needs have made it popular with local parents. The headteacher had been a modern languages teacher and the visit to the school was organised as part of a symposium on languages and special needs. Classes in this school are mixed ability, as is the policy across Vienna, but with ability grouping within classes for different subjects. Visitors from the symposium spent a morning with class 2b, twelve to thirteen year olds. This was an inclusion class with twenty-two children, five of whom have special educational needs. In Austria there is a different curriculum for mainstream and for special schools. Children with special needs who attend mainstream school may follow the special school curriculum for all or for some subjects, depending on the severity of their learning difficulties or impairments. Two of the pupils in 2b followed the special curriculum for all subjects and three for some subjects. This does not mean that they cannot join in with the class lessons, but that some of the methods used will be different and they will have their own specific targets and learning outcomes. There were three teachers in the class, two high school teachers and one special needs teacher. The two lessons we saw/participated in were in preparation for a visit to Vienna’s English Theatre performance of Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ The first lesson was an English language lesson conducted entirely in the target language. The children worked in ability groups, helped by the circulating teachers, compiling the story of the play from source books and stimulus words, phrases and sentences. The five children with special needs worked according to their ability helped by the special needs teacher and the other teachers when necessary. One of them was using the only computer in the class to print out their work. All the children were engrossed in the work and quite at ease with the invasion of about 15 adults! The geography lesson continued with the theme and used English as the working language. At the end of the geography lesson, all the groups, including the special needs group, presented the outcome of their work (in English!) without bashfulness or hesitation.

After this, we had the opportunity for a discussion with the three teachers and the headteacher. They all believed passionately in their policy of inclusion and also that of using the foreign language, in this case English, as a working language for other subjects. One caveat was that before this could be done successfully they had to be sure that each child was secure in their mother tongue/first language to avoid confusing the child, as German is the second language and English would be the third. Once a week there is a ‘native-speaker’ teacher for each of the first languages, who comes to the class to make sure that children are learning and understanding the concepts taught.

Italy has had an inclusive school education policy for thirty years. There are just no special schools. I was able to visit Scuole Elementare di Loreggia (Loreggia Elementary School) near Venice and the young female headteacher very obviously found it a totally natural state of affairs to have every local child attend her school and for the school to provide whatever might be necessary in the way of additional resources or help. Class sizes are reduced to a maximum of twenty if there is a child with special needs and further reduced depending on the additional numbers or severity of learning difficulty or disability. Additional support is provided by special needs teachers who work along with the class teacher and children with additional physical disabilities have a classroom assistant provided. I saw the room which had been set up for one pupil with hemiplegia for the times he is withdrawn from the class for physiotherapy and one to one work on the computer, using switches. I also spent some time in the first class (six-year olds, as in Italy children start school a year later than in UK.) There was a little deaf boy being supported by a teacher of the deaf. This little boy’s family had just recently come from North Africa. We weren’t told the severity of his hearing loss but he was learning and participating successfully in the class lesson using listening/lip-reading and reading and writing in Italian. The oral/aural approach is the method favoured in Italy and Italian sign language is not used in schools, according to what I was told. There is generous funding for special needs in school and disability support in the community in Italy. I do know, however, that there are problems in providing continuity and appropriate support for children with more severe problems. I had been invited to Italy to speak to teachers supporting children with multisensory impairment on how to assess functional vision and use the information from this to provide appropriate support. Most special needs teachers do a general training and find it very difficult to access in-service staff development. I was told they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the needs of the children they have to support. The little boy in class one has the support of the teacher of the deaf for 11 hours in the week. Class teacher and teacher of the deaf worked well together and had time for joint preparation.

From these three examples are there any useful pointers for our situation in Scotland? Perhaps a few. A generous teacher/pupil ratio with time for joint planning and preparation produces a relaxed and confident learning environment. Acceptance and celebration of diversity of background, culture and language goes hand in hand with accepting different learning needs. Most importantly, and reassuringly, successful inclusion still relies on the industry, enthusiasm and commitment of headteacher, staff, parents and, of course, the pupils themselves.

Marianna Buultjens