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Savings behind decline in special needs classes, says teachers’ union

Spending cuts rather than inclusion and equality are behind the move to place special needs learners in regular classrooms, the OAJ charged.

Image: Carmela Walder / Yle

Increasing numbers of children in need of special teaching support are being taught in large mainstream classes, says the teachers’ union OAJ.

In 2017 just under one-fifth of all primary school students received varying levels of special support in school. The numbers reflect a doubling in the number of children who receive special support in school over the past two decades.

Researchers have attributed the phenomenon to different reasons. On the one hand growing inequality and a plethora of distractions in society have resulting in children having difficulty concentrating. At the same time learning difficulties are being detected, diagnosed and documented more readily than before.

Whatever the reason, a growing number of primary school students are being placed in regular large classrooms instead of smaller groups intended for children who need special support.

Aalto University researchers said that a reduction in the number of special needs classes and the move to transfer special needs students to larger mainstream groups has added to the problem of students needing special support in class. In some cases, they said, teachers may have classes of up to 50 students, one-third of whom may need special support. 

Inclusion a "beautiful idea"

The move to locate special needs children in larger groups has been a deliberate choice by education officials and is part of a drive toward an “inclusion”-based approach to education. The principle proposed that everyone has the right to be taught in a regular class environment and that being placed in a special class should be an exception.

The goal is to ensure equality in schools so that no one is stigmatised because they need more support than others.

It is a beautiful idea, said one teacher who gave her name as Hanna. “We have to accept all kinds of people, teachers and students. You can’t say that you work with only a certain type of person,” she added.

However the truth may be quite different, said the teachers’ union OAJ. It attributes the new guideline to money. It noted that at the same time that the number of children requiring special learning support is growing, many municipalities are struggling with financial difficulties.

Special education costly

It is costly to upkeep special education schools and special needs classes and that creates pressure to transfer such students to larger general classes. This is being done in the name of inclusion, but the motive is also the desire to cut spending, said OAJ specialist Päivi Lyhykäinen.

“Absolutely. Children have been moved from special classes to general teaching groups but it may be because the school doesn’t have a single special needs teacher. When you don’t have enough teachers, you cannot provide support,” Lyhykäinen continued.

The OAJ has proposed changes to the laws governing the provision of primary education to address the problem. First, it wants the central government to relieve municipalities of the responsibility for funding special needs teaching.

In addition, it wants the law to include stronger provisions for the right to groups providing more support for learning as well as quotas stipulating the number of hours of special needs teaching institutions should provide.

The teachers’ interest group said that under current legislation, access to special needs education relies too heavily on municipalities’ financial situation.

“This way [children] would not be in different situations depending on the municipality in which you happened to be born or live,” Lyhykäinen added.