While in many parts of the world handicapped children go to regular schools with other children, the practice only became mainstream in Germany’s schools 10 years ago when the country ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Although the new inclusionary approach means excluding no one, in Germany it still doesn’t always work, a recent Bertelsmann Foundation study shows.
According to the study, 4.9 percent of all students in Germany attended a special school during the 2008 to 2009 school year; eight years later, the figure was still 4.3 percent — only 40,000 fewer children. Too many children with special needs, including those who have social or emotional problems, are still taught in separate schools, too few in mainstream schools.
Twelve-year-old Gunilla Grosse-Schware is lucky. She attends an inclusive private school in Cologne. About 25 children, with four to five with special needs, work together in groups from the 1st to 10th grade. “She needs contact with other children without a need for support; it’s the mixture that makes the difference,” Gunilla’s father, Bernhard, says. Teaching isn’t focused on the differences, says Angela, her mother, but instead on social skills such as confidence-building.
In public schools, handicapped children are placed in new inclusive classes in which the majority have no particular problems. A special educator then supports the teachers. “We’re very lucky because that allows us teachers to concentrate on the content of the lessons,” says Gunilla’s father, who teaches music and geography at a different school.
As with many things in Germany, the quality of inclusive education varies by state. Bremen, Berlin, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein — all in northern Germany — are especially adept at integrating special-needs children in regular schools. The worst is the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, with 6 percent of the student population at segregated schools.
Even though Germany signed the UN charter nearly a decade ago, many still see inclusive education as a burden, especially as pressure mounts to integrate refugees and teach children more digital skills. “Teachers feel extreme pressure,” says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, head of the German Teachers’ Association.
In addition, they’re dealing with a shortage of teachers: According to Meidinger’s group, the country lacks 40,000 teachers, mainly in primary and special schools. Schools also remain ill-equipped, for regular as well as handicapped children. A national development bank says the country’s education has an investment backlog of nearly €48 billion.
Better employment prospects
But the UN pact goes father than education — it also calls for inclusion in the labor market. Labor minister Hubertus Heil agrees. “Looking at the growing shortage of skilled workers, the economy can’t do without this capacity,” he recently said in the preliminary stages of an economic inclusion award, which the government has granted since 2012.
Companies filled a total of 1,078,433 jobs with severely disabled people in 2016 — 20,455 more than in the previous year. That’s good news for Gunilla’s parents. “Like all parents, we want the best for our child. She should not have to work in a workshop for the disabled,” her mother says.
They founded the association Living Diversity in Cologne to link up with other parents of children with special needs. “Our goal is to make it possible for her to find a job that is as skills-oriented as possible,” says her father.
Noah Gottschalk is a video editor for Handelsblatt. Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com