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Disability, special needs, inclusive education

Problem statement

Education systems throughout Europe face several key challenges in promoting inclusive education as regards embracing diversity and ensuring access and support in mainstream education for persons with special needs. They continue to face public prejudice and legal, financial, administrative and physical barriers in educational establishments which prevent them from fully benefiting from education and participating in society.

Implications for education

Numerous factors hinder the development and establishment of the principle of ‘education for all’ in practice. In many European countries different forms of segregated school systems prevail.

Initial and continuing teacher education have not always aimed at inclusion[1], therefore often educators working in mainstream settings lack the knowledge, skills and materials to work with both learners with and without special needs/disabilities in regular classes[2][3]. In some EU countries, which practice ‘free school’ choice policies, it might be more difficult for children with special needs and other vulnerable groups to be enrolled into better quality schools which mostly welcome high-performing pupils[4].

It may be difficult for students with special needs to adapt to the standardised and inflexible curricula, which prevail in some of the European countries[1]. Grade retention and suspension from school aimed at students with learning difficulties foster discrimination[1] and influence their early school leaving[5]. Disabled people are particularly likely to leave school with few or no qualifications, moreover disabled people in the 16-24 age group are less likely to participate in education compared to their peers and are less likely to enter higher education[1][5].


Inclusive education is a multi-level issue, therefore tackling special needs in education includes policy-making as well as the translation of EU and national policies into school-based policies and classroom practices[6]. To strengthen the legal grounds of inclusive education, policies and legislation establishing the right to inclusive education for people with and without disabilities should be introduced by Member States across the EU[6]. To improve the situation of students with special needs, policies should tackle inclusive initial and continuing teacher education[1][4], training of assistant staff and provide assistive educational equipment, including ICT-based learning tools[4].  Physical barriers to access and mobility in schools need to be eliminated, and the school and university environment should be adapted for inclusiveness and smooth transition between all educational levels[3][6][4][7]. Involving disabled people, their parents, representative groups and other stakeholders in all levels of education policy-making could help to improve the existing policies to better address their needs[4].