04 SES 07 C, Inclusive Policy and Practice: Case studies from Kazakhstan, Serbia, Italy and Spain
Following a decree of the Ministry of Education, the category of Special Educational Needs has been officially adopted in Italian school at the end of 2012. This way, Italy lined up with many other national educational systems that introduced this notion long ago. However, the measure was launched apparently without taking into account the considerable debate about SEN developed in the last twenty years, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, as well as points made about the real efficacy of educational interventions this approach implies. Even though the expression “special educational needs” is still widely used in Europe and the US, as confirmed e.g. by reports from the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, questions have been raised both about the emphasis it puts on needs (which focuses attention on students’ weak points more than potential) and the way the term “special” involves an implicit reference to a population of allegedly problematic pupils who can be clearly differentiated from “normal” children. For this reason, it has been suggested that the expression “specific needs” should be employed, as it doesn’t frame children’ diversity in negative terms as SEN.
Further issues have been associated with the implementation of the SEN policy in Italian school. Since the Seventies the model of “integrazione scolastica”, following the closing of special schools, has been actively promoted to mainstreaming disabled pupils in regular settings. Consequently, schools are not allowed to form special classes for SEN pupils. Moreover, remediation groups can be organised only on a temporary basis, provided that the school would be able to make additional resources available. In this regard, whereas in Italy disabled students are currently entitled to receive support from special education teachers hired from the public administration, children with learning difficulties or special educational needs are supposed to get help directly from mainstream teachers, who are required to adapt the curriculum without the involvement of additional support staff. As a result, resources addressed to “special” students are currently distributed unequally, especially because in the last few years the number of children identified as having learning difficulties and SEN has been steadily increasing. Moreover, according to the Ministry guidelines the definition of SEN covers a wide range of conditions, which include socio-economic disadvantage, cultural diversity, learning difficulties, and “specific developmental disorders”. Conceived as a way to raise attention to the population of non-disabled “special” students, this broad description is a potential source of ambiguity, as it provides an umbrella term that can be applied to all kind of non-standard situations, then multiplying the risk of labelling children.
To date, the Ministry has yet not provided data about the incorporation of the SEN policy in Italian school. Face to this, we carried out qualitative research in collaboration with primary and secondary schools located in five regions of Italy (Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, Sicily, and Trentino) so as to make a first evaluation of the actual impact the introduction of the SEN paradigm has been having on Italian schools. Through semi-structured interviews held with teachers, support teachers, and head-teachers, we investigated what was the school staff opinion about the BES policy, how many students were classified as SEN, what kind of needs have been identified as more common, what policies, practices, and resources schools and teachers have been putting in place to meet those needs, and what have been the positive and/or negative effects that the use of this category had on school activities.
The paper will offer a detailed account of the way, according to the practitioners, the newly introduced SEN policy is affecting the traditional approach to inclusive education in Italian school.
Research was based on interviews held at schools in five Italian regions. Participants were purposely selected, following the criterion of maximal variation sampling to include primary and secondary schools as well as different professional roles, i.e. head-teachers and teachers responsible for SEN policies in school. We interviewed a total of 41 subjects: 18 head-teachers (11 from primary/lower secondary, 7 from upper secondary school) and 23 teachers in charge of SEN policies (17 from primary/lower secondary, 6 from upper secondary school). After collecting demographic data and a preliminary description of the school, we asked these questions: What do you think about the category of SEN recently introduced? How has this question been addressed in your school? Is there some coordinator responsible for SEN students? Has a SEN plan been prepared, also in connection with IEP or other provisions? How common are pupils with SEN in this school? Did you notice an increase in reporting students with SEN? How are SEN identified in your school? Is there a standard procedure to be followed? Are there some categories (i.e. “disadvantaged”) more common than others? In your opinion, what is the attitude of teachers about SEN in this school? And that of students? And what about families? Do you believe that this school has adequate resources to address this issue? How are you using the available resources? What additional resources would you need to effectively cope with this issue? Can you tell me, if you remind it, an episode concerning SEN that particularly struck you? Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and subsequently examined using the coding procedure proposed by Saldaña (2015), employing a code and memo system that helps identify specific categories, so leading to the formulation of more general themes and concepts, which in turn enable theoretical explanations. As a verification procedure we used triangulation: each conversation was analysed in parallel by the interviewer and another research team investigator to check coding reliability (Miles et al., 2014). Codes elicited were systematically compared to ensure inter-coder agreement. Researchers then established connections and relationships among codes that proved to be reliable, so developing emergent themes, which provided a higher level of abstraction. Finally, themes were selected and grouped according to conceptual similarities to create theoretical constructs used to produce the overall interpretation of data.
Evidences emerging from data analysed confirm that the category of SEN is slowly being adopted in Italian school, as an all-embracing term that gather students together even though they have very different backgrounds and profiles. Face to the wide range of diversity that the category encompasses, “special educational needs” comes especially into play as a tool for identifying students that in some way are not matching teachers’ expectations, because of their social and cultural background or learning difficulties, or even with reference to the uncertain set of so-called developmental disorders. Moreover, the ambiguous formulation of the government decree, which even later Ministry circulars weren’t able to solve, contributed to increase school practitioners’ confusion about the exact meaning of SEN. More precisely, it is unclear if the SEN category includes all “special” students’ conditions (disability, learning difficulties, and disadvantage) or rather makes reference only to children who, in spite of not having been diagnosed in any way, are having difficulties in dealing with the school’s requirements. Another critical point that can be inferred from interviews is that SEN, as a blurred concept, can be used to label unfitting students, but offers very poor insights about the way issues related to this large group of students could be actually solved. While interviewees confirm that the introduction of the term had a positive influence on the ability to perceive student problems that remained previously unnoticed (as they were not considered as a “school business”), some of them are questioning what is the real benefit ensuing from the adoption of this framework, also face to the actual risk of further marginalisation that an indiscriminate use of this concept can involve.
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