"It's no longer about whether to do it, but how"
Dr Holger Lindemann is guiding the inclusion process at Oldenburg's schools and researching it at the same time. In an interview Lindemann talks about visions and concerns, about new, different teaching and about the journey being its own reward.
What do you understand by the term "inclusion"?
LINDEMANN: Inclusion describes the vision of everyone being able to participate equally in all areas of society regardless of their age, gender, background, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, marital status or any disability. The idea is that everyone lives, learns, and works together wherever they happen to be. Inclusion is based on an intermediate step, namely integration. Certain groups are excluded, and the goal is to enable them to participate. Inclusion therefore means that right from the start no one is excluded. If you look at Lower Saxony's Education Act, it defines inclusion as the idea that pupils with a disability can now go to regular schools. But that's the old concept of integration, and it excludes many groups of people to whom inclusion also applies.
So in your view the Education Act doesn't go far enough?
LINDEMANN: Precisely. Our idea for Oldenburg's school and city development is that inclusion concerns everyone. That means it's not just about disabilities but also about the aspects mentioned above, such as age, gender and background, as well as differences in lifestyle, interests, and preferences. As regards schools, the question is how each individual can manage to develop well, learn well and feel good in a diverse group made up of very different people.
What other questions does inclusion raise?
LINDEMANN: Inclusion as we define it also deals for example with questions like how the teaching staff at schools treat each other. How are older colleagues treated? How to encourage parents with a migrant background to play an active role in schools? How to ensure that socio-economically disadvantaged students are able to participate in all the activities a school offers? Sexual orientation, which can lead to exclusion among youths, is also an important issue – particularly at secondary schools. And raising the awareness and appreciation of differences, as well as creating common ground, is a fundamental challenge for inclusion. An inclusive society in which we all respect each other and live together peacefully and happily is a vision that may ultimately prove unattainable. But it's a goal towards which we should orient our behaviour, and which should serve as a basis for constantly questioning common practices.
Should the Education Act therefore be extended and revised to take account of this holistic perspective?
LINDEMANN: In my opinion, yes. Because the current limited perspective quickly creates barriers: the disabled and the non-disabled, them and us. And then some people say to themselves: "That has nothing to do with me". But this is because the inclusive school is based on a UN convention from 2008 that was passed for the group of persons with disabilities. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for instance, was followed by the UN convention against racism in 1969, the convention on discrimination against women in 1981, the convention on the rights of children in 1990 and a convention on the protection of cultural expressions in 2007. Even if human rights are being specified bit by bit they should be seen in the context of the process as a whole: it's always about everyone coexisting. Basically all these conventions are just footnotes and supplements to the universal, basic human rights.
To what extent is the Oldenburg inclusion process – as regards schools and the wider community – unique? Can or should other communities try to copy it?
LINDEMANN: The inclusion process here in Oldenburg is exemplary in that we sit down and discuss things with all the relevant groups of persons, and don't just act as a so-called panel of experts. The working group "Inclusion at Oldenburg Schools" includes more than 80 representatives from schools, administrative authorities, politics, parent and pupil organisations, trade unions, the advisory board for the disabled, different organisations that are trying to find common solutions for the city. This makes us strong. Our goal is that neither individual schools nor individual teachers or parents have to fight for themselves on their own, but that we try to develop city-wide solutions. This is indeed proving to be a promising approach for community development.
A book you wrote on the inclusion process in Oldenburg has just been published. In the book you call for children not to be "labelled" according to any specials needs they may have, and argue for a broader perspective. Should the focus generally be more on the needs of school classes or schools?
LINDEMANN: As things stand now the "special education support requirements", as they are called in the Education Act, play the decisive role. And they are still based on the idea that you have an individual person who has an individual right to certain services. Whereas I have to say that in many respects it's above all the teachers who need the support to be able to teach the pupils as a group. Or the rest of the class needs support in learning how to deal for example with a pupil who is behaving aggressively. But up to now the focus is still almost always exclusively on individual rights. And for real change we can say that for a school to function properly as a system it needs social workers, special education staff, therapists and so on. And it's not individual pupils that need an assistant but the class that needs an assistant – someone who can be wherever he or she is needed in the moment, whether it's for teaching, helping pupils learn, providing care services or any of the things teachers or assistants are needed for. So it makes sense to ensure from the outset that a school's staff includes all the various skilled personnel the school and its environment require.
Now the first school year is coming to an end in which the parents of children attending first grade and fifth grade had the choice between regular schools and special-needs schools. How did it work out in your view?
LINDEMANN: Oldenburg, together with all its schools, took the decision not to designate so-called "Schwerpunktschulen" (focus schools), schools that, for the first years of the beginning inclusion, are opened for assigned forms of disabilities. That means that all the schools began with inclusion at the same time. For many schools this is the start of a major readjustment. So introducing the inclusive school age group by age group makes sense. Put in numerical terms that means here in Oldenburg for the first "inclusive school year" 40.1 percent of the pupils who need additional support are being schooled inclusively – with those figures applying to the first and fifth grade. In comparison to other communities that's very good, although naturally these figures don't say much about the quality.
So what about the quality?
LINDEMANN: There are many schools that have been using the regional integration concept for years, and are doing a very good job. Their head start provides a wealth of experience in teaching heterogeneous groups of pupils. For them, this is nothing new. Other schools have now taken on perhaps two or three pupils in the first grade. Some schools still have doubts about how to meet all the children's needs in lessons, and some parents are worried that their children will be "neglected" in inclusive lessons.
Are these concerns justified?
LINDEMANN: In certain cases the concerns, especially at the beginning of such a fundamental readjustment in schools and lessons, are of course understandable. In the long term however studies show that particularly children who need additional support for learning achieve better school-leaving qualifications and develop more skills at mainstream schools than at special schools. Particularly in the beginning it's important to expand cooperation with the assisting special education teachers. In the long term they then become an integral component of the teaching staff at mainstream schools.
In the course of the inclusion process organisational issues often become the main focus – staffing issues, building modifications and so on. Is there the danger that teaching, as the "core business", suffers as a result, particularly among teachers who don't yet have experience with heterogeneous groups of pupils?
LINDEMANN: First of all I believe that the core business, teaching, is changing anyway, and must change, not just in the course of the inclusion process but also because of the growing number of all-day schools – the idea of supplementing the school day with additional social activities. Teaching increasingly heterogeneous groups of pupils means a shift away from the idea that as a teacher you have to be in charge of everything. Instead teachers convey content in a team, or pass on more responsibility to pupils or groups of pupils. It's about moderating and organising in many processes, rather than instructing. This form of teaching, the differentiation and individualisation, is not generally routine yet. But that's the very essence of inclusive teaching: teaching differently.
And to what extent is this being put into practice?
LINDEMANN: For many teachers this is new territory, we have to be clear about that. For schools that began orienting their lessons towards heterogeneous groups and human diversity long ago it's business as usual, right down to no bells ringing for the start and end of lessons, or developing individualised curricula and an entirely different learning culture. One thing that is often underestimated in my view is what pupils can achieve among themselves when they grasp how individual learning functions in the social context. But getting to that stage requires a lot of extra work in the beginning, as well as the will to make changes, and this shouldn't be played down.
Your extensive research into the inclusion process, for example using pupil and teacher questionnaires, indicates that personal experience plays a more important role in openness to inclusive classes than information. How can people acquire that personal experience? By sitting in on classes?
LINDEMANN: In the end personal experience is most effective. You can't gain it by reading a book, and no amount of training courses can provide it – you have to experience it in practice. I'm also convinced that I can't turn anyone into an advocate of inclusive lessons by presenting them with the results of research or with clever texts, but only by taking them to sit in on classes at a school where this concept works well. There are also good documentaries, films that show how inclusion can really work. There's the Jakob Muth Prize, which is awarded to schools for successful inclusion, and that's definitely worth watching. So the idea is basically: nothing is any good unless it results in action. The willingness to take action, to sit together as a group of involved people, develop a plan and put it into practice. Because the question of whether inclusion is the way to go, of whether it's important and right, has already been answered. It's a human right. The question is no longer whether to do it, but how.