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Inclusion has failed - so what now?

For ten years, inclusion has been high on the school agenda, but problems with inclusion have continued to pile up. Today, we have to admit that we have not succeeded with inclusion in the Danish folkeskole. But why? And how do we move forward from here? The inclusion of the future should allow room for flexibility and the individual child’s needs, claim three researchers, who are also calling for an upgrade of teachers’ competencies in the area.

“I can understand the teacher who thinks: ‘Just let me teach. Out with the trouble makers’.”

These were the words of Niels Egelund, who, as well as being an emeritus professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, is also a former teacher. He is also one of the main forces behind the inclusion agenda, which has proved to be one of the major headaches for the folkeskole – and which is now in its ninth year. But, even though he can identify with the teacher’s reality, he sees things differently through his researcher lens: As far as possible, the Danish folkeskole should avoid excluding children who, in one way or another, fall outside the norm. This is what he thinks today, and this is what he thought in 2010, when he set a 96% inclusion target for the Danish folkeskole, meaning that a maximum of 4% of all children should be referred to special education services. At the time, he was in charge of a team of education researchers who had to both advise politicians and offer guidance to headteachers and teachers ahead of the 2012 inclusion act. The researchers in this team agreed that the 96% inclusion target was both sensible and realistic, as it was in line with the ambitions of Sweden and Norway.

In fact, it only represented a 1.5 percentage point increase from the previous target of 94.5%. But, in financial terms, this increase was significant. At the time, special education programmes received 30% of the money in the schools budget – around 13 billion Danish kroner. Simply because special schools have far fewer pupils per teacher than mainstream schools, and also because children receiving special education are entitled to free taxi transport to and from school.

“It was financially unsustainable, but, pedagogically, it was also difficult to maintain. Every child is entitled to an education. And, for most children, the right option is to go to a mainstream school”, says Niels Egelund.

The Danish Union of Teachers (Danmarks Lærerforening) also supported the idea of inclusion, which dates back to 1994, when Denmark – along with 91 other countries – endorsed the Salamanca Statement at the UNESCO conference in Salamanca in Spain. The statement stipulated that, as far as possible, children should learn together, regardless of their challenges or differences.

An explosion in diagnoses

Including more children with special needs in mainstream schools soon proved easier said than done. According to Niels Egelund, this was because, in the same year the Salamanca Statement was signed (1994), a new version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) was also introduced. This new version, ICD-10, contained diagnoses that were not particularly well known in the Danish school system at the time, for example autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

“Before the new classification system, less than half a per cent of all Danish children had an ASD diagnosis. And we knew absolutely nothing about ADHD. Before that, we just assumed that some children were introverted while others had rather too much energy for their own good. If children couldn’t sit still, we would take them down to the caretaker and ask if they could help with something practical,” says Niels Egelund.

He believes that schools were actually more inclusive in the 1980s and 1990s. In this period, the segregation of pupils was at its lowest level – 1.5% of pupils attended special classes and 1.5% attended special schools. But, following the introduction of the new classification system, the 2000s witnessed what Niels Egelund refers to as an ‘explosion in diagnoses’. In other words, the moment the ‘boxes’ were there, they were used.

Too much change at once

With the increase in diagnoses, the segregation of children gathered speed throughout the 2000s. This put pressure on the school budgets, and it initially led to an agreement on municipal spending in 2011, which stated that “agreeing on the objectives for inclusion and the freeing up of resources in the area could, among other things, strengthen mainstream teaching in the Danish folkeskole” (uvm.dk).

This agreement prepared the ground for the inclusion act in 2012, which had widespread political support. The act affected almost 49,000 pupils, who, at the stroke of a pen, went from needing special education to being capable of being included in a mainstream school.

However, before the inclusion act could take effect, the reform on teachers’ working hours was introduced in 2013, which famously led to a lockout. And, in 2014, the then minister for children and education, Christine Antorini, launched a school reform that involved extensive changes for Danish schools.

“The school system was shaken up too much at once, without extra resources. It couldn’t cope. And teachers could not cope with more readjustment. If the inclusion act had been allowed to live in peace, I’m sure it would not have been as problematic”, says Niels Egelund.

In addition to the inclusion act, new rules on teachers’ working hours and the school reform, pupil plans, national tests and compulsory leaving exams also came into force. This led to a test and performance culture, which Niels Egelund now recognises he helped promote but which, in retrospect, certainly did not make it easier to include pupils with particular psychological, physical, social or academic challenges.

Teachers with too much on their plate

Paradoxically, therefore, in the years immediately after the inclusion act was passed, there were several barriers to inclusion, which made it difficult for teachers to ‘deliver the goods’. In 2015, Niels Egelund was behind a study commissioned by the Ministry of Children and Education, which reviewed the status of the inclusion process in 12 municipalities.

The study was called The Documentation Project (Dokumentationsprojektet); it showed that pupils had a good level of well-being and that the average grade level had not changed significantly since the implementation of the inclusion act. On the other hand, it revealed that teachers thought inclusion was a difficult task, and over half the teachers stated that, between 2012 and 2015, they did not have the professional competencies to handle the challenges associated with inclusion. Only a third replied that they had received the necessary competence development.

Even though the 96% inclusion target was met in 2015 and we could therefore claim that the inclusion mission had succeeded, this was not without problems.

“Teachers experienced disruption in the classroom and were at a loss, because they did not feel well enough equipped for the task. This was revealed by the TALIS survey, which measures teachers’ working conditions every five years. According to this survey, inclusion has been a recurring and overriding problem for the teachers’ work environment since the first survey was conducted in 2008”, says Niels Egelund.

The problem also stems from the fact, he continues, that politicians set inclusion targets at the municipal and not the national level:

“Some municipalities took it far too literally. This meant that children in municipalities that had had many children in special educational settings before 2012 ended up ‘dominating’ too much in mainstream schools. Politicians became aware of the unsustainable situation for these municipalities, which were already under pressure. And, in 2016, the target figure was therefore removed,” he explains.

With or without targets, inclusion continues to cause problems for teachers, and there is still disruption in the classroom, which is perceived by the majority of pupils as something that gets in the way of their learning and well-being. This was revealed by a survey conducted among 4th- to 8th-grade pupils in November/December 2020 for the Council of Children’s Learning (Rådet for Børns Læring) (Elevers oplevelser af og holdninger til inklusion i folkeskole [Pupils’ experiences of and attitudes towards inclusion in folkeskole], April 2021).  In this survey, 56% of pupils said they had experienced fellow pupils creating a bad atmosphere in the classroom, and a third of pupils thought that something should be done about the pupils who are loud and disruptive.

At the same time, the national inclusion rate has decreased, so, today, it is slightly lower than it was in 2012. In the school year 2020/21, the inclusion rate was 94.1% (uvm.dk). In other words: We are back to square one. Inclusion has not worked, concludes Niels Egelund frankly.

No room for inclusion

Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, associate professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, agrees that inclusion has failed. She believes the problems stem from the fact that the inclusion debate has not been considered in conjunction with the learning debate, and that the role of special education has been absent from the overall discussion.

On the one hand, we have the ideological discourse, which the Salamanca Statement stands for, and which admirably proclaims that every child – as far as possible – has the right to learn with other children. This originates from a sociological perspective, which views the human as part of a community. But, on the other hand, we have the learning outcomes discourse, as Lotte Hedergaard Sørensen calls it, which began to compete with the ideological discourse from the 2010s onwards.

“These two discourses – inclusion and learning – were not considered together. The sociological perspective and the ethical reasons to include rather than to segregate children with special needs was, and still is, detached from the didactic perspective, which focuses on how to teach in a way that is both inclusive and dialogical,” says Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, who, in connection with her work on the research overview Pædagogisk Indblik (Educational Insight) has investigated whether any literature in the field actually combines these two perspectives – the sociological and the didactic. And it doesn’t, she concludes.

Nobody would disagree that, in school, children should learn and develop their character. However, in the early 2010s, this idea began to focus increasingly on performance and testing. With the school reform in 2014, we continued along this path and, among other things, increased the number of Danish and mathematics lessons so the pupils could learn more. In general, this subject-specific didactic focus was strengthened in the political discussion at the time. But this caused more problems for inclusion.

Sørensen discovered for herself that the discussions ran along two separate lines when she conducted field work in schools in 2013 – the year after the inclusion act came into force and the same year the rules on teachers’ working hours were changed. Here she introduced a group of teachers to the sociological approach to inclusion and differentiated teaching. But the teachers looked at her confused, and, after talking to them, she understood why:

“The teacher’s identity and ideas about the teacher’s role changed during this period. They felt under pressure because now these children had to learn something. In some discussions between us researchers and the the teachers, which were based on the research literature on inclusion and differentiated teaching, some teachers remarked: ‘This with inclusion, it belongs to another time – today we have a completely different school’. At this time, an agenda had been set that really changed the teachers ideas of what it meant to teach in school. In their opinion, all the good things about the inclusion ideology – ideas about community and diversity – could not be accommodated in a school that only prioritised optimising the pupils’ learning outcomes – and documenting this through tests,” explains Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, who refers to an article she wrote on the basis of her fieldwork called ....men det er jo en hel anden skole! [...but that is a completely different school!].

The taboo must be broken

It can also seem that researchers and teachers respectively are referring to two different schools when it comes to understanding inclusion, says Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, who thinks it is a problem that we talk about inclusion in opposition to special education.

“Common to most understandings of inclusion in Danish research environments is that it involves changing the context – the community, the culture, the class or the childcare institution – because then we believe we can stop producing deviations. We do not talk about the individuals who are going to join the community. Because it is a taboo to describe them as people who present specific challenges. Instead, we talk about constructing social categories in communities and that individual challenges are socially determined,” says Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, highlighting an opposition she has opposed since she wrote her PhD thesis in 2010:

“Good inclusion is not only about creating enough space in the class community to accommodate children with psychiatric diagnoses or behavioural problems. We also need to look at the individual child that is going to be included and to address his/her challenges. Due to a general reluctance to face the issue, teachers have been forbidden from saying: ‘Sorry, but could it be that there are not only barriers in the environment but that some children have internal barriers that prevent them adapting to the community?’ What in special education we call functional impairments.”

At the same time, she urges us to stop viewing children’s challenges as either socially produced or as a psychological or physiological medical condition within the child.

“It is between these two understandings that we need to identify the problem. It is about the relationship between individuals with a functional impairment and the social context they belong to. From here, we must create the best possible opportunities for participation for all children, and this requires that we establish collaboration between professionals with both general and special educational competencies and knowledge,” she says.

Who has access to school?

The discussion on which children should have access to schools has always formed a part of the history of education. This is the focal point of the PhD thesis Lærke Testmann has just defended at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. In this research, she analyses inclusion as a continuous challenge in school that dates much further back than the inclusion act (2012) and the Salamanca Statement (1994). She highlights the introduction of the comprehensive school (enhedsskolen) in 1975 as an important turning point, since it marked a departure from the realskole system, which divided children into the academic and the non-academic. But she also reminds us that, 200 years ago, the discussion was about whether girls should be allowed in mainstream school. It wasn’t until the school act of 1814 that it became compulsory for both boys and girls to attend school.

“Having a school system has always been about who has access to school and what type of pupils children should be. There’s nothing new in that. It’s a condition. But the discussion comes in waves, and, at the moment, the level of conflict is high,” she says. 

She does not relate to inclusion as a question of diagnoses but as a question of the dynamics of children’s communities. With her background in educational psychology, she adopts a child’s perspective when she considers what inclusion does at the school – and primarily what it does for the children.

“Some children find it difficult to be part of the community in the classroom. And there can be some complicated and composite reasons for this. It is therefore important to have a contextual view of the challenges children experience. This is not something that lives within the children or in the individual relationships between some of the children.”

With her contextual view, she views inclusion differently than Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, who, as mentioned, argues that we should not view the inclusion challenge as something that involves the community changing and adapting to the individual. On the other hand, the two researchers agree that it is the task of politics and education research to investigate how we can improve conditions for both pupils and teachers. Among other things, this concerns the amount of freedom teachers have to develop practice in their work with children. Lærke Testmann explains:

Instead of just saying that now we need to be good at classroom management or relationship competence, for example, we need to look at the individual class and the individual teacher-child relationship and find out what each of them needs if they are to tackle the task of inclusion together.”

She mentions an example from her research that shows how inflexible school structures can affect the freedom that children and adults have to act. The less flexibility, the less freedom.

In the example, a boy behaves aggressively in class, but this occurs immediately after some of his fellow pupils have moved school, and the boy has therefore lost friendships. The teachers can see this. But the solution the schools proposes is a so-called family class (familieklasse), where the boy goes to school with his mother a few times a week.

“They justified this solution by saying that the mother finds it difficult to set boundaries. So, in this way, they define the problem based on the solutions they have available. This is not because somebody has made a specific misjudgement – it is because the adults are only able to act within the interventions and solutions at their disposal. This was the solution the school could offer. But this restricts the adults’ opportunities to continue to work on challenges the boy needs help with,” she explains.

‘It’s because I have ADHD’

We will not get anywhere by letting the diagnoses define the children’s problems, Lærke Testmann believes. On the other hand, it doesn’t solve anything if we simply change the rhetoric and talk of ‘inclusive learning communities’ instead of inclusion, which was the official terminology announced in 2015.

“The children involved do not care what it is called. They need help to deal with their problems. Dyslexia was a huge problem twenty years ago, but it is no longer seen as a problematic disability because there is plenty of good help to draw on in order to create good solutions for the children. But ADHD can be a difficult diagnosis to have, because we have so few solutions to deal with the children who have it,” she says, and she describes a boy who, in her thesis, she calls Anton and whom she encountered while conducting observations in a school.

One day, Anton and his classmate were sent out of the classroom because they were making too much noise. Lærke Testmann sat down to talk to them.

Lærke: Why are you out here?
Anton: It’s because I have ADHD.
Lærke (to Anton’s classmate): What about you? Do you also have ADHD?
Classmate: No... I’ve just been thrown out...
After this, the boys started to joke that Anton’s classmate may in fact also have ADHD.

“ADHD is an attention deficit disorder, but, regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosis, being sent out the classroom is a problem, because you will not receive the teaching you need. We have to look at what the individual children need help with. Children with ADHD do not need help having ADHD. They need help being a part of the community in the classroom,” asserts Lærke Testmann.

Inclusion 2.0 must accommodate new diagnoses

But why, despite all the years of striving, do schools find it so difficult to accommodate children like Anton? The time has come to learn from all the unsuccessful attempts and to discuss how we can start an Inclusion 2.0. What should the new version of inclusion be able to do?

It should, among other things, be able to accommodate diagnoses. The number of psychiatric diagnoses among children and young people is continuing to rise, but now there are different diagnoses that dominate than those we saw 10 or 20 years ago, Niels Egelund points out.

“Now we see many pupils with depression and anxiety, which, among other things, leads to school refusal. We can see this in the schools. There is something that is putting pupils – and teachers – under pressure,” he says, and he blames this on social media and the performance culture that has taken over.

“This helps to give the girls in particular a poor self-image, which can lead to anxiety and depression. But what can teachers do for the pupils who are struggling so much?

In many cases, helping these students is too big a task for the didactically trained teacher. If schools are to deal with these pupils’ challenges, the teachers need help – in the form of both competency development and psychological and pedagogical expertise, he thinks. 

“Today, teachers have neither the time nor the competences for this. But it is important we get more teachers trained up as competent inclusion advisors relatively quickly, so that the other teachers can draw on these teachers’ expertise. We also need more pedagogical consultants, and PPR (the pedagogical and psychological advice service) needs to be upgraded. This costs money, but it is still cheaper than sending more children to special school.”

The hybrid approach is replacing inclusion

At Local Government Denmark (Kommunernes Landsforening), they are now wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch with a brand new concept. The word ‘inclusion’ is being replaced with ‘hybrid approach’ (‘mellemformer’). Several municipalities have already adopted the hybrid approach as a pedagogical concept. On its website, Aarhus Municipality describes the hybrid approach as a type of pedagogy that combines methods from special and general education and that will contribute to ensuring that as many children and young people as possible are able to attend, develop in and thrive in the local folkeskole.

In an inspiration booklet from Local Government Denmark, published in November 2020, it states that the hybrid approach is about anchoring special education competencies in the area of general education by increasing knowledge of special education methods and tools within mainstream teaching.

The question is whether this hybrid approach actually heralds new times and can offer new, effective means to solve problems that have exceeded the ability of the folkeskole. Or is it just a new term that covers more of that which has not worked for the last 10-15 years?

Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen does not like the concept of the hybrid approach, which, to her ears, sounds like a purely orginisational and politological model to combine general and special education. She calls for a greater focus on the didactics and on the individual class’s, the individual pupil’s and the individual teacher’s challenges and resources. Instead of a hybrid approach, she would prefer to speak of ‘inclusive special education.’

“This means that we must strive to be as inclusive as possible. But sometimes we have to divide the children into smaller groups in a non-stigmatising way. At the same time, we need to be able to acknowledge that some children need more help than others.”  

In contrast, Niels Egelund believes that the hybrid approach is ‘the right way to go’ – if, of course, it contains the flexibility that he thinks is required in our approach to the children. So far, in his view, we have thought about inclusion in very inflexible ways.

“It is about finding the right balance between general and special education, which again depends which resources the school has. But a lot of special education is just characterised by being good education adapted to the individual pupil. It is about being able to assess how we can best help the individual pupil go to school,” he says.

The teachers are keen

Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen is interested in an internationally inclusive learning concept that contains the flexibility she, Niels Egelund and Lærke Testmann call for and that, in her view, makes special education a part of mainstream education in ‘a very elegant way’. In essence, the universal design for learning encourages the teacher to concentrate on what the individual pupils in the class find interesting.

“Instead of saying: ‘Well, you have an ADHD diagnosis, so you are difficult’, the teacher should try to engage the child.  What is the child interested in? What is he/she good at? And how can the teacher maintain the students’ interests based on the various prerequisites they have?”, says Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen, and she adds:

“Teachers have to work more methodically and professionally with this. Preferably in teams. Among other things, schools need procedures for how to follow each other’s teaching, how to give feedback, and how to learn from this feedback. This should be the schools’ main priority right now. And I actually think that teachers are keen to do this.” 


Personal bios

Niels Egelund is emeritus professor in special education at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. He has conducted research into inclusion for several decades and is the author of a number of reports and publications on the topic.

Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen is associate professor in special education at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. She conducts research into inclusive special education and teaches on the Master’s programmes Educational Sociology and Educational Theory and Practice.

Lærke Testmann is assistant professor in educational psychology at University College Copenhagen, where she teaches on the early childhood and social education programme. She has just defended her PhD thesis Konflikter og fællesskaber blandt børn i skolen – perspektiver på inklusion som kontinuerlig udfordring [Conflicts and communities among children in school – perspectives on inclusion as a continuous challenge] at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.


Highlighted concepts

The hybrid approach (mellemformer): combines competences from general and special education so that more children’s needs can be met while children remain in or return to the general classroom community (Aarhus Municipality website).

The learning outcomes discourse: Increased focus on performance and testing from the early 2010s onwards. This stems from the didactic perspective, which prioritises children learning as much as possible.

The ethical inclusion discourse: All children have an equal right to learn. This stems from the sociological perspective, which views the individual as part of a community.

Inclusion rate: The proportion of children, indicated as a percentage, who are part of mainstream teaching in primary and lower secondary school.


Background information 1

In 1992, 92 countries endorsed the Salamanca Statement at a UNESCO conference in Salamanca in Spain. In this statement, it reads:

“The fundamental principle of the inclusive school is that all children should learn together, wherever possible, regardless of any difficulties or differences they may have.”

Among other things, the countries agreed that:

“...those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs.”

Background information 2

Less inclusion
In 2015/16, 95.1% of pupils were part of the general education system. New statistics from the Ministry of Education show that this figure for 2020/21 is 94.1%.

(Source: uddannelsesstatistik.dk)


Background information 3

Proportion of pupils in segregated education – special schools and special classes

  • 1992: 1.40 %
  • 2000: 1.99 %
  • 2009: 3.34 %
  • 2013: 3.00 %
  • 2015: 2.70 %
  • 2018: 3.10 %
  • 2020: 5.6 %
  • 2021: 5.9 %

Background information 4

Increase of 50% over 10 years
Approximately 57,100 children and young people had a psychiatric diagnosis on 1 January 2019. The number of children and young people with an ADHD, autism, anxiety or another diagnosis measured in relation to all 0-17 year-olds in Denmark increased by over 50% between 2009 and 2019.

Many children have more than one diagnosis
Increased use of psychiatric health services and more children and young people have more than one diagnosis:

  • The number of children and young people with a diagnosis from the psychiatric healthcare system almost doubled between 2009 and 2019, while the number of children and young people with a diagnosis from the somatic healthcare system fell by 20% over the same period.
  • The number of children and young people with a psychiatric disorder who have more than one diagnosis increased from 26% in 2009 to 40% in 2019.

More children and young people being diagnosed
This development cannot be attributed to the demographic and socio-economic composition of children and young people in Denmark

  • On the contrary, the trend in these areas (such as declining birth rates and generally favourable socio-economic development) should actually mean there are fewer children with a diagnosis than previously.
  • The increase in the number of children and young people with a diagnosis can therefore be attributed to the changes that result from children and young people being diagnosed to a greater extent.

Geographical variation
There are major geographical differences in the incidence of children and young people with psychiatric diagnoses

  • In 2019, Region Zealand had the highest number of children and young people with a psychiatric diagnosis (59 out of 1,000 0-17 year-olds) and the Region of Northern Denmark had the fewest (40 out of 1,000 0-17 year-olds).
  • There is particularly high regional variation within the individual diagnoses. For example, 20 out of 1,000 children and young people were registered as having autism in Region Zealand in 2019. This is more than twice as many as in the Region of Southern Denmark.

(Source: The Danish Ministry of Interior and Housing's benchmarking unit)


For more information

Niels Egelund et al.: Dokumentationsprojektet: Kommunernes omstilling til øget inklusion pr. marts 2015. AU Library Scholarly Publishing Services, 2015

Niels Egelund and Camilla Brørup Dyssegaard: Dokumentationsprojektet: 19 skolers erfaringer med inklusion 2013-2015 - En kvalitativ analyse.

Socialpædagogerne, 2015

Lotte Hedegaard Sørensen: Specialpædagogisk viden og samarbejde om moderat inklusion. In: Kirsten Elisa Petersen and Janne Hedegaard Hansen: Inklusion og eksklusion. Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2019

Lotte Hedegaard-Sørensen & Sine Penthin Grumløse: …men det er jo en helt anden skole! – status på inklusion i skolen i en læringsfokuseret skolepolitik, Unge Pædagoger 2019 no. 3

Lærke Testmann: Konflikter og fællesskaber blandt børn i skolen - perspektiver på inklusion som kontinuerlig udfordring, 2021.