Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 3: Definitions, categorisation and terminology

4Given the diversity of paradigms outlined in the previous chapter, it is not surprising to find that making international comparisons of provisions for SWSEN is fraught with difficulties. As we shall see in this chapter, there is no universal agreement as to how this group of students should be referred to, how they should be defined and what, if any, categories they should be divided into. As well, these differences interact to determine differences in the structure and function of special education services and how they should be funded.

This diversity reflects a variety of factors, including different philosophical positions, such as those outlined in the previous chapter; the history of organisations/systems; local traditions within school districts; legal foundations; and fiscal policies and constraints (Weishaar & Borsa, 2001). It is further compounded by the recent UNESCO International Conference on Education resolution that Member States should adopt a broadened concept of inclusive education that addresses the diverse needs of all learners (UNESCO, 2009). In relation to the countries it covers, the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (EADSNE) commented on this diversity: ‘These differences between countries are strongly related to administrative, financial and procedural regulations. They do not reflect variations in incidence and the types of special educational needs between these countries’ (EADSNE, 2003, p.8).

This chapter will examine various definitions and classifications of SWSEN, discuss some problems with classification systems, and terminological issues.

3.1 Definitions and Classifications of SWSEN

In order to discuss policy differences and to gather comparable statistics, EADSNE and the OECD have sought to compare definitions across countries (EADSNE, 2000, 2003; OECD, 2000, 2005). As suggested above, they have found comparisons difficult, as the definitions vary even within nations (Australia and the UK being examples of this), as well as reflecting considerable variation across countries. Thus, for example, the category, special educational needs, is limited in some countries to students with disabilities, while in others it extends to social disadvantage, those with minority ethnic backgrounds and even gifted children (Evans, 2003).

In order to deal with this diversity, the OECD obtained agreement across countries to re-allocate their national categories into three types, for the purpose of obtaining data for international comparisons:

Category A: Disabilities: students with disabilities or impairments viewed in medical terms as organic disorders attributable to organic pathologies (e.g., in relation to sensory, motor or neurological defects). The educational need is considered to arise primarily from problems attributable to these disabilities.

Category B: Difficulties: students with behavioural or emotional disorders, or specific difficulties in learning. The educational need is considered to arise primarily from problems in the interaction between the student and the educational context.

Category C: Disadvantages: students with disadvantages arising primarily from socio-economic, cultural, and/or linguistic factors. The educational need is to compensate for the disadvantages attributable to these factors (OECD, 2005, p.14).5

In its 2005 publication, OECD noted that most countries found it easiest to contribute data in relation to category A (disabilities), while many found it less easy to contribute data in relation to categories B (difficulties) and C (disadvantages).

In category A, the number of national sub-categories varied from two for England to 19 in Switzerland, with most countries having 12 or 13 sub-categories and nine sub-categories being found in virtually every country. These common categories comprised students who were blind or partially sighted, deaf or partially hearing, with emotional and behavioural difficulties, with physical disabilities, with speech and language problems, who were in hospital, with a combination of disabilities, with moderate or severe learning problems, and with specific learning difficulties. Certain countries cited IQ scores to define some categories (France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovak Republic and Switzerland). Emotional and behavioural problems were not recognised as a separate category in Greece, Hungary, Italy or Turkey. Certain countries had a separate category for autism (Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovak Republic, Turkey and the USA). Only Poland had a category for children who are in ‘danger to addiction’.

The range between countries was less for category A (disabilities) (Korea – 0.47% to USA – 5.16%) than for either category B (difficulties) (Italy – close to or at 0%, to Poland - 22.29%), or category C (disadvantages) (Hungary – close to or at 0% to US – approx 23%). Italy, Japan and Poland identified no categories within category B (difficulties) and Turkey only recognised ‘gifted and talented’ students in category B.

According to the OECD, countries differed the most in relation to category C. The most common categories across countries related to students whose first language was not that of their host country and/or who were immigrant, migrant or refugee children. Four countries (Belgium (Flemish Community), Germany, Mexico, and Spain) had a category that included ‘Travelling children’. Only Belgium (the French Community) and Mexico specified rural areas or areas of small population (respectively). Few countries specifically mentioned socio-economic disadvantage (the exceptions included France, Mexico and the Netherlands). Few countries specifically included children who offend.

Some countries have taken a strong stance in relation to categorisation. Four warrant further description. Firstly, as noted by Riddell et al. (2006), Sweden has generally adopted an anti-categorisation approach to special educational needs and has opposed the use of medical categories for educational purposes. Given the reluctance to categorise children, psychometric assessment techniques have not been widely used. An exception to the Swedish anti-categorisation stance is the recognition of deaf or hearing impaired students as a separate group who may have the option of attending a special school for the deaf. Despite the dislike of categories, Hjorne & Saljo (2004) noted that there has been a marked increase in the identification of some types of impairment, in particular attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). However, there is scepticism about the robustness of this category and identification techniques are seen as highly subjective and dependent on professional judgment.

Secondly, following the passage of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, the definition of additional support needs used in Scotland encompassed all children who have difficulty in learning for whatever reason (Riddell et al., 2006).

As noted by the OECD (2005), Denmark and England were two other countries not to take a categorical approach, although the former did make a distinction between more extensive special needs (about 1%) and those with less extensive needs, including those with disadvantages (about 12%). As Riddell et al., 2006) have noted, whilst efforts have been made to abandon categorical approaches in England, the Statement of Need still included a description of a child’s difficulty in learning, and there appears to have been a return to the use of categories, with a growth in the identification of some conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia. The OECD also noted that England had begun to collect data through categories, and the OECD’s next set of statistics would contain such information. In fact, England does currently collect statistics on the following categories of SWSEN: specific learning difficulties (e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia); learning difficulty (moderate, severe, profound); behavioural, emotional and social difficulty; speech, language and communication needs; autistic spectrum disorder; visual impairment; hearing impairment; multi-sensory impairment; and physical disability (Department for Education and Skills, 2005).

Finally, given the influential role played by the US in international developments in special education, it is relevant to consider that country’s approach to the classification of SWSEN. The first point to make is that under IDEA, the US legislation focuses on 13 disability categories. These fall into three major types:

  1. Sensory disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing impairments, deaf-blindness;
  2. Physical and neurological disabilities such as orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, traumatic brain injury, multiple disabilities, autism; and,
  3. Developmental disabilities such as specific learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, emotional disturbance, mild mental retardation, and developmental delay.

In the US, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002) was very critical of what it referred to as ‘the proliferation of categories and assessment guidelines that vary in their implementation, often with little relation to intervention’ (p.21). It pointed out that many of the 13 categories emerged as a result of advocacy groups’ efforts to promote recognition for their specific constituencies and that ‘the necessity of all 13 categories and their relation to instruction is not firmly established’ (ibid,). The Commission’s conclusion regarding categorisation in the US is worth noting in full:

The Commission could not identify firm practical or scientific reasons supporting the current classification of disabilities in IDEA. The intent of IDEA is to focus on the effective and efficient delivery of special education services. The Commission is concerned that federal implementing regulations waste valuable special education resources in determining which category a child fits into rather than providing the instructional interventions a child requires. The priority should always be to deliver services, with assessment secondary to this aim. When schools are encouraged by federal and state guidelines to focus on assessment as a priority—and often for gate keeping functions to control expenditures—the main victims are the students themselves, whose instructional needs are not addressed in the cumbersome assessment process. Thus, the overall Commission recommendation for assessment and identification is to simplify wherever possible and to orient any assessments towards the provision of services (President’s Commission, 2002, p.22).

3.2 Problems with Classification Systems

As mentioned in the previous chapter, special educational classifications based on disabilities are problematic for several reasons. Firstly, they tend to attribute student failure to a defect or inadequacy within the individual student, thus masking the role that highly constraining educational systems may play in creating failure. Secondly, they wrongly suggest homogeneity within various diagnostic categories. Thirdly, many SWSEN do not manifest demonstrable disabilities. Fourthly, studies show that instruction based on disability categories is of limited utility. As well as these four limitations, three other problems should be taken into account, according to Farrell (2010): Fifthly, since all disability categories are continuous in nature (as opposed to being discrete entities such as gender), they require some judgement to be exercised about the relevant cut-off points for special educational purposes, which is not always a straightforward task. Sixthly, issues of category boundaries arise through the co-occurrence of various disabilities. For example, according to the American Psychiatric Association (2000), around half of clinic-referred children with ADHD also have an oppositional defiant disorder or a conduct disorder. Seventhly, since disability categories may militate against seeing the student holistically, ‘care is needed that classification of a disorder or disability does not come to be seen as a classification of the child’ (Farrell, 2010, p.55).

Farrell went on to note that, in light of such problems, the validity and reliability of some categories of disability may be questionable, leading to some ‘very wide variations in the supposed prevalence of conditions’ (p.56). He cited studies reported by the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), which showed a wide range in estimates of the prevalence of particular disorders. For example, ‘oppositional defiance disorder’ varied from 2% to 16%, and ‘conduct disorders’ ranged from 1% to 10% in the general population.

But care must be taken not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, for classification does have some merits, provided its limitations are borne in mind. Farrell (2010) suggested, firstly, that ‘the reliability and validity of categories can be tested, leading to clearer and more robust categories’ (p.60). Secondly, the relationship between categories, assessment and intervention must be made clear. Thirdly, despite the challenges in delineating disabilities, ‘much that is useful to teachers and others can be identified in research and professional practice referring to categorical classifications’ (ibid.).

3.3 Terminology

As well as the diversity of categories outlined above, there are differences in the way the broad field of provisions are described internationally. There are three main divisions: ‘special education’, ‘inclusive education’, and hybrids of the two. Australia provides a good case in point. As summarised by Shaddock et al. (2009), many state departments in Australia now refer to services using some reference to disability, for example, NSW – ‘Disability Programs’; Tasmania – ‘Students with Disabilities’; South Australia – ‘Disability Services’; and Victoria – ‘Students with Disabilities’. In contrast, two states use the term ‘Inclusive Education’ to describe their services: Western Australian services are known as ‘Inclusive Education’ and Queensland employs a hybrid term, ‘Inclusive Education and Learning and Disability Support’. Shaddock et al. also pointed out that only the two territory governments, ACT and Northern Territory, currently use ‘Special Education’ as a descriptor of services: ‘Special Education and Wellbeing’ (NT) and ‘Special Education’ (ACT). They conclude that ‘In Australia, the use of ’special’ to describe services for students with a disability is clearly not the preferred option’ (p.33).

Other countries reflect this diversity of terminology: for example, the US prefers ‘special education’, Japan ‘special support education’, Scotland ‘educational provision for pupils with additional support needs’, Europe in general and South Africa ‘special needs education’ (the latter administered by the Directorate of Inclusive Education).

It should not be assumed that this diversity of terminology is merely semantic, for, in most cases it represents significant differences in the perceptions of student diversity and the scope of provisions designed for them.

3.4 Summary

  1. There is no universal agreement as to how SWSEN should be referred to, how they should be defined and what, if any, categories they should be divided into.
  2. Differences in definitions and categorisation influence the structure and function of special education services and how they are funded.
  3. This diversity reflects a variety of factors, including different philosophical positions; the history of organisations/systems; local traditions within school districts; legal foundations; and fiscal policies and constraints.
  4. In order to deal with this diversity, the OECD obtained agreement across countries to re-allocate their national categories into three types:

Category A: Disabilities: students with disabilities or impairments viewed in medical terms as organic disorders attributable to organic pathologies; their educational need is considered to arise primarily from problems attributable to these disabilities.

Category B: Difficulties: students with behavioural or emotional disorders, or specific difficulties in learning, arising primarily from problems in the interaction between the student and the educational context.

Category C: Disadvantages: students with disadvantages arising primarily from socio-economic, cultural, and/or linguistic factors, and whose educational need is to compensate for the disadvantages attributable to these factors.

  1. In category A, the number of national sub-categories in OECD countries varied from two to 19, with most countries having 12 or 13 sub-categories and nine sub-categories being found in virtually every country.
  2. Countries differed the most in relation to category C.
  3. Some countries have adopted an anti-category approach, although none have abandoned them entirely and some are returning to a limited form of categorisation.
  4. In the US, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002) was very critical of what it referred to as ‘the proliferation of categories and assessment guidelines that vary in their implementation, often with little relation to intervention’.
  5. Several problems with classifications based on disability categories have been identified:
  1. they mask the role that constraining educational systems may play in creating failure,
  2. they wrongly suggest homogeneity within various diagnostic categories,
  3. many SWSEN do not manifest demonstrable disabilities,
  4. studies show that instruction based on disability categories is of limited utility,
  5. they require some judgement to be exercised about the relevant cut-off points for special educational purposes,
  6. issues of category boundaries arise through the co-occurrence of various disabilities, and
  7. disability categories may militate against seeing the student holistically.
  1. As well as the diversity of categories outlined above, there are differences in the way the broad field of provisions are described internationally. There are three main divisions: ‘special education’, ‘inclusive education’, and hybrids of the two.

Footnotes

  1. This chapter draws heavily from the following sources: Riddell et al. (2006), European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (2000, 2003) and OECD (2000, 2005).
  2. Florian et al. (2006) criticised this classification as one-dimensional. For example, there is a presumption that children can be classified in only one category: e.g. a child who is blind (category A (disabilities)) will not also be an immigrant (category C (disadvantages).