The new national curricula sent for approval last week do not involve any changes to the general principles of inclusive education. There are, however, some technical changes, which will affect students with special educational needs, says Jürgen Rakaselg, director of inclusive education at the Ministry of Education.
"The new curricula do not bring about any revolutionary changes to the principles of inclusive education," Rakaselg told ERR.
"Of course, you could ask whether it might be time for the notion of a separate or simplified (version of the national) curriculum to be abandoned. For the time being however, (the curriculum) will remain national, but during the next round of changes, it would probably appropriate to ask whether we could (instead) move towards (using) more individual curricula and learning approaches," Rakaselg said.
According to Rakaselg, the introduction of inclusive education principles to schools in Estonia is slowly, but surely progressing in a positive way.
The number of students included in so-called mainstream classes in regular schools is moving in the right direction. The number of pupils in special schools is also decreasing at more or less the same rate as the number of special classes in regular schools," said Rakaselg.
The proportion of students in schools, which cater for those with special educational needs, has more or less returned to the level of the early 1990s, he said. "What makes the picture more statistically confusing is, the welcome fact that, the school population has become very heterogeneous in many places, meaning it is (often) difficult to tell whether a school mainstream or (for children requiring) special (educational support). Within a single school, there are different curricular arrangements but, most importantly, all students are a part of the school and every effort is made to provide each student with the type of education that is best for him or her," Rakaselg explained.
However, the main problems more often relate to the content and day-to-day organization of educational activities, he said. "Physically moving someone around does not equal inclusion. Efforts still need to be made in many areas to achieve meaningful inclusion."
A number of surveys have shown, that people in Estonia are generally positive about the introduction of inclusive education. "It is also impossible to challenge the idea of inclusive education as such, without also questioning human rights. A 2016 survey showed, that 70 percent of Estonian teachers were in favor of inclusive education, while around a fifth were skeptical. It was also clear that the teachers who were most skeptical were those working in special schools," said Rakaselg.
However, no studies have yet explored attitudes amongst the broader population in Estonia towards inclusive education. "What is interesting about studies of children in other countries is, that if a young person has even one friend with special educational needs among their peer group, they cannot understand at all why a learner with special needs should need to study anywhere else," said Rakaselg.
At the same time, Rakaselg agrees with Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa), that currently, the implementation of inclusive education in Estonia's schools is inconsistent. "We have situations where teachers are left completely alone in the classroom without the support of a specialist or additional resources in the form of a teaching assistant," said Rakasleg.
"And unfortunately, this is cynically referred to as inclusive education. There are similar examples in other countries, where people have been prepared to go the extra mile to get the maximum possible support from the state, but in practice this does not reach the students. This puts teachers in a very difficult position, which is something that should not happen," he added.
State funding essential
Rakaselg certainly does not underestimate the importance of financial support from the state.
"It is extremely important. The state has contributed a lot here, whether it is tens of millions of euros in training opportunities. or funding for small-scale initiatives in schools," he said.
"Teachers' workloads, the support networks around him or her, which enable them to help reach every student - that's a big issue. However, from the point of view of teachers, students and parents, what matters most, is what goes on in the classroom and the school on a day-to-day basis. Teachers' salaries and the possibility of hiring teaching assistants - these are definitely the first things for which additional resources are needed," said Rakaselg.
More information regarding trends in inclusive education in Estonia should be available next winter, by which time University of Tartu study on the issue is due to be completed.
Editor: Michael Cole