For 20 years, children with special needs have been included in the general education system of Latvia, but it is only in recent years that Latvia has improved rules that provide necessary support. The school, in theory, cannot refuse to teach a child, but in reality it happens.
The principle of inclusive education requires schools to accommodate all learners, regardless of their physical and intellectual capacity, social conditions, emotional status, language skills and other shortcomings.
At times, however, for children with severe mental development disabilities, the most appropriate place for learning is in special schools. For example, a child with autism can be enrolled in a general education school, but this does not mean that the child will be a member of the collective. Therefore, special schools will remain. But more and more children with special needs enroll in general elementary schools, according to figures from the Ministry of Education and Science (IZM), it happens in 62% of the cases. In turn, 4,500 pupils are currently in special schools. Most frequently schools integrate pupils with learning disabilities, but rarely with somatic illnesses, mental health disorders, visual and hearing impairments.
Inclusive education in Latvia is implemented by 381 or 67% of local government schools. “If altogether we have 7.93 percent of pupils with special education needs and 5% of them are in general education, it is a very good trend,” says Olita Arkle, senior expert at the IZM Education Department.
Before a child starts school, he has to go through a pedagogical medical commission that determines what program the pupil will be the most appropriate. Not all parents have a good experience with it.
The law provides that a maximum of four children with special needs can be included in one general education form, three of which can be impaired in visual, hearing or physical development. But not more than two can be with mental development disorders and not more than four — with language, learning or mental health disorders.
“This condition is justified by the fact that foreign experience also shows that it is recommended that not more than 20% of pupils, i.e. one fifth, be enrolled in the general educational establishment class – integrated,” explained IZM spokeswoman Olita Arkle. “This year, in addition to these new rules, we set the norm that a form can have up to 20 pupils to exactly comply with that norm.”
If the number of pupils exceeds what has been determined, the educational establishment needs to create parallel forms. But if this is not possible, parents can take a child to another nearby school in consultation with the Education Board.
“This is in order to be able to provide support for these pupils who particularly need it,” Arkle said. “They have to provide a special education tutor, as well as a speech therapist and support staff, including a psychologist. Similarly, these children must have tailored tools such as a computer or any other assistive products. The generally accepted practice of the 20% limit is based on studies and experience. It is not a fictional one,” said the representative of IZM.
Arkle said that if a child is enrolled into a school, there can never be a situation that they should be expelled from the establishment because of health reasons. On the other hand, if the school takes in more children and violates these proportion rules, sanctions do not apply, there is only a recommendation.
Families surveyed by Latvian Radio and stories on social media, though, suggest that refusal to enroll children with disabilities is a standard practice and it is already exceptional if a pupil gets into the school with the first try.
IZM says that the reasons could be different: a lack of staff, no speech therapist, no special education tutor. But these problems must be solved by the municipality's Education Council. And if a parent faces refusal from the school they should turn to that institution.
On paper, the situation with inclusive education looks great, but the real picture is different.
As it turns out, one of the reasons why the school whips out the white flag and says that it can't deal with special children relates to the knowledge and ability of educators to work in such a classroom.
For example, the teacher Kristīne Caune believes that she was taught far too little about inclusive education in university. Her knowledge was mainly gained in additional seminars, in exchange trips abroad. Now she shares experience with colleagues and they tackle the challenges together.
Other elementary school teachers also agree that teachers lack knowledge about inclusive education. Teachers Beate Balandīna and Iveta Zvejniece say they also lack materials. “Standard teachers don't know what to do if such a child is in the classroom,” says Zvejniece. “And it's easy to ask them to leave, isn't it? Or sit in the far end of the classroom so that they don't interfere.
“As I am a relatively young teacher and also have completed my bachelor's studies relatively recently, I can say that we only had one lecturing course in which we talked about inclusive education,” Balandīna said. “We talked about it more generally and in context than about where we could look for materials while working with these kids. This means that there is a lot of self-education. When I come to this school, I mostly learned everything from colleagues,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education said teachers will never be fully prepared to work in inclusive classes.
“If we looked at the last five six years, how much funding has been invested in the teacher training process, how many teachers have attended paid national courses, or Skola2030 paid courses exactly for special education, then this amount of money is very high and the number of educators is very high,” says IZM spokeswoman Modra Jansone. The question is whether this knowledge that was acquired has been used in practice.
The teacher Iveta Zvejniece believes that there are not many education courses offered to teachers.
University of Latvia's (LU) Pedagoģijas, psychology and arts faculty lead researcher, associate professor Dita Nīmante has developed and also reads the “Inclusive and Special Education” compulsory course to future teachers. But it is only implemented this academic year. The course teaches an understanding of diversity, different competencies and legal aspects.
In 2019, Nīmante was one of the researchers who carried out a study on Riga teachers' readiness to work in an inclusive class. Only 11% of teachers indicated they felt comfortable working in inclusive classes. But 30% made it clear they were feeling uncomfortable. This applies to both new and experienced teachers.
The study revealed that teachers had theoretical knowledge but lacked practical skills that are not acquired in further education courses. Some simply have no desire. Those schools that are prepared to make greater efforts are seeking and finding solutions. However, inclusive education is a challenge not only for schools but also for society as a whole.