Inclusion – progress or regression?

Inclusion – progress or regression?

by Dr phil. Judith Barben, psychologist and primary school teacher

There has been much talk about “inclusion” or “integration” in schools lately.1 Both terms mean that as many children as possible – whether normally gifted or mentally handicapped, whether behaving normally or being disruptive – are taught together in one school class. As a consequence, almost all special classes and schools are to disappear. The main argument in favour of “inclusion” or “integration” is that children would learn more social competence. Is that true?

Until a few years ago there used to be a carefully structured system of special classes and schools in Switzerland. Children with special needs were taught according to their needs and capabilities in these special classes and schools. Special classes are smaller than regular classes and part of elementary school.

Integration as an objective

There used to be special classes for pupils with behavioural problems, learning difficulties and also for speakers of foreign languages, as well as special introductory classes for school beginners needing additional support. These children were taught the first grade subjects within two years and in smaller steps. Like this they were provided with optimal starting conditions for the second year in regular school.
The primary purpose of all special classes has always been the integration of all pupils into regular school. Thanks to additional support by the teacher and to the smaller number of children, pupils with difficulties can learn to stand their ground in a classroom community. They are together with classmates with similar difficulties. This helps them feel part of a class community.
Speakers of foreign languages were enabled to learn the national language so well that they could later follow the lessons in the regular class without major problems.
Likewise pupils with behavioural and learning problems were enabled to overcome their difficulties and, after some time, to move to regular classes.
There are still special institutions and schools for pupils with physical disabilities or sensory impairments. These pupils are furthered by specialised teachers with the aim of allowing them later on to lead – as far as possible – an independent and meaningful life. In the long run it is planned that these schools and institutions should disappear, too.2 What will happen to these children when they are in regular classes?

Some historical aspects of Swiss special education

Up to the beginning of the 19th century, all pupils were taught together in one class irrespective of their age, needs and handicaps.3 Then, however, educators found out that learning together in a school class with pupils of similar level has a positive effect on the pupil’s performance. Age-grouped school classes were formed. In 1832, the Canton of Zurich for example issued an education law requiring compulsory education in six consecutive age-grouped classes.4
Thanks to private initiatives, schools for the blind and deaf were also established. The blind learnt “Braille”, a relief-like tactile printing.5 The deaf were taught sign and finger language as well as a sound method which enabled them to learn to speak.
On the other hand the mentally disadvantaged children were not at all sent to classes or had to attend the regular classes where they were usually neglected. As a result, they often lost all their self-confidence.
Finally teaching materials and curricula for children with learning difficulties and mental disabilities were developed. In special classes and schools, the subjects were presented as simply and clearly as possible so that the pupils could make progress.

Objectives of special education

A textbook from 1925 expresses the objectives of special education:
“All children have the right to education. Equality consists in the same chances for every child to receive an education that corresponds with his or her natural capabilities within the framework of compulsory schooling. Every child, weak or strong, must be granted the development and support that is appropriate to his or her individuality. The aim is a school education that serves as a basis for the child’s further acquisition of knowledge and skills.6

Learning on an equal footing

The principle that every child is taught according to his or her capabilities and abilities is still valid today. This principle can be applied to any type of teaching. In sports, for example, teams train with similarly strong players. Everyone benefits most from lessons with participants who are at a similar level.
Children who always experience that everyone else is better than them become discouraged and develop a negative self-image. Many of them become disruptive. But even students who are far ahead of the others lose the joy of learning. They become bored ore disruptive since they are not enough challenged.

The more different, the better?

In view of these facts it is all the more astonishing that the “Curriculum 21” is intended to dissolve the year classes and the kindergarten. According to “Curriculum 21”, learning takes place in age-mixed groups during three or four years from the age of four.7 At the same time more and more communes are merging school levels such as secondary school A and B, another form of “inclusion”. The aim of “Curriculum 21” seems to be: the more heterogeneous (different), the better.
Summing up: In order to create diversity, perfectly functioning age-grouped classes are torn apart and special classes are dissolved, resulting in disruptive behaviour and increasing aggression among the pupils. High-performing students who are eager to learn are annoyed by troublemakers who constantly divert them from learning. The troublemakers, on the other hand, often disrupt the lessons because they cannot keep up.
Inclusion lowers achievement
It is often claimed that “inclusion” does not result in any loss of performance. However, a pilot study by the Intercantonal University for Special Education Zurich proves the opposite. The study examined 27 “integrative regular classes” in the Cantons of Zurich, St. Gallen and Schwyz.8 The findings are devastating.
“Integration classes do poorly in tests,” headlined the “Tages-Anzeiger”.9 The teachers were dissatisfied and complained about the most precarious conditions as a result of implementing “inclusion”. The special teachers were only available for certain hours and half of them had not been trained at all. Many communes hired “school assistants” without any pedagogical training instead of special teachers.10
The scientists were alarmed that not only pupils with special educational needs, but also regular pupils without special educational needs – the vast majority – achieved below-average results in the performance tests. The pilot study thus clearly shows that “inclusion” lowers the level of the whole class.11

In the stranglehold of the Curriculum 21

Professor emeritus of psychology Dr phil. Gerhard Steiner of the University of Basel is extremely critical of “inclusion”. He wrote the essay “Im Würgegriff des Lehrplan 21” (“In the Stranglehold of Curriculum 21”). It shows that the “Curriculum 21” with its forced heterogeneity is a fundamentally wrong approach.12
In contrast to “Curriculum 21”, Steiner demands a “de-heterogenisation” of school classes. This is the only way to strengthen the pupils’ abilities and willingness to learn. Learning is always an integration of new information into existing knowledge. The more the students‘ previous knowledge in a class matches, the more efficient the learning process is. Therefore, the greatest possible uniformity of the class should be aimed for.

Without factual reason

In addition, as emphasised by professor Steiner, many of today’s school classes already show a great heterogeneity without artificial mixing. There is absolutely no reason to artificially implement even more heterogeneity. An unbelievable amount of precious learning time is wasted. The extreme diversity hinders the progress of all pupils and makes class management difficult. In addition, the special teachers and “class assistants”, who are constantly present in class, cause a great deal of unrest in the classes. Steiner clearly refutes the argument that heterogeneity through “inclusion” promotes social competence.

Strengthening the class community

According to Steiner, the teacher should promote the school class’ homogeneity by consciously welding it together into a “learning community”. This has an extremely positive impact on the pupils’ motivation.
Steiner concludes: no mixed-age classes, no inclusion in regular classes of pupils with learning difficulties and severe behavioural problems, since no one benefits in these classes. According to Steiner, the class room community as a successful learning community should definitely be cultivated – in all types of classes and schools.

No legal basis

Both the Federal Constitution, Arts. 8, 19 and 62, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Art. 24 are often mentioned to justify “inclusion”. But nothing of “inclusion” is mentioned in these documents, on the contrary: The Federal Constitution guarantees that no child must be discriminated against and that children with disabilities are granted adequate special education! With regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Federal Supreme Court states that the Convention’s requirements are fulfilled if the child’s welfare and development possibilities are taken into account.13 In short, both documents cannot be used to justify “inclusion”.


The mixture of ages and types imposed top-down has met with massive resistance from parents and teachers. They refuse to tolerate this irrational “school reform”. Joint action against the unsuitable methods has proved successful. Parents’ opposition against the age mix in the Zurich commune of Zumikon, for example, was so strong that the school authorities had to return to age-group classes. It will be contagious if other parents’ groups, schools, communes or cantons begin to resist. In this way, a counter movement against the unpedagogical concept of “Curriculum 21” will emerge in Switzerland. For the concept of “inclusion”, which is part of “Curriculum 21”, can only be prevented with a movement “from below”, by the citizens.
What are your experiences, dear reader, with “inclusion” and age-mixed classes? What is the effect you have observed in your children? I am happy to hear your opinions or questions: <link>      •

1    In the UN-papers both terms are synonymous.
2    Schweizer Zentrum für Heil- und Sonderpädagogik Berne: Was sind die Unterschiede zwischen Integration und Inklusion? © 2018
3    Klinke Willibald: Das Volksschulwesen des Kantons Zurich zur Zeit der Helvetik (1798-1803). Zürich 1907
4    Erziehungsrat des Kantons Zürich (ed.): Volks­schule und Lehrerbildung 1832-1932. Festschrift. Zürich 1933, p. 136
5    “Braille” was invented by the Frenchman Louis Braille in 1825.
6    Heller, Theodor. Grundriss der Heilpädagogik. Leipzig 1925, p. 462f.
7    Lehrplan 21 (Curriculum 21): Overview, p. 3
8    Altmeyer, S. et al. Pilotstudie zur Wirksamkeit sonderpädagogischer Massnahmen in integrativen Regelklassen. Internationale Hochschule für Heilpädagogik, Zurich 2018
9    Integrationsklassen schneiden bei Leistungstests schlecht ab. Integration classes perform poorly in performance tests. “Tages-Anzeiger” from 22.11.2017
10    loc.cit.
11    loc.cit.
12    Steiner Gerhard: Im Würgegriff des Lehrplan 21. Universität Basel 2014
13    Bundesgerichtsurteil (Federal Court Judgement) 2C_590/2014

(Translation Current Concerns)

April 2018. On Visitor’s Day, a grandfather, a primary school teacher himself, visited his granddaughter’s lesson in an “integrative” class in a primary school in Zurich. He describes his impression as follows:
“Some of the children were practising the series of eight, while others did something else and were talking loudly. The children with the series of eight were not practising with the teacher, but sitting or lying on the floor. First, they spent time by drawing the tasks by lot. One of them got a piece of paper without lines. Then the dice were thrown. Immediately a child shouted the correct result. The writer wrote with a pencil, while lying on the floor, the whole calculation in a lengthy way, while the others had to wait endlessly. Obviously, the writer was a very weak pupil. Then the dice were thrown again and so it went on.”
This example shows that with the “inclusion” the majority of pupils aren’t learning much because they don’t pay attention, the weaker pupils are exposed unnecessarily and the speed of learning is slowed down.

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