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Innovations and developments - Netherlands

For decades the main object of special education was to educate the mentally, physically and/or sensorial impaired pupils or pupils with severe behaviour problems. A thorough diagnosis and classification of the child’s handicap(s) was seen as an important first step in this direction. Assessment focused on classifying the kind of handicap in order to start treatment. This practice became known as the medical or -referring to the field it applied to- psycho-medical paradigm. The basic idea was that a detailed diagnosis of the child’s handicap(s) is both a necessary and sufficient condition to start treatment. Diagnosis and treatment were seen as two different, yet closely linked activities. Each clinical picture has its own treatment, analogous to the medical diagnosis of ‘a broken arm’ which leads to the treatment of ‘putting the arm in splints’.
Basically, the division into different special school types can be seen as a consequence of this line of thinking. Classifying pupils into different handicap categories is directly related to placement in a school specialising in the handicap concerned. Thinking according to the psycho-medical paradigm was not restricted to assessment, but extended itself to the treatment and instruction of pupils and to ‘compartmentalised’ approaches of specialists (Myers & Hammill, 1969). The assumption behind such a referral system is that all pupils with, say, a physical handicap have the same needs, and that these needs can only be met in a school for that particular disability. The fact that some physically impaired pupils may well have similar special needs as pupils with other impairments was neglected. The focus was primarily on classification, assuming that the special needs of a certain handicap are all the same.
In order to classify pupils into different handicap categories batteries of tests have been developed, most of which focus on differentiating handicapped pupils from non-handicapped ones. The aim of these instruments was to predict what will happen if we do nothing: low IQ predicts low school performances; low verbal ability predicts problems in understanding language, etc. The majority of such instruments are based on various theories on learning difficulties, motivation, concentration, emotional development, etc., but hardly any of these theories address the question of what actions are needed in education.
In the late sixties, the focus of general special-education theories on classifying handicaps declined, and the object of special education was reformulated in terms of the educational problems linked to a handicap or a developmental disorder. Not the presence of a handicap determined the need for special education but whether the handicap hinders the student’s education (see, for a Dutch publication, Vliegenthart, 1972; and an influential German publication, Bleidick, 1974). Assessment still started with describing the pupil’s handicap, but the more important aim was to arrive at firm conclusions about the special educational needs that resulted from the handicap(s).
In more recent years, we see further elaborations of these theoretical and practical developments. Special education assessment involves due attention to the consequences of the special needs on the pupil’s school career. In other words, the aim is to come to conclusions about the appropriate instructi¬on of the pupil in the light of the formulated special needs. The pupil’s needs are translated into what teachers, therapists and others involved in education should do. The description of needs, then, leads to an individual educational program (IEP) for the pupil. The idea is that only after making an IEP it becomes clear what placement is appropriate and how much additional funding should be made available to implement it. Assessment therefore is directly linked to making plans, implementing these in practice and later evaluating these plans in order to adjust them.
To sum up, over the past decades there has been increased criticism of the psycho-medical paradigm in special education. Classification into traditional handicap categories is no longer seen as an appropriate step in meeting the special needs of pupils. Instead, the term ‘special education’ refers to the services needed if problems arise in education (Ter Horst, 1980). Central to special education are not the students’ handicaps, but the problems in education as experienced or expected by students, teachers, or parents. These problems in education generally refer to pupils not attaining certain developmental, instructional, or educational goals (Rispens, 1990). The existence of a problem can be detected by assessing the pupil’s behaviour or performance. The basic difference with the practice known as the psycho-medical paradigm is that a classification of the pupil in terms of a certain handicap has been abandoned. Assessment should focus on profiling the educational problems a pupil encounters, and linking it to taking decisions on special support for the pupil. However, although the focus of assessment has changed over the past decades, the bulk of available diagnostic instruments still build on psycho-medical thinking, which is not very suitable for assessing the consequences of special needs. The vast majority of assessment instruments have been developed to select, and not specifically to suggest educational programmes. The development of new (versions of) theories (for instance: IQ as testing the limits, as information processing or as meta-cognition) is far from easy and will need much expertise, research and time.
Assessment procedures in the Netherlands are still largely based on theories, selection procedures, test-materials and models which do not meet the demands of assessment in inclusive settings. Easy to implement alternatives are not at hand, but further development and implementation of new models for needs-based assessment (see Pameijer, described in the next section of this report) seem a step forward.

  • Bleidick, U.K. (1974). Pädagogik der Behinderten. Berlijn-Charlottenburg.
  • Myers, P.I., & Hammill, D.D. (1969). Methods for learning disorders. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Rispens, J. (1990). Traditie en vernieuwing. Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 29, 36 - 51.


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