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Finland - Special needs education within the education system

Development of inclusion

The reforms of school administration in the 1990s, with decision-making decentralised to the municipalities, have reduced the number of special schools, while special classes have been founded in mainstream schools. The state maintains seven special schools providing comprehensive school education. These schools are primarily intended for pupils with hearing or visual impairments or with a physical or other impairment.

The state-owned special schools are national development and service centres, which provide expert services for municipal and other schools and temporary education and rehabilitation for pupils of compulsory school age studying at other schools, in order to support their studies. The schools may also provide rehabilitation for people with disabilities under compulsory school age and those who have completed comprehensive school. The tasks of state-owned special schools are:

  • to develop basic education and the related rehabilitation, curricula, teaching and rehabilitation methods, teaching aids and learning materials;
  • to provide guidance and information services for pupils at other schools, their parents or guardians, teachers and other staff;
  • to steer the preparation of education and rehabilitation plans; and
  • to promote the transition of pupils into further study, working life and society.

It is the duty of the municipality and the individual school to include pupils with special educational needs in the mainstream educational system. The first alternative for providing special needs support is to include pupils with special educational needs in mainstream classes and, when necessary, provide special needs education in small teaching groups. Only when this is not feasible is the second alternative considered: the provision of special needs education in a special group, class or school.

Inclusion has developed in Finland as follows:

  • Separate curricula of special education have been abolished and all pupils use the same curriculum individualised by individual education plans. In the curricula, the concept ‘need for special support’ will be used when referring to special education.
  • The pupil welfare services are included in the curriculum, and municipalities and schools are obliged to include the services they offer in the curriculum.
  • Development of inclusion and production of models regarding municipality, school and pupil-level planning, organisation and implementation of inclusive special needs education in co-operation with various interest groups.
  • The statistics on provision, resources and costs of special needs education will be drawn upon in order to obtain a continuous view on the state of special needs education nationwide, as well as to acquire comparative data on the effects of regional and municipal differences.
  • Several projects are developing the virtual school for special education needs according to the national strategy. The actors in these projects represent private and public sector, state, municipalities, universities and research centres, both in the humanities and technical areas.
  • There are several projects for preventing exclusion of pupils by developing productive learning models and models to teach and support pupils with mental illnesses.

The fourth period of education started with the 1995 evaluation of the status of special education, which formed the basis for two projects dealing with qualitative development of special education, running from 1997 to 2001 and from 2002 to 2004. The national project for 2002–2004 to develop the quality of special education integrated the operating systems of education in mainstream and special education and in vocational education and training. Its purpose was to reform the operating cultures and joint guidance of education and instruction, as well as support services (health care and social administration, day-care and youth services) by supporting the integration of the service systems on regional and municipal levels. The activities were based on continuous co-operation, evaluation and steering across administrative boundaries, which took the roles, tasks and operating models of different experts into account. This also involved ensuring that instruction and support services were organised in accordance with pupils’ age level and abilities so as to promote pupils’ healthy growth and development. Pupil welfare services were to be organised in co-operation with the authorities responsible for implementing social and health care services.

At the beginning of the 21st century there was much discussion about how to further improve the legislation, procedures and pedagogy in order to take even better care of all children’s learning and development. On 14 March 2006, the Ministry of Education appointed a steering group to prepare a proposal for a long-term strategy for the development of special needs and inclusive education. The strategy for pre-primary and basic education was published in November 2007. The Government has decided that the strategy will be put into practice in autumn 2010. The Ministry of Education prepared the changes in the legislation, and the Finnish National Board of Education prepared the changes in the Core Curriculum for Pre-Primary and Basic Education (2010). The steering group also produced definitions for the key concepts.

The strategy for the development of special needs and inclusive education emphasises the importance of the wide basic education network which supports the right of every child to attend the nearest mainstream school. The nearest mainstream school refers to a school where a pupil would regularly be assigned. In that school every child should get sufficient and timely support in order to reach the goals of basic education. Inclusive education refers to the provision of education in such a manner that all children’s successful learning and development can be secured.

Inclusion is a principle that calls for developing both system and operational structures, while also requiring the development of an operational culture and pedagogical methodology that will promote all pupils’ success in their studies and their positive growth and development. When arranging education for a special needs pupil, the local school’s possibilities to teach such a pupil will always be explored first. This also involves assessing the resources and support measures required by the school in order to provide education to successfully promote the pupil’s learning. If the assessment of the situation indicates that the pupil’s support needs are particularly demanding, to an extent that it is impossible to provide education at the nearest school, education must be provided where it can be done to the benefit of the pupil.

The strategy for developing special needs and inclusive education proposed that practice be changed to focus on support and prevention that is markedly earlier than before. This intensified support should be adopted as the primary form of support before a decision on special support is made. This would, according to the strategy, be the way to reduce the number of pupils in special needs education. The intensified support would be used to promote learning and growth and prevent the accumulation of problems relating to learning, social interaction or development. When the decision of special needs education is made, it should have stronger status. Furthermore, in addition to medical expertise, the role of pedagogical expertise and planning should be strengthened. The strategy suggested that if early childhood education were administratively part of the education system, this would enable children with special needs to proceed more flexibly and safely from early childhood to pre-primary and onwards to basic education.

The strategy stresses the central role of teachers. Developing inclusive education requires heavy investments in teacher education. In Finland, teachers have been trusted to do their best as true education professionals. From this it has followed that Finnish teachers have been entrusted with considerable pedagogical independence in the classroom and that schools have likewise enjoyed substantial autonomy in organising their work within the limits of the national core curriculum. Recent studies show that the new competence requirements, which arise from societal change, emphasise teachers’ ability to meet children, young people and their parents, as well as colleagues, as co-operative partners. Teachers cannot cope on their own under the pressures set by increasing requirements. A well-functioning multi-cultural school works as a community, whose results depend on its ability to employ the students’ individual and special skills to benefit the common good. As a result of the increase in social problems and in the number of students who need special attention, teachers need both pedagogical and social knowledge and skills to work together when solving problems at school. Teachers are also expected to be open to interacting with their environments. The ‘teachership’ of the future means the ability to teach heterogeneous groups, readiness to actively participate in discussions concerning the direction of education and society and the will to work for development.

Further examples from Finland can be found in the Inclusive Education in Action project.

Pre-school education

Pre-school education builds on the basic values of society. These have been stipulated in national legislation and international declarations, recommendations and conventions, which endeavour to safeguard human rights and global viability. The role of pre-school education is to promote children’s growth into humane individuals and ethically responsible members of society by guiding them towards responsible action and compliance with generally accepted rules and towards appreciation for other people. The core role of pre-school education is to promote children’s favourable growth, development and learning opportunities. It shall support and monitor physical, psychological, social, cognitive and emotional development and prevent any difficulties that may arise. Early childhood education and care, pre-school education and basic education form an integrated whole, progressing consistently in terms of children’s development.

Children whose conditions for development, growth and learning have been affected by illness, disability or reduced functional ability need special support in pre-school education. In addition, children in need of psychological or social support for their growth shall receive special support. Children whose development involves risk factors related to learning potential, according to experts in education and pupil welfare services and parents or other guardians, shall also be entitled to special support. In addition, special support in pre-school education shall be provided for children who are within extended compulsory education or whose basic education has been deferred for one year, and for children admitted or transferred to special education during pre-school education.

The physical and social learning environment and the necessary support services in children’s pre-school education shall primarily be organised so as to enable children to participate in group activities as fully as possible.

Children participating in education are entitled to receive sufficient support for growth and learning as soon as the need for support becomes apparent. Categories in the National Core Curriculum for Pre-Primary Education are general support, intensified support and special support. In pre-primary education, categories are adapted to the objectives of the National Core Curriculum for Pre-Primary Education.

Compulsory schooling

As in pre-primary education, support for studies and pupil welfare falls into three categories in the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education: general support, intensified support and special support.

General support

Every pupil has a right to high-quality education as well as an opportunity to receive guidance and support for learning and school attendance on all school days. All pupils’ abilities and needs must be taken into account in schoolwork. Caring, concern and a good atmosphere in a school community promote pupils’ development and support good learning.

Each teacher is responsible for taking the teaching group and the different abilities and needs of each of its pupils into account in instruction. Co-operation with parents and guardians, other teachers and staff members and different experts contributes to success in this respect. The teacher guides pupils to recognise their own resources, learning-related strengths and development challenges. Special attention must be focused on pupils’ learning abilities and their opportunity to assume responsibility for their own learning, setting objectives for it, and its planning, implementation and assessment. Pupils’ self-esteem, study motivation and learning-to-learn skills are consolidated in all learning situations and subjects.

Teaching work also involves tasks relating to guidance, counselling and pupil welfare. Any support needs in terms of learning and school attendance are met by differentiating instruction, through co-operation among teachers and by modifying teaching groups in a flexible manner. The role of these arrangements becomes pronounced in combined-class instruction. Schools may make use of remedial teaching, as well as learning plans, part-time special needs education and assistants’ contributions as means to meet the support needs of teaching groups or individual pupils even before transition to the intensified support stage.

It is also possible to influence pupils’ well-being and learning motivation through morning and afternoon activities, provided that these are offered by the education provider concerned. Planning these to form part of the pupils’ day also makes it possible to increase experiences of safety, security and community spirit.

Intensified support

Pupils in need of regular support for their learning or school attendance or in need of several forms of support at the same time must be provided with intensified support that is based on a pedagogical assessment in accordance with a learning plan prepared for them. Intensified support is provided when general support is not sufficient.

Intensified support is planned as a whole for each individual pupil. It is by nature more intense and persistent than general support. Intensified support is used to systematically support the pupil’s learning and school attendance and is designed to prevent problems from escalating, diversifying and accumulating.

It is possible to make use of all forms of support available in basic education during intensified support, with the exception of special needs education provided on the basis of a decision on special support. Subject syllabi cannot be individualised at the intensified support stage. Conversely, a more prominent role is played by part-time special needs education, individual guidance counselling and use of flexible teaching groups, as well as home-school co-operation. In addition, pupil welfare services play a more substantial role in promoting and maintaining pupils’ well-being. Support must be organised according to each pupil’s developmental phase and individual needs in terms of quality and quantity. It is important to ensure pupil’s opportunities to gain experiences of success in learning and as group members and to support their positive perception of themselves and schoolwork.

During a period of intensified support, each pupil’s learning and school attendance must be monitored and assessed regularly. In the event that a pupil’s situation changes, the learning plan will be revised to match their need for support.

Initiating and organising intensified support and, where necessary, the pupil’s transition back to general support is dealt with on the basis of pedagogical assessment by a multi-disciplinary pupil welfare team or through some other form of multi-disciplinary pupil welfare work in accordance with provisions on dealing with the case of an individual pupil. After this process, intensified support measures to be provided for the pupil are recorded in the pupil’s personal learning plan.

The learning plan during intensified support

A pupil in need of regular support for their learning or school attendance or in need of several forms of support at the same time must be provided with intensified support based on their own prepared learning plan. The support measures to be provided for the pupil are recorded in the learning plan. A learning plan is always drawn up for a pupil receiving intensified support. The learning plan must, unless there is an evident obstacle to doing so, be drawn up in co-operation with the pupil and their parents or guardians and, where necessary, with any other legal representative of the pupil. During a period of intensified support, systematic planning of studies and support measures will support the pupil’s learning, growth and development.

Special support

Special support is provided for pupils who cannot adequately achieve their growth, development or learning objectives through other support measures. Special support may be provided as part of either general or extended compulsory education. Special support consists of special needs education based on a decision on special support and other forms of support available in basic education. The whole range of support measures available in basic education can be used.

The purpose of special support is to provide pupils with holistic and systematic support that enables them to complete their compulsory education and build a foundation for continuing their studies when they leave comprehensive school. Pupils’ self-esteem and study motivation are reinforced and they are encouraged to assume responsibility for their studies within the limits of their own abilities.

Provision of special support requires education providers to make a decision in writing. Prior to making a decision on special support, the education provider must consult the pupil and their parents, guardians or legal representatives and prepare a pedagogical statement on the pupil. The necessity of special support must be revised at least after the second year class and before transferring to the seventh year class and must be reviewed during pre-primary and compulsory education whenever the child’s support needs change. For this purpose, a new pedagogical statement will be prepared for the pupil. If the need for on-going support is confirmed, a decision to continue special support will be taken. If the pupil is considered not to need further special support, a decision must be taken to terminate support measures. In the latter case, the pupil starts to receive intensified support.

Any matters that are significant in terms of the pupil’s legal protection and provision of instruction are determined in the decision on special support. The decision on special support must determine the pupil’s primary teaching group, any possible interpretation and assistance services and other necessary services and, where necessary, divergent teaching arrangements for the pupil. Individualisation of a syllabus requires a decision on special support.

A decision on special support may be made prior to or during pre-primary or basic education without a prior pedagogical statement and provision of intensified support for learning, if a psychological or medical evaluation indicates that the pupil in question cannot otherwise be provided with education due to disability, illness, developmental delay or an emotional disorder, or for some other equivalent special reason. If a decision on special support is made during basic education without providing intensified support, it must be based on a reassessment of the pupil’s situation as a result of an accident or serious illness, for example.

Support measures may include factors relating to teaching and counselling staff, pupil welfare services, assistants and other necessary services, teaching methods and working approaches, learning methods, as well as materials and equipment. In addition to the pedagogical statement, other statements, such as a psychological or medical statement or an equivalent social statement, must also be obtained, where necessary, in order to prepare a decision on special support.

Individual Education Plan (IEP)

In order to implement a decision on special support issued for a pupil, the pupil must be provided with an individual education plan (IEP). The plan must indicate the provision of education and other support in accordance with the decision on special support issued for the pupil. An individual education plan is a written pedagogical document based on the approved curriculum.

The purpose of an individual education plan is to provide persistent support for the pupil’s individual learning and growth process. The plan is a target plan relating to the pupil’s learning and schooling and covering educational contents, pedagogical methods and other necessary support measures.

If a pupil studies one or more subjects in accordance with an individualised syllabus, the individual education plan must include, in addition to the above-mentioned general points: a list of the subjects that the pupil studies according to individualised syllabi and the objectives and core contents of these subjects, monitoring and assessment of progress, the pupil’s opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways, assessment methods and times, and the pupil’s self-assessment in those subjects that they study according to individualised syllabi.

The plan must be revised as required, however, at least once per school year to correspond to the pupil’s needs. The individual education plan is revised whenever the pupil’s support needs or teaching objectives change.

Studying according to activity areas

Instead of subjects, instruction for people with severe disabilities is divided into functional domains, which are motor skills, language and communication, social skills, skills in activities of daily living, and cognitive skills. It may also be justified to provide instruction for pupils with other disabilities or serious illnesses by activity area for reasons relating to the health of such pupils.

Transition period

Additional education

Young people who have completed the basic education syllabus may be provided with additional education lasting one extra school year in accordance with the Basic Education Act. Additional education is open to young people who have received their basic education leaving certificate in the same or previous year. No national lesson allocation or syllabus has been determined for additional education. The curriculum for additional education may include the core subjects common to all pupils as part of the basic education syllabus, elective subjects within basic education, other subjects and subject groups conforming to the role of basic education, vocational orientation studies and periods of workplace guidance.

Vocational education

Students in need of special support may apply to ordinary vocational institutions within the national joint application system or through the related flexible application procedure. They may also apply to educational institutions with special educational tasks directly or, in some cases, through the joint application system. Pupil counsellors in basic education and student counsellors in vocational education and training aim to find a suitable place for each student according to the student’s wishes.

In vocational education and training, students in need of special educational or student welfare services receive instruction in the form of special education and training. An individual education plan is drawn up for each student receiving special education and training. This plan must set out details of the qualification to be completed, the national core curriculum or the requirements of the competence-based qualification observed in education and training, the scope of the qualification, the individual curriculum drawn up for the student, grounds for providing special education and training, special educational and student welfare services required for study, as well as other services and support measures provided for the student. Each education provider is responsible for organising special education and training and services for students in special education and training.

Upper-secondary education

Special needs education is not mentioned in the current regulations of upper-secondary education (629/1998, 810/1998). However, the Upper-Secondary Schools Act (629/1998) provides that students with disabilities and those in need of special support for some other reason are entitled to assistance services, other teaching and student welfare services and special aids, as required in their studies.

In its Regulation dated 11 December 2009, the Matriculation Examination Board issued instructions for completion of the matriculation examination, including instructions for students with dyslexia or other disabilities or illnesses. Every year, about 1,750 candidates present medical certificates to the Board, requesting relaxation of the terms for completing the matriculation examination or exemption from completing a specific part of the examination, such as deaf students requesting exemption from listening comprehension tests.

Quality indicators for SNE

The planning, provision, evaluation, monitoring and development of special education are included in the overall plan for the development of education and the curriculum drawn up by each education provider on the basis of the relevant national core curriculum and they are carried out in co-operation with those responsible for mainstream education. In vocational education and training, the curricula of the education providers define the organisation of special education and co-operation within the institution. Responsibility for arranging rehabilitation and support services related to special education rests jointly with the educational and social administrations and the health care services of each local authority.

In terms of provision of education, the Development Plan for Education and Research for 2011–2016 is an important document drawn up by the Ministry of Education and Culture, which sets out the key contents and measures for national development over the coming years. These concern the provision of both mainstream and special education as a whole, because special education is being developed as an integral and natural part of mainstream education. Education providers are required to draw up their local development plans on the basis of the national plan in such a way that the development plan for special education is included in the overall plan. The plans may also be regional and sub-regional.

The starting points for planning include guaranteeing the achievement of basic educational security, prevention of social exclusion, early intervention and guaranteeing fundamental educational rights for all people at all levels of the education system.

The priorities for implementation include enhancing the efficiency of the education system and supporting children and young people at both basic and upper-secondary level by means such as strengthening remedial instruction and special education as part of mainstream education, pupil and student counselling, pupil and student welfare services and other support services. The starting points include realisation of educational security, prevention of social exclusion, early intervention and realisation of fundamental educational rights for all people at all levels of the education system. Implementation of special education is evaluated and supported by drawing up an action programme to improve early identification of difficulties in learning and adjustment and development of teaching arrangements.

The aim is to improve the provision and quality of pre-primary and basic education, promote the creation of sub-regional networks of resource centres, strengthen the realisation of the local school principle and support multi-disciplinary co-operation in different branches and at different levels of administration, as well as to develop morning and afternoon activities. Educational objectives and contents, teaching materials and teaching methods will also be developed with a view to taking different learning methods and operating environments into account. Development of operating methods aims to promote the inclusion of pupils and to enhance close co-operation between home and school. In addition, improvement of co-operation between mainstream and special education in activities within the uniform comprehensive school system will be taken into account in teacher education.

Development Plan for Education and Research for 2011–2016

Quality criteria to support the operation of schools

The quality criteria for basic education were issued in the autumn of 2009. The criteria aim to ensure a high quality and diverse supply of instruction and to guarantee children’s and young people’s educational and cultural basic rights, irrespective of their place of residence, native language and financial situation. The quality criteria are a tool for producing local-level information about the structural and operational quality of basic education, as well as for informing decisions relating to the provision of basic education. The quality criteria determine on what grounds the activities can be analysed and in what way the activities are expected to be realised in order to serve the set aims.

Measures will be taken to promote the adoption of the basic education quality criteria by means of government subsidies and in-service training promoting regional co-operation in quality assurance, among others. The basic education quality criteria will be updated and expanded to include quality criteria for schoolchildren’s morning and afternoon activities.

Intensified and special support in basic education to be supported

Amendments to the Basic Education Act concerning intensified and special support came into force at the beginning of 2011. However, the new provisions on pupil welfare services and data protection were applied from August 2010. The new statutes supplement provisions on special and other support given to pupils. The aim is to enhance early, timely and planned proactive support to pupils’ learning and growth. Education providers adopted the revised curricula by August 2011.

Government subsidies will fund the implementation of the provisions on intensified and special support. The realisation of the pupil’s right to intensified and special support will be monitored and the report requested by Parliament will be submitted to the Education and Culture Committee by the end of 2013.

Pupils’ emotional and social skills to be supported

The values underpinning general education are human rights, equality and democracy and the acceptance of multiculturalism. The school community encounters the challenges of a diversifying and differentiating society. Children and young people have the right to a safe growth and learning environment. Tolerance has not advanced in the expected way. In international terms, young Finns feel that their possibilities to influence are meagre. It is necessary to enhance the acceptance of difference and equal treatment of individuals. Schools should stress inclusion, well-being, safety and respect for fellow beings. It is important to prevent bullying, discrimination and racism. Some 2,500 comprehensive schools are applying the KiVa-koulu (cool school) anti-bullying programme. Action to eradicate bullying is on-going, with special emphasis on racist discrimination and bullying. Measures will be taken to strengthen the schools’ role in developing pupils’ emotional and social skills and to support pupils’ and students’ inclusion and communality. Action to combat bullying will be stepped up. Education for tolerance and good conduct will be increased in schools.

Education in hospitals and the education of children in custody

It is vital to ensure that children who are challenging because of their emotional life or social conduct are referred to child and youth psychiatric examination and care and can be flexibly returned to school. Some of these pupils wait for admission to treatment or placement by welfare officials, while for others it has not been possible to arrange care for other reasons. Similarly, it often proves difficult to arrange the teaching of a pupil returning to school. Some pupils have to rely on various temporary teaching arrangements. In hospitals, in-patient intakes have been cut and recently the emphasis in treatment has been on out-patient care. In this situation, the local authorities have been developing various teaching arrangements. According to studies, the basic education given in schools to children in custody and in substitute care is mainly implemented in the way intended by law. However, the education of some children has not been arranged in accordance with statutes in schools authorised to provide education or in hospitals. Measures will be taken to improve the realisation of the right of children in compulsory school age who are in non-residential care to participate in basic education and to guarantee the right of children in custody and in substitute care to basic education. The necessary amendments to legislation were to be made in 2012.

The funding of education given to children in custody and in substitute care was changed to be compatible with the right of municipalities to charge for expenses referred to in legislation in the sector of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health from the beginning of 2013. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health will supplement the provisions on the client plan and the notification obligation of the local authority.

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