France - Special needs education within the education system

Developing inclusion

Children with disabilities who are not enrolled in mainstream schools may be accepted full-time or part-time at a medico-social centre while continuing their schooling.

The Law of 11 February 2005 strengthened the framework of this schooling in a specialised environment by creating strong ties to schooling in a mainstream setting and by establishing teaching units within social and medico-social establishments.

Pursuant to the Law, Decree 2005-1752 of 30 December 2005 and the Decree of 2 April 2009 (concerning the creation of teaching units) provide for keeping the child with disabilities enrolled in a national education establishment (reference school), while their schooling may take place:

  • in a teaching unit within a medico-social centre;
  • part-time in this unit and part-time in the reference school; or
  • part-time in this unit and part-time in a school located nearby with which the medico-social centre has an agreement.

The Decree of 2 April 2009 specifies how the teaching units are to be set up and organised in medico-social or health care establishments. These teaching units are new in specialised education and have a strongly inclusive significance. Indeed, when the teaching units were created as a system, they eliminated de facto the special classes and schools that had been in place since 1975 within specialised establishments (Article 1). This system aims to develop and implement a pedagogical project, based on the personalised schooling project (PPS) of learners with disabilities, founded on ‘teaching they receive in a “reference” school or other mainstream school’. This pedagogical project should make it possible ‘to achieve the learning objectives set forth in the student’s PPS as a complement to existing school programmes or in preparation for teaching received in schools’ (Article 2).

Such shared schooling ‘forces the various project partners to strengthen their consultations with a view to making necessary adjustments’ and the circular adds that ‘school attendance that is only occasional or reduced to a few hours a week would be contrary to the very idea of the PPS’ (Circular 2006-126 of 17 August 2006, Article 1.3 B).

In 2009, about 74,000 students with disabilities – out of 262,000 (29%) – were enrolled in special school environments (medico-social facilities), according to the White Paper of May 2011.

Current system


  • At the national level: the Office of School Career Personalisation and Schooling of Disabled Students at the Ministry of National Education.
  • At the regional and academy level: the technical advisor for School Adaptation and Disabled Student Schooling (ASH) of the rector of the academy.
  • At the departmental level: the technical advisor of the Academic Director of National Education Services, who is an inspector for National Education in charge of ASH whose duties were recently redefined by the Circular.
  • At the local level: the reference school teacher, whose areas of intervention are defined by the Decree of 17 August 2006.

In France, there is no dedicated term for the child population in need of specific measures adapted to their special educational needs. The current terminology (unadapted children, school adaptation and integration, administrative or legal protection of young people, specialised education, adapted education, etc.) comes with particular references and connotations and is weighted with historical context. There is no expression in use today which signifies that children or adolescents with special schooling and educational needs require particular care and monitoring in well-defined options, distinct from the mainstream educational system.

The education of children and adolescents with serious difficulties, either through disability or illness, is based on an infrastructure, which has slowly grown into a very extensive network.

This network includes four sectors: the public education system, under the authority of the Ministry of Education; the medico-educational sector, under the authority of the Ministry of Health, Youth and Sports; the socio-educational sector, under the authority either of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity or the Ministry of Justice; and the health sector.

The public education sector

This sector of adapted schooling comprises the infrastructures and facilities provided by the Ministry of Education. They were created together with the first special classes for children with intellectual disabilities in 1909. The sector has evolved following the school integration policy laid down in Framework Law no. 75-534 (30/06/1975) on Policy for People with Disabilities and was reinforced by Framework Law no. 89-486 (10/071989) on Education. The actions for the schooling of children with disabilities undertaken by the Ministry of Education were reinforced by the Law of 11 February 2005 on the Equality of Rights and Opportunities, Participation and Citizenship of People with Disabilities. The law affirms the right of children with disabilities to education and the responsibility of the educational system to guarantee the continuity of individual school careers. This law, which took effect on 1 January 2006, institutes the obligation to:

  • provide the student, whenever possible, with mainstream school access as close as possible to their home;
  • closely involve parents in the decision process of orienting their child and in all phases of defining the child’s personalised schooling project (PPS);
  • guarantee the continuity of the school career, adapted to the learner’s capacities and needs; and
  • guarantee equality of opportunities for candidates with disabilities and others, by ensuring a legal basis for the adjustment of examination conditions.

The Law of 11 February 2005 created a number of new authorities:

  • The Departmental Centre for People with Disabilities (MDPH): placed under the authority of the Chairperson of the General Council, this is a one-stop office which improves efficiency of reception, information and assistance to learners with disabilities and their families (see Decree no. 2005-1587 of 19 December 2005).
  • The Commission for the Rights and Autonomy of People with Disabilities (CDAPH; see Decree no. 2005-1589 of 19 December 2005): it decides on orientation in the fields of schooling and education and proposes conciliatory procedures in the event of disagreement. It closely involves the parents in the orientation decision process concerning their child and in all phases of defining the child’s personalised schooling project according to the special educational needs identified by this Commission. The Commission sees the child regularly in order to monitor their development.

The adapted schooling sector can be divided into:

  • Pre-primary and primary

At this level, classes for school inclusion (CLIS) receive children who are considered unable to pursue individual schooling in a mainstream class; CLIS have a maximum of 12 children with disabilities. There are four categories of CLIS, intended to receive children presenting severe cognitive learning disorders (CLIS 1), severe hearing impairment (CLIS 2), severe visual impairment (CLIS 3) and severe motor deficiency (CLIS 4).

Nearly 49,000 children were enrolled in CLIS in 2000. Since 2008, the number of CLIS has grown and the classes are being defined more accurately with classifications according to type of disability.

In 2009, Circular 2009-087 of 17 July 2009 transformed integration classes (CLIS) into classes for school inclusion (CLIS). Aside from the new name, the classes continue to operate in the same way, i.e. they group together students with the same type of disability into a ‘full-fledged class’, even if the students are encouraged ‘to take part as often as possible in a mainstream class’ (title 4). In other words, there is a shift from the special class to a mainstream class for a limited period of time, which corresponds more to the integration paradigm than to the inclusive paradigm.

At the start of the 2010 school year, there were 4,194 inclusive schooling classes, i.e. 72 more than in 2009. Of them, 3,933 were in the public school system (source: White Paper of May 2011).

  • Secondary

At secondary level, in 2010 the local units for school inclusion (ULIS) replaced the former integrated teaching units (UPI) to ensure the schooling of adolescents with disabilities in France’s collèges and lycées (Circular 2010-088 of 18 June 2010).

Unlike the CLIS and the UPI, a ULIS student must be enrolled in the division corresponding to their personalised schooling project (PPS) and they are supposed to ‘follow the classes held in a mainstream school setting’. The student may benefit, however, for part of their schedule, from ‘adapted methods requiring grouping the students together […] in a specific place’.

This system – which is not a class – may include no more than ten students presenting the same type of disability (motor deficiency, hearing impairment, visual impairment, cognitive learning deficiencies). A teacher specialised in pre-primary, primary or secondary education is responsible for its co-ordination.

Enrolment in a ULIS also allows the students to benefit from good conditions of educational or therapeutic educational support achieved through agreements between the school establishment and the medico-social establishments and services that intervene, if necessary, within the school.

The development of pedagogical integration units (UPI/ULIS) has increased since 2005. At the start of the 2006 school year, there were 1,009 pedagogical integration units. Starting in 2006, each principal received instructions to intensify the efforts to open new units, particularly in vocational lycées.

Provisions were made to open at least 200 UPIs per year from 2007 to 2010, including 166 in the public school system. By 2010, a total of 2,120 local units had been set up for inclusion in schools, i.e. 268 additional units (up 14.5% compared with 2009); 1,890 are in the public school system. Therefore, the number of students enrolled increased by more than 237% in six years, thereby enabling many students to continue their schooling up to the baccalaureate diploma.

Schooling for learners with disabilities

The student’s schooling takes place mainly in a mainstream educational environment. Actual schooling can be complemented by the specialist team of a specialised education and home care service, which can combine access to care and the right to schooling within the school environment, from primary to secondary level.

Individual schooling at primary and secondary levels

This consists of enrolling one or more learners with disabilities in a mainstream class. Individual schooling is the primary goal at all levels. Regardless of whether it is on a part-time or full-time basis, hosting conditions must be adapted within the framework of the personalised schooling project.

A multi-disciplinary team develops the personalised schooling project (PPS), based on the information gathered during the assessment, particularly from the educational team or the schooling monitoring team. Once developed, the project is submitted to the Commission for the Rights and Autonomy of People with Disabilities (CDAPH). The PPS is an aspect of the Personalised Compensation Plan. The PPS ‘proposes methods for educational pursuit, co-ordinated with measures to support it shown in the compensation plan’ (Article L 112-2 of the Code of Education). It ‘defines how the schooling takes place, along with pedagogical, psychological, educational, social, medical and paramedical actions to meet the special needs of students with disabilities’ (Article D 351-5 of the Code of Education).

In particular, the PPS allows a ‘programme adapted to learning objectives’, as provided for by Circular 2006-126 of 17 August 2006, to be set up for students in a mainstream school setting.

The personalised schooling project (PPS) provides the framework for the schooling of the learner with disabilities. It ensures the coherence and quality of accompanying measures and necessary assistance based on a global evaluation of the situation and the learner’s needs: therapeutic or re-educational accompaniment, assignment of a school carer or appropriate teaching materials, or assistance to the teaching team via a school assistance post.

Each school career should be closely monitored, especially during the transitional phases between education levels: nursery school, primary school, lower-secondary school, upper-secondary school and vocational training school. The same applies for baccalaureate access and preparation for higher education.

All learners with disabilities are assigned a reference teacher, who will follow their progress throughout their school career. All of those involved in the education process (parents, teachers, various other stakeholders) must be able to clearly identify the reference teacher and be able to contact them.

Students can be accompanied by a school carer, which is one of the compensation tools provided for by the Commission for the Rights and Autonomy of People with Disabilities (Circular no. 2003-093 of 11 June 2003, on the accompaniment by a school carer for children or adolescents with a disability or disabling health problem).

Group schooling

Group facilities were created for students (in general, 10 to 12) who cannot follow full-time mainstream schooling.

Primary level

In primary schools, the school integration classes (CLIS) created by Circular no. 91-304 (18/11/1991) regroup children with an intellectual, hearing, visual or motor disability who are not capable of following full-time mainstream schooling and who can benefit from integration into a mainstream school environment. Students in the CLIS receive adapted schooling and they share a number of activities with the other students. In 2005, the majority of CLIS students were able to participate in individual periods of integration in another class in the school.

There are different types of CLIS:

  • CLIS 1: school integration classes for children with an intellectual disability
  • CLIS 2: school integration classes for children with a hearing disability
  • CLIS 3: school integration classes for children with a visual disability
  • CLIS 4: school integration classes for children with a motor disability.

Secondary level

At the secondary level, when the demands of individual schooling become excessively taxing, learners with disabilities can join the integrated teaching units (UPI). This measure is designed for learners aged 12 to 16 who, although at the lower-secondary level, cannot avail of mainstream lower-secondary schooling. With the assistance of a specialised teacher, they can however benefit from adapted schooling, harmonised with the objectives set by their personalised schooling project and including, whenever possible, shared time in class activities of their reference class, attended by learners of the same age.

The UPI was created by Circular no. 95-125 (17/05/1995) for the inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities. Circular no. 2000-009 (13/01/2000) extended the competence of UPIs to all disabilities or illnesses. Circular no. 2001-035 of 21 February 2001, on the schooling of learners with disabilities in secondary schools and the development of UPIs, replaces previous circulars. It defines the framework for the schooling of learners with disabilities with serious cognitive function disorders in secondary schools, extending inclusion in the programme to students with sensory or motor disabilities and advocating the development of UPIs at the secondary level, including vocational training schools.

At the beginning of the 2006 school year, 200 UPIs were created in lower- and upper-secondary schools. The implementation of these integration units was planned in such a manner as to cover the entire national territory and taking into consideration transportation constraints.

Distance learning

The National Centre for Distance Learning (CNED) is a public institution which proposes school and vocational curricula for all students who are not able to physically attend an educational establishment. The centre proposes school curricula adapted to part-time learning. Students can register at any time throughout the year. Home learning assistance by a CNED-employed teacher is part of the offer.

In 1997, a ‘Disability Platform’ was created in the centre of Toulouse in order to provide adapted solutions for children and adolescents whose disability or illness prevents them from attending mainstream school facilities.

The medico-educational sector

When school attendance in the mainstream school environment is not possible, learners with disabilities (generally between the ages of 6 and 20) are directed towards medico-social facilities which offer balanced schooling, educational and therapeutic care.

In 2009, about 74,000 students with disabilities – out of 262,000 (29%) – were enrolled in special school environments (medico-social facilities), according to the White Paper of May 2011.

Special schools

Special schools belong to the medico-educational sector, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity. They play an important role in the specialised education network, which was largely developed in the period from 1950 to 1975, in response to urgent demands from associations of parents of children with disabilities.

Thanks to the initiative of non-profit associations and, to a lesser extent, of public authorities (10%), an impressive tool was created. The schooling provided within this framework remains under the control of the Ministry of Education.

The sector is characterised by two types of facilities, regulated by modified Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956): care facilities and specialised education and home care services which are not special schools, but work in collaboration with mainstream schools to support inclusive education.

Care facilities, known as medico-educational centres, are regulated by appendix XXIV of the abovementioned decree. They are intended for children, adolescents and – sometimes – young adults, for whom attendance at a mainstream school is impossible or counter-indicated by the special education committee authorised to recommend their orientation.

These facilities are generally organised around a particular disability:

  • Medico-educational institutes, regulated by Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 89-798 (27/10/1989), include medico-pedagogic institutes and medico-professional institutes. They represent the vast majority of specialised educational facilities. They take care of children or adolescents with intellectual disabilities.
  • Institutes for re-education, regulated by appendix XXIV bis of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 89-798 (27/10/1989), take care of children or adolescents with behavioural disorders. Decree no. 2005-11, of 6 January 2005, defines the conditions for the technical organisation and operation of therapeutic, educational and pedagogic institutes. The text defines the targeted clientele of these institutes, which are to replace the institutes for re-education: children, adolescents or young adults with psychological difficulties, whose expression – namely the intensity of behavioural disorders – seriously impedes their socialisation and access to training and/or apprenticeship. This text sets out in detail the duties, organisation and operation of these institutes, as well as the composition of their multi-disciplinary teams. Institutes for re-education had until 1 September 2008 to comply with these regulations.
  • Establishments which take care of children or adolescents with a motor disability, regulated by appendix XXIV bis of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 89-798 (27/10/1989), are divided into motor education institutes and re-education institutes.
  • Establishments which take care of children or adolescents with multiple disabilities are regulated by appendix XXIV ter of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 89-798 (27/10/1989).
  • Establishments which take care of children with a serious hearing disability are regulated by appendix XXIV quater of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 88-423 (22/04/1988).
  • Establishments which take care of children or adolescents with serious visual disabilities or blindness are regulated by appendix XXIV of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), modified by Decree no. 88-423 (22/04/1988).

The medico-social facilities currently care for 74,845 young people with disabilities (29%). Of these, 65,845 attend special school full-time and 9,000 attend mainstream school part-time (2010 data from the White Paper of May 2011).

Prevention, treatment and home care services

  • Specialised education and home care services, regulated by each section of appendix XXIV of modified Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), are generally attached to the medico-educational establishments and target the same population as the latter. Their activities address the child’s entire environment, namely the family and, in particular, the school environment, in such a manner as to guide the schooling experience.
  • Medico-psycho-pedagogic centres, regulated by Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), added to Decree no. 63-146 (18/02/1963), ensure diagnosis and treatment of children with neuropsychic or behavioural disorders.
  • Preventive medico-social action centres, regulated by appendix XXIV bis of Decree no. 56-284 (09/03/1956), added to Decree no. 76-389 (15/04/1976), handle testing, day therapy and re-education of children with disabilities from birth to the age of six.

The socio-educational sector

This sector, which is mainly under the authority of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity, has a two-fold responsibility:

  • Social protection of the child, for the benefit of young people temporarily deprived of family support: this mission is performed by social services, in particular Social Assistance for the Child, under the authority of the Chairperson of the General Council.
  • Legal protection of young people, with regard to at-risk or delinquent young people who have been sentenced to educational assistance measures; Juvenile Court judges perform this task.

In order to respond to either of these missions, a comprehensive mechanism was implemented, which offers varied care solutions:

  • Keeping the child in the family environment is the preferred solution; if necessary, it can be accompanied by educational assistance measures.
  • In other cases, the institutions and services deemed to be the most appropriate to respond to the young person’s needs are solicited, regardless of the sector they belong to: socio-educational, medico-educational or institutions and services of the Ministry of Education.

The socio-educational sector offers two types of facilities:

1. Care centres under the authority of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity

Generally regulated by Law no. 75-535 (30/06/1975), concerning social and medico-social institutions, they can take care of children and adolescents by virtue of article 375 of the Civil Code and article 40 of the Family and Social Action Code.

  • Childhood Centres, created a long time ago, answer directly to the Social Assistance Service for Children and ensure emergency care at the departmental level, as well as observation and orientation of children and adolescents under protective measures. In principle, the length of stay is limited. These centres can be managed directly by the department or they can function as autonomous institutions.
  • Children’s social houses, which succeeded the former orphanages, ensure lodging and educational care for young people. They are generally managed by non-profit associations.
  • Foster homes, more precisely care offered in the home of a child-minder, whose status has been reinforced by Law no. 92-642 (12/07/1992).

2. Establishments and services under the authority of the Ministry of Justice

If legal measures are taken concerning delinquent or at-risk young people, facilities under the control of the directorate for Legal Youth Protection, defined by Ordinance no. 45-174 (02/02/1945), can be requested to respond.

Court educational services were created by the Order of 30 July 1987 and organised by Circular no. ES K387-65 (28/09/1987). Their mission is to evaluate the situation of the incarcerated minor, to propose alternative solutions to incarceration, to monitor the incarcerated minor and prepare their exit from the institution, and to ensure probation measures and legal control.

Educational action centres perform educational activities for delinquent or at-risk young people who are taken into boarding. Sometimes they also have a day centre, whose purpose is to monitor the professional training or insertion of these young people, following varying modalities.

Open educational action centres (AEMO) perform observation and educational orientation duties, as well as carrying out educational activities directed at delinquent or at-risk minors who stay with their families. AEMO services are organised by Decree no. 85-936 of 23 August 1985. The measures implemented can be either administrative (under the competence of youth social prevention services) or legal (youth legal prevention).

The educational consultation, orientation and action services, created by Decree no. 90-166 of 21 February 1990, have been implemented in all departments.

The reinforced educational facilities, implemented by Circular no. NOR JUS9950035C (24/02/1999), have supplanted the reinforced educational counselling units, organised by Circular no. NOR JUS9650047C (07/06/1996). Their purpose is to care for delinquent or seriously at-risk minors for whom the traditional care facilities have proven to be inadequate (in this case, six educators monitor a maximum of eight young people for a limited period of time).

Education of children and adolescents in the socio-educational sector remains under the authority of the Ministry of Education. Certain young people, who are subject to educational assistance measures, may be accepted in relay classes created by the Ministry of Education and organised in partnership with territorial authorities and the departmental directorates for the legal protection of young people.

Closed educational centres

Law no. 2002-1138 of 9 September 2002 created closed educational centres (CEF). These centres are defined in Article 22 of this law as institutions in which minors are placed in application of judicial control, a suspended sentence with probation, or release on probation. Inside these centres, minors are subject to supervision and control measures, ensuring strengthened educational and pedagogical monitoring adapted to their personality. The duration of their stay in these centres is fixed at six months, which can be extended once for a further six months. Each CEF simultaneously accommodates 10 to 12 young persons. Their arrivals are spread over the entire year.

When deciding to place a young person in a centre of this type, the obligation to provide education for young people under the age of 16 must be abided by scrupulously. The Code of Education also provides for access to professional skills for young people over 16 who do not have such skills. Whatever their age, the young people placed in these centres must be put into a situation in which they can acquire knowledge and know-how, allowing for personal development and further training.

The objective for young people under the age of 16 is to return to school, and for the older people in this group to begin vocational training, unless the pursuit of studies in a general or technical lycée (upper-secondary school) can be considered.

Institutions for minors

The General Policy and Programme Law for the Judicial Organisation, of 9 September 2002, created institutions for minors (EPM). The objective of these institutions is to prioritise the reintegration of young persons in custody between the ages of 13 and 18, outside the adult prison system. These mixed institutions accommodate a maximum of 60 inmates. Each of them benefits from a personalised educational project based on a possibility of 27 hours of teaching every week, in the hope that this schooling will encourage their reintegration. A large number of personnel participates in this project: personnel in the Penitentiary Administration and the Legal Youth Protection service of the Ministry of Justice, and specialised primary and secondary school teachers from the Ministry of National Education. Other minors can also be held in custody in sections for minors inside penitentiary centres for adults, the main reason being to avoid isolation from families. Only seven EPMs will be opened this year in all of France.

The health sector

According to Circular no. 99-181 (10/11/1999), which organises care for children or adolescents in mainstream school facilities, schooling is a priority. However, if the child’s health does not allow for this, schooling may be provided in a health sector facility, under the control of the Ministry of Education.

Collaborative working

The application of Decree 2009-378 of 2 April 2009 recommends multiple forms of co-operation within a platform, involving responses to needs, enabling the introduction of inclusive practices and ensuring equal collaboration by numerous stakeholders.

Several major associations have expressed a desire to see platforms of co-operation emerge. To achieve this, it is necessary to reform appendices XXIV (2). For years, these appendices have been the guide for the directors of medico-social establishments and services, who apply them as ‘roadmaps’ for each category to operate their structures. Although three laws (Laws 2002-2, 2005-102 and the Hospital, Patients, Health, Territories Law) have been adopted, the content of these appendices has never been rewritten, despite their importance.

Quality indicators

See the Report of the General Inspectorate of National Education (IGEN) and of the General Inspectorate of the Administration of National Education and Research (IGAENR) no. 2012-100, July 2012, on the Implementation of the Law of 11 February 2005 in National Education (rapporteurs Martine Caraglio and Jean-Pierre Delaubier).

Article L. 114-2-1 of the Code of Social Action and Families, resulting from Article 3 of the modified Law no. 2005-102 of 11 February 2005 on the Equality of Rights and Opportunities, Participation and Citizenship of People with Disabilities, states that:

at the end of the work of the National Conference on Disability, the Government files a report at the offices of the parliamentary assemblies, after receiving the opinion of the National Advisory Council on People with Disabilities, on the implementation of the national policy for people with disabilities, notably concerning actions to prevent deficiencies and encourage job accessibility, integration, permanent employment and promotion, compliance with the principle of non-discrimination and changes in living conditions. This report may be debated by the National Assembly and in the Senate.

The body of competent National Education inspectors conducts an evaluation of the teaching units every three years (cf. Circular of 2 April 2009).



2. A Decree from 1956, modified in 1989, regulated the minimum technical conditions for the organisation and operation of social and medico-social establishments. This regulation is better known under the title Appendices XXIV, which are divided into five categories, corresponding to intellectual, motor, sensorial (hearing and visual) disabilities, as well as multiple disabilities)


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