Special needs education within the education system - Spain

The educational system will arrange the necessary resources in order for pupils with temporary or permanent special educational needs to achieve the objectives established within the general programme for all pupils   The public administrations give pupils the necessary support from the beginning of their schooling or as soon as they are diagnosed as having special needs. School teaching is adapted to these pupils’ needs. The schools develop the curriculum through didactic plans, which have to take into account the pupils’ needs and characteristics. They also develop an Educational Project, where the objectives and the educational priorities are fixed along with the implementation procedures. In order to prepare this project, they consider the school characteristics, its environment, and the pupils’ educational needs.

LOE, as it was mentioned above, considers three types of specific educational support needs:

  1. Students with special educational needs
  2. High ability students
  3. Late entries into the education system

Students with special educational needs

Students with special educational needs refers to those who require, certain support and specific educational attention due to disability or serious behavioural disorders, either for a period or throughout the whole of their schooling.

These pupils require specialised support in accordance with non discrimination and educational normalisation principles, and with the purpose of achieving their inclusion. These pupils are schooled in accordance with their characteristics, either integrating them in mainstream groups, in specialised classrooms within mainstream schools, or in special education schools, depending on the form determined by the professional teams, taking into account their parents’ and teachers’ opinions.  Thanks to the successive developments by each educational establishment and group, the curriculum foresees many possibilities for adjusting to these differences so that pupils may overcome any difficulties encountered. However, all through the school period, and perhaps to a greater extent at stages in which studies become progressively more complex, there will be certain pupils who for very different reasons find it more difficult to reach the objectives and contents laid down for everyone in the common curriculum for all. These pupils will consequently be in need of another type of more specific adjustments. 

Among the ordinary measures (offered to all pupils) contemplated by the educational system for attending to diversity, the following are to be mentioned: successive levels of curricular formulation, involving the progressive adaptation of the official curriculum and optional areas and subjects, which constitutes a resource in the hands of the pupil to enhance and develop his or her personal preferences; the organisation of reinforcement and support activities in educational establishments, a very generalised measure of attention to diversity which is usually aimed at the instrumental areas (mathematics and language) and specific grouping. Once ordinary measures of attention to diversity have been applied and have proved to be insufficient to respond to the educational needs of an individual pupil, the education system considers a series of extraordinary measures. These are: repeating a cycle or school year, significant curricular adaptations, support measures for pupils with special educational needs, curricular diversification and, as a last resort, Social Guarantee Programmes.

Curricular adaptations signify adaptations to the curriculum made for one specific pupil. When the student body shows itself to have educational needs which in view of their permanent nature, source or the type require modification of central features of the curriculum to be followed by the majority of the pupils of that age, significant curricular adaptations may be carried out. The application of these extraordinary measures signifies the modification of content, objectives and assessment criteria of the ordinary curriculum. The necessary point of departure for such a measure is a previous psycho-pedagogical assessment (performed by the specialised guidance services) and an ongoing follow-up that allows the pupil to access the standardised curriculum whenever possible.

Pupils with special educational needs can attend both special education and mainstream establishments. Schooling should preferably be provided in mainstream establishments, adapting such programmes to each pupil’s capacities.
Hence, in ordinary infant education, primary education and secondary education establishments, these pupils are enrolled as part of the mainstream pupil body. These establishments, in addition to adapting the physical and material conditions to the needs of the pupils enrolled there, should have the necessary resources available (special teachers, qualified professionals, etc.) and must likewise take the pedagogical, organisational and operational measures for accommodating pupils with special educational needs within their programmes. Furthermore, all the autonomous communities consider the possibility of appointing preferred centres for the enrolment of pupils with specific special educational needs, who may require a particular type of environment or a professional specialisation difficult to find in many places. In this fashion, suitable educational attention may be guaranteed for such pupils.
The schooling of pupils with special educational needs in non-compulsory education stages, if the requirements are met, will be one form of inclusion with the necessary curricular adaptations or the total or partial exemption of subjects. The establishments providing such education must possess the necessary physical and material adaptations in order to guarantee the principle of equal opportunities.

Specific support measures

Alterations to school building facilities

All educational establishments must meet the hygienic, acoustic, habitability and security conditions stipulated in the legislation in effect. The places devoted to instruction must have ventilation and natural lighting. They will also have to possess the necessary architectural conditions to facilitate access, movement and communication, in accordance with what is laid down in the legislation with regard to promotion of accessibility and elimination of barriers.

Special adaptations to the curriculum

Schooling at the various levels and stages of the system for pupils with special educational needs linked to personal disabilities will begin and end at the ages set down by the education regulations, with the exceptions listed below. The necessary adaptations or modifications within the established curriculum are carried out so that pupils with special educational needs may achieve the objectives and contents generally laid down. These adaptations may take two different forms: curriculum access adaptations (modifications or predictions related to spatial resources, introduction of new materials and use of additional communication systems) and curricular adaptations such as modifications in the objectives, contents, methodology, activities and assessment criteria and procedures, which are carried out within the classroom planning. Curricular adaptations may, in turn, be grouped into two large sections: significant and non-significant adaptations. The first ones do not affect the basic teaching, whereas the second ones imply the elimination of certain basic teaching included in the official curriculum (objectives, contents and assessment criteria). Some of the latter adaptations require additional human and material resources to carry out adaptations which entail changes in the organisation of educational establishments and methodology, substitution or introduction of new areas or subjects, contents and objectives.

On the other hand, the possibility of making the length of compulsory schooling in primary education and in compulsory secondary education for highly-gifted pupils more flexible, under exceptional circumstances, is also present.
The link-up and co-ordination between mainstream schools integrating pupils with special educational needs and in specific special education establishments is one of the principles guiding school integration. The aim is for special educational establishments to progressively become open educational resource centres for the professionals working in the district’s mainstream establishments.

Additional support provided by specialist teachers

The decision to enrol pupils in a mainstream or special educational establishment, as well as the guidelines on the most suitable educational treatment to offer (types of schooling, curricular adaptations, etc.) is made subsequent to a diagnosis and is the responsibility of the services established by each autonomous community in order to respond to the educational and psycho-pedagogical counselling demands of establishments, pupils and teachers.

Most autonomous communities have regulated and organised these services through sector educational and psycho-pedagogical interdisciplinary guidance teams and through the guidance departments of secondary education establishments.
Apart from the guidance teams working for the educational establishments of a district or area (zone or sector teams), specialised specific teams and early intervention teams, with a different geographical sphere, have been set up in some autonomous communities. Regardless of the education authority to whom they report, guidance teams have among their functions the detection, assessment and diagnosis of special educational needs as well as counselling, collaborating and participating in the educational process of pupils with special educational needs.

In the majority of autonomous communities, guidance teams are still part of an external support network for schools. It is frequent for the members of the teams to be part of the school staff (either through the Teachers’ Council, the Guidance Department - when it exists - the Pedagogical Co-ordination Commission, etc.).

In almost all autonomous communities, guidance departments have been set up in secondary education establishments and, in some communities, in infant and in primary education schools. The result has been a closer bonding between specialised support services and schools, which has improved the response to special educational needs.

For pupils who have serious developmental disorders and cannot attend school to receive their education, for pupils who are hospitalised, or for pupils who must be absent from school for long or repetitive periods of time for medical reasons, the autonomous communities have formulated and implemented various organisational alternatives, among which should be mentioned: peripatetic special education teachers who go to pupils’ homes, so that they may receive their educational schooling; itinerant attention on the part of special education centres for under school-age pupils with special educational needs or those who are enrolled in mainstream centres; the setting up of itinerant school support units and school support units in hospitals.

Special teaching methods and materials

There are more specific guidelines according to the type of special educational need of the pupil. Therefore, in the case of those having sensorial alterations (visual, auditory), strategies aiming at fostering and promoting alternative ways to the altered ones, strategies which enable to relate, in a explicit way, learning experiences, space organisations, pupils grouping, in order to take advantage of their visual and auditory possibilities, and the teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interaction, have to be prioritised.
The reading-writing teaching methods for pupils with visual disabilities should be mentioned. Those pupils who cannot have access to the ink reading-writing method will have to use Braille. In this case, tact sensorial stimulation and space-time orientation will have to be fostered.

Pupils with auditory disabilities have to learn to communicate by alternative means: sign language, bimodal system, etc., which have their own methodological guidelines and that can be combined, in certain occasions, with oral re-education.

Pupils with motor problems have to be assisted in the specific needs of mobility and the manipulation of objects, favouring mobility in the classroom and the access to didactic resources, as well as prioritising oral and visual explanations in order to favour the understanding of messages.

In cases of pupils with serious development disorders, it is necessary to resort to specific methodologies aiming at the development of oral communication or alternative systems. Imitation learning, modelling and mediation (physical, oral aids, etc.) techniques, incidental methodology, and reinforcement are some of the most specific guidelines.
On the other hand, space must be arranged according to their needs and adapted to the instruments, equipment and technical aids required by these pupils, favouring the possibility of creating different layouts and functional arrangements in order to promote the interaction and communication with adults and among themselves.

Reduced class sizes

The number of pupils integrated in mainstream classrooms depends on the homogeneity and severity of their deficiency or maladjustment, their psychological problems and the required educational support. If they require continuous pedagogical reinforcement and specific treatments, the maximum number of pupils per classroom is two. In mainstream classrooms, where pupils are enrolled under an integrative framework, the maximum number or pupils per classroom is 25, subject to obtaining the authorisation of the education administration.

In special education classrooms, either in specific special education or mainstream establishments, the number of pupils will be reduced. The ratio is 10-12 pupils per teacher when there are pupils with psychical or auditory disabilities or pupils showing serious auditory disabilities. 8-12 when there are pupils with physical disabilities, 6-8 in the case of pupils showing several disabilities, and 3-5 when having autistic pupils and/or pupils with severe personality problems. 

Apart from the ordinary teaching staff, there are also specialist teachers in charge of carrying out different tasks, as well as other professionals. In mainstream establishments, there is a specialist teacher providing pedagogical reinforcement for every 15-20 pupils. In this type of establishment, there is also a speech therapist for every 35-40 psychic and motor disabled pupils and for every 20 auditory disabled pupils. There is also a physiotherapist for every 35-40 pupils with motor disabilities and a caretaker for every 15-20 motor disabled pupils.

There is also support staff in charge of correction and rehabilitation. Both in special education establishments and special education classrooms in mainstream establishments, there is a psychologist for every 20 autistic pupils or pupils with severe personality disorders. There is also a psychologist in those establishments having at least 100 physical, motor or sensorial disabled pupils. There is a speech therapist for every 35-40 psychic or motor disabled pupils, every 20 pupils showing severe auditory problems or every 15-20 autistic pupils or pupils with severe personality disorders. There is a caretaker for every 35-40 pupils with behavioural problems; every 15-20 motor disabled pupils, autistic pupils or pupils with personality problems.

Special arrangements for evaluation or progress through education

The reply to the question as to exactly what is to be assessed is determined by the mandatory assessment criteria established by the autonomous communities. In a case of pupils with special educational needs, such criteria must be amended in conjunction with the amendments to objectives and curricular content made through curricular adaptations.

To assess entails determining the most suitable tools and procedures on one hand, and the possible adaptations of these commonly used tools on the other. The use of varied and diverse assessment tools and procedures is recommended, since a single procedure, such as a written or oral test, entails serious difficulties for some pupils with motor functional difficulties or with problems in expressing themselves. Moreover, the exclusive use of this kind of testing to assess any pupil provides only limited information on his/her comprehension of curricular content. Consequently, it is necessary to use other kinds of tools that provide information on various aspects that are difficult to assess by oral or written means, and which include observation, questionnaires, interviews, analysis of class work, etc. The use of testing and tools adapted to the ‘real-life’ classroom is likewise recommended, for example pedagogical tests, observation records, and follow-up sheets.

Furthermore, the educational context should be evaluated in terms of pupils with special educational needs and common criteria should be established to provide and receive information from parents and pupils, given the diversity of the professionals that on occasion work with them.

The issue of when to assess entails considering the various key moments in the development of a given teaching/learning process. Three moments can be defined: initial assessment; formative assessment; and summative assessment.
At the end of the school year, the assessment teams evaluate the degree of achievement of the targets, which were established at the beginning of the school year for those pupils with special educational needs. The assessment results are to allow the introduction of the necessary adaptations, including the most suitable modality of schooling depending on the pupil’s needs. This decision, if necessary, could even be adopted during the school year.

In relation to the process of the promotion of pupils with special educational needs, the general regulation for infant, primary and compulsory secondary education is applied nation-wide. Therefore, a pupil may remain one more year in the second cycle of infant education when the counselling department deems that such a measure will allow the pupil to meet the objectives of that cycle or will be beneficial for his or her socialisation process. A pupil may remain one more year in primary education, and one more in each cycle or in any of the years of the second cycle of compulsory secondary education, only when the previous circumstances have not taken place. This implies that basic schooling can be prolonged up to the age of 18.

In post-compulsory secondary education there is also the possibility of prolonging schooling by two years in bachillerato. In specific vocational training, pupils with special educational needs related to disabilities can take the programmed activities for the same module up to four times.

Decisions regarding promotion or repeating will always be made on the basis of the information obtained during the assessment process and in relation to pupils' progress as compared to the programmed objectives for him/her. The decision will be accompanied, as appropriate, by complementary educational measures, intended to help pupils reach programme objectives. There is, however, no direct or automatic correlation between a pupil's failure to reach objectives and non-promotion to the following cycle.

Pupils with special educational needs, after finishing the compulsory secondary education and reaching the objectives planned, are awarded the Secondary Education Certificate, which enables them to gain access to baccalaureate and intermediate specific vocational training. In any case, all pupils receive a certificate including the (number of) years of study and the grades they have received in the different areas, together with non-prescriptive and confidential guidance regarding their academic and professional future.

The Law establishes that those pupils who do not achieve the objectives of compulsory secondary education, and who are therefore lacking a certificate and are consequently unable to continue their education, are entitled to enrol in specific social guarantee programmes. The aim of these programmes is to provide basic and vocational training, which will enable these pupils to take part in the working world. Pupils with special educational needs may enrol either in the general social guarantee programmes under the integrative framework or in social guarantee programmes specifically designed for pupils with special educational needs.
Furthermore, pupils with special educational needs who have successfully completed any of the post-compulsory stages of the system will receive the corresponding certificate. Furthermore, a proposal may be put forward to issue the Baccalaureate, Technician or Technical Superior certificate, for pupils who have studied baccalaureate and specific vocational training with significant adaptations in some of their subjects,

Separate Special Provision

Special education schools are intended for pupils who are unable to be integrated into mainstream schools but who follow compulsory teaching. When there are no special education centres in the area, these pupils receive their schooling in units for special education within mainstream centres. Pupils are enrolled in separate special education units or schools only when there is sound reason to believe that their needs cannot be suitably met in a mainstream establishment. There is also specific special education establishments that enrol pupils with special educational needs associated with a very specific type of handicap.
These establishments provide basic compulsory education: primary education, with pupils between 6-12 years of age and compulsory secondary education, with pupils between 12-16 years of age. These centres can also provide social guarantee programmes. Once basic education is over, they can also provide programmes intended to facilitate transition to adult and working life. These programmes last two years, with the possibility of lasting one more; therefore, pupils here are between 16-19 years of age.

Teachers engaging in basic education in specific special education schools are generally teachers specialising in special education and/or hearing and speech. In complementary vocational training or programmes for transition to adult life, pupils receive instruction from technical teachers of vocational training, who teach technical-practical courses, as well as from the before mentioned ''Maestros''.

Moreover, the autonomous communities have endowed special education schools with additional support and guidance staff members. The number and specialisation of these professionals vary according to the autonomous community in question. The professional/pupils ratio varies depending on the number of pupils and the kind of curricular adaptations they may need.

General Objectives

According to LOE the objectives set for pupils attending special education establishments are the same as those for all pupils. Furthermore, establishments must have the necessary school organisation and carry out the necessary curricular diversifications in order to facilitate pupils the achievement of such objectives. Therefore, the general objectives of the different educational stages constitute the necessity for individual programmes or curricular adaptations of pupils with special educational needs, studying either in mainstream or special education establishments.

Given the specific nature of the special education centres, compulsory education objectives will undergo more significant adaptations and the programmes for transition to adult life or of complementary vocational training will aim fundamentally, at developing abilities linked to professional occupations, personal independence and social integration.
The Organic Act on the Quality of Education states that the general objectives for pupils with special educational needs must be those generally established for all pupils, with the necessary curricular adaptations. For those unable to achieve the objectives, public administrations are to promote training programmes adapted to the pupils’ specific needs, aiming at facilitating their social and labour inclusion.

Age Levels and Grouping of Pupils

In the case of specific centres for special education that provide education for pupils who cannot enter an inclusive framework, only two educational levels are carried out: basic compulsory education (6 to 16 years of age) and complementary vocational training or programmes for transition to adult life (16 to 19 years of age). Pupils at these centres may be enrolled up to the maximum age of 20. Notwithstanding, on an exceptional basis, and subsequent to obtaining the agreement of the pupil’s parents or legal guardians, the maximum age may be raised, allowing for enrolment up to the age of 21 and taking into account the grave circumstances that pupils affected by certain types of disabilities may suffer.

The schooling for pupils with special educational needs is to start and finish at the ages generally established for the corresponding level and stage. There can be exceptions made in the conditions and procedures making more flexible compulsory schooling for pupils with special educational needs, but these have to be authorized. However, the age limit for schooling in a special education establishment is still 21.

Curriculum, Subjects

The programmes for general studies in special education schools are those corresponding to the compulsory basic areas included in levels of primary education and compulsory secondary education. In order to organise them, the curriculum established for these stages is taken into account, particularly the primary curriculum with any necessary adjustments or adaptations made. Once pupils reach the age of 12, they are also taught subjects corresponding to secondary education, which are primarily related to pre-occupational activities.

The educational needs of pupils enrolled in such schools, as well as those related to their health and personal well-being, are often so complex and variable that it is imperative to adopt an extreme flexibility regarding curricular organisation and the necessary human and material resources for implementation. It is necessary for this organisation to be very different from the general arrangements prevailing in mainstream schools.

Reference should also be made of both vocational training, which includes both the specific category of social guarantee programmes for pupils with special educational needs and official vocational training programmes, which may be included within the training programmes for transition to adult life in special education schools.
Therefore, provision has been made for pupils with special educational needs who finish basic education without having reached the objectives of compulsory secondary education to continue their schooling under three different vocational training-related options.

Some pupils with special educational needs may be able to enrol on an integrative basis in social guarantee programmes that adapt to their personal circumstances as well as to their level of skills and development. Such programmes are available under integrative conditions.

Special social guarantee programmes: specifically designed for pupils with special educational needs wishing to continue schooling beyond compulsory secondary education. This does not prevent these pupils from participating in mainstream social guarantee programmes. The special programmes are adjusted to their personal characteristics, their degree of development and skills, as well as to their subsequent employment aspirations. They have the same structure as the social guarantee programmes run for the pupil population at large and are organised around the following areas: basic training, training and career guidance, vocational training, complementary activities and educational guidance. Vocational training is particularly important, taking into account the special needs shown by this group. It should address both the acquisition of skills and abilities of a general nature and training for practising a specific trade.

These programmes are provided in secondary education establishments, in  special education schools designated for this purpose and, when such is the case, wherever may be determined, pursuant to agreements signed between the autonomous  communities and other authorities, town councils or non-profit organisations.

Programmes are available for the transition to adult life, designed for pupils with special educational needs associated with more severe and permanent handicaps that, in light of the low degree of development and skill achieved after basic education, are unable to take advantage of the two training alternatives discussed above. These programmes are intended to last two years, but they may be extended to three, and are generally provided in special education schools. The priority objectives are to help these pupils to develop the necessary conduct and habits to lead an adult life as independently as possible, enable them to use the services that society makes available to all citizens and, wherever possible, to train them to undertake occupational activities related to  very specific and clearly defined jobs.

Teaching Methods and Materials

Both in mainstream and in the specific special education schools, the methodological assistance for these pupils must comply with the educational principles established for the school-age population in general - taking the pupil's level of development as a starting point. This means accommodating each pupil's intellectual, communicational-linguistic, social-affective, and motor characteristics, since here diversity prevails.

  • Guarantee significant learning. More than anyone else, pupils with special educational needs require learning to be applicable to their daily living skills and to serve as a basis to gain access to subsequent learning.
  • Enable pupils to undertake significant learning on their own (learning to learn). In order to achieve this, pupils with special educational needs must be provided with the necessary skills and procedures to be able to learn on an independent basis.
  • Promote both physical and intellectual activity. Such pupils must be active in their learning process in order to be able to assimilate and fully comprehend the activities and operations they are undertaking. This may be achieved with the aid of their teacher or their peers although they will admittedly need more help and/or a different kind of help in order to do so.

The implementation of the corresponding technical aids will be available when pupils’ special needs require them.

Progression of Pupils
The principles for assessing the progress made by pupils with special educational needs should be the same as those employed for the rest of the school age population.

The reply to the question, as to exactly what is to be assessed, is determined by the mandatory assessment criteria established by the autonomous communities. In the case of pupils with special educational needs, such criteria must be amended in conjunction with the amendments to objectives and curricular content made through curricular adaptations.
The assessment criteria for pupils with special educational needs must meet the principles generally established for the rest of the school population (see sections).

In specific special education schools, assessment of pupil progress as provided in the corresponding programmes or curricular adaptations is incumbent on the form teacher (special education teacher) in conjunction with the rest of the professionals involved in each pupil's programme. Such professionals include: the hearing and language teacher (speech therapist), the physiotherapist, the psychologist, the pedagogue, etc.

Teaching teams act independently to establish the most relevant criteria guiding decision-making as regards pupil promotion. Criteria should be of a different nature, so that decisions are made in accordance with the different variables which may prove decisive for pupils.

The decision of promotion or continuance must be individual, without being an obstacle for the establishment of general measures to facilitate the attainment of individualised decisions. The methodology and organisation of the establishment, as well as important variables in pupil promotion decisions, are related to them.

High ability students

LOE stipulates - concerning high ability students:

It is the responsibility of the Education Administrations to adopt the necessary measures to identify high ability and gifted students and assess their needs as early as possible. Moreover, they should introduce appropriate action plans to meet these needs.
The government, after consultation with the autonomous communities, will establish the regulations to allow for flexibility in the length of each stage of the education system in the case of high ability students, independently of their age.

Late entries into the education system

Regarding those students who enter the Spanish education system late LOE stipulates:

  1. It is the responsibility of the Public Authorities to ensure the incorporation into the Spanish education system of students who arrive from other countries or who enter the education system late for any reason. This will be guaranteed, at least, for compulsory school age.
  2. The Education Administrations will guarantee that the enrolment of late entries into the Spanish education system is adapted to the circumstances, knowledge, age and academic record of these students to ensure they are incorporated into the academic year which is best suited to their characteristics and previous knowledge, with the relevant support to ensure that they will pursue their education as successfully as possible.
  3. It is the responsibility of the Education Administrations to develop specific programmes for students who have serious language problems or lack basic competences and knowledge, in order to facilitate their integration into the corresponding academic year.
  4. The development of these programmes will be simultaneous, in all cases, to the students’ attendance of normal classes, according to their level and progress.
  5. It is the responsibility of the Education Administrations to adopt the necessary measures to ensure that the parents or guardians of students who enter the education system late receive the relevant information and advice concerning the rights, obligations and opportunities which incorporation into the Spanish education system implies.
Last modified Apr 20, 2009


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