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The inclusive school

Concerning integration in an inclusive school or how best to educate children with special needs

By Caroline Planchamp

Caroline Planchamp is a psychologist, with an occupational psychology master degree. She is specialized in group work and team building within organisations. She is also a teacher with 15 years of experience in primary year classes at a number of private schools in Geneva. She is the mother of three children, one with special needs. She is currently specializing in supporting inclusive education for students with special needs.

Contact : planchamp.caroline{at}

We hear a lot about integration or inclusion with regard to the education of children with special needs in our schools. These discussions about providing for those with great learning difficulties can be traced back to the 1970s. Today we can see some of the limitations of integration, and specialists are moving toward a concept that is larger than this, that of the inclusive school.

What exactly do we mean by these terms, what are the ideals which support them and how, practically, can the concept of an inclusive school be developed in our schools in Geneva, either public or private?

Segregation, integration, inclusion: what is the history of educating children with special needs?

Serge Thomazet, a researcher and specialist on the subject of educating special needs children, has worked for a long time in Quebec (Canada) and then at the university of Clermond-Ferrand in France. His writings1 and talks2 have helped to clarify the stakes involved with each of these options. To begin, a brief historical review will enable us to better understand the reasons for the emergence of the term “inclusion” and the advantages of adopting it.

Looking back at three periods: segregative, integrative and inclusive

A hundred years ago, in most parts of the world, children showing any major peculiarities were not sent to school at all and were, in general, excluded from society. In France or in Switzerland, in the 20th century, specialized institutions like IME (Institut Medico Educatif) or CMP (Centre Medico Pedagogique) were progressively developed and offered children learning conditions which were adapted to whatever handicap they might have. Although the idea behind the development of such options came with good intentions, it still meant, for these young people, a situation of segration, relegating them to the margins of society.


Picture of the So'Lille association :

Beginning in the 1970s there was a new policy adopted for assuring the education of these young people. It was decided to integrate them in ordinary schools, to “mainstream” them in subjects where they were able to follow the subjects and then to add special education classes to respond to their added needs. But this plan had its limits. It was asking the child to adapt to the school rather than having the school adapt to the child so that, when the child couldn't follow what was being taught in the class, he or she was taken out of the class, and this had significant negative effects. (Will, 1985)

In most European countries, following the publication of reports from UNESCO which maintained the right of handicapped people to actively participate in social life (conference of Salamanca, 1994), this concept of integration has permitted more handicapped children to be included in normal schools. However, even if simple adaptations were possible to compensate for sensory or motor problems and allow children to follow normal schooling, it was not so easy for children who were mentally retarded or who had problems like autism, or else behavioral problems. In such cases integration was limited to things like recess and lunch time, or even a simple integration in the same building but in a separate classroom.

collectif inclusion scolaire

With inclusion, everyone benefits from what he or she needs.

Picture of Collective for inclusive schooling :

Faced with the limits of both integration and segregation, American specialists returned to their debates about the efficacy of the different options for special education. From these discussions there emerged a new concept of integration called inclusive education or inclusive schools. This involved the integration of young people with special learning needs into normal schools, without taking them out of the classroom (except in very exceptional situations), but by setting up teaching experiences adapted to all of the children, whatever their needs.

In this way, over the past ten years, a movement has been growing in the West which asks schools to make a bit more of an effort to accommodate children with special needs. The inclusive school proposes individualized teaching strategies, carried out in the normal class setting in order to respond to the needs of all children « be they normal, gifted, part of an athletic elite, artists or in some way handicapped. » (DIP, 2015)3. This makes it, over and above being a pedagogical strategy, a new way to look at life in our society. This model aims to include each individual, with whatever makes him or her special, in what is truly a school for everyone.


1 THOMAZET Serge (2008), « L’intégration a des limites, pas l’école inclusive ! ». Revue des sciences de l’éducation, volume 34, numéro 1, p. 123-139.

2 THOMAZET Serge (2015), « L’école inclusive, des mots aux actes ». Journée de travail et d’échanges « Sur le chemin de l’école inclusive ». 21/11/2015, Genève, DIP.

3 Commission consultative transitoire de l’Ecole Inclusive (2015), « Séance introductive du lundi 5 octobre 2015). Genève, DIP.

How to define an Inclusive School?

To begin with, it is essential to make clear that an inclusive school is a right: the right, for each child to go to school like all the others and to receive an education adapted to his or her needs. Remember that the concept of handicap depends on the social context in which the person is living. In this way, someone in a wheelchair is handicapped when dealing with stairs but autonomous before a ramp. In the same way, a child who benefits from teaching adapted to his specific needs, doesn't need to present difficulties, since he/she is not regarded as outside the norm but having the right to be who he/she is, surrounded by his peers.

According to UNESCO in 2001 (translated by S. Thomazet) « the founding principle of an inclusive school is that any school must be able to welcome, in as natural a way as possible, all young people, adapting to the needs of each one. Inclusive education is concerned with all children, but taking a special interest in those who have missed learning opportunities, such as those with special needs and handicaps, or else those belonging to ethnic or linguistic minorities. »1 In other words, a school for everyone.

According to the website of the DIP2, these are the objectives of an inclusive school:

- Offer a quality education while respecting the diversity, the needs and the abilities of each student
- Maximize the intellectual, physical and social intelligence of everyone
- Assure a climate of non-discrimination


1 THOMAZET Serge (2008), « L’intégration a des limites, pas l’école inclusive ! ». Revue des sciences de l’éducation, volume 34, numéro 1, p. 123-139.

2 Website of the Geneva Department of Education to learn about the policy of inclusiveness favored by the Geneva school system:

How do we articulate the politics of inclusion with specialized teaching methods?

Following the paradigm of inclusive education, all children and adolescents are sent to their neighborhood schools. Enrollment is based simply on age, with full rights. However, there are also a number of specialized institutions where the personnel is trained to provide teaching that is specifically aimed at the difficulties faced by certain young people. It becomes therefore important to be able to transfer these skills into mainstream schooling. In New Zealand, for example, specially trained teacher “experts” are provided to assist “ordinary” teachers in meeting the needs of these children. In this way, once a week, the classroom teacher and a teacher's aide benefit from an outside perspective, which is well-informed and can provide access to teaching methods best adapted to each child. (Teachers Outreach Service, Auckland).

In certain countries such as Italy and Canada, almost all the schools that had dealt with special needs children have been closed in order to bring the children directly into ordinary schools. In Italy, for example, 75,000 specially trained teachers, team-teaching with “ordinary” teachers, are providing for 140,000 handicapped children4.


4 MUSSET Marie et THIBERT Rémi (2010), « Ecole et Handicap : de la séparation à l’inclusion des enfants en situation de handicap. » Dossier d’actualité de la VST, n° 52, mars.

Who is the winner with inclusion?

We have mentioned several times the rights and the opportunities which an inclusive school offers to children with special needs: the right to grow up with his peer group and to develop his cognitive capabilities in a school near his home. This is also the best way for the children to build up the social skills which will help them to become as autonomous and integrated as possible in their future lives.

However, it is also important to point out what the other people in an inclusive school are gaining. One could imagine that special needs children would monopolize too much of the teacher's attention to the detriment of the others. However, studies have shown that so-called “normal” children benefit from the arrangements put in place for their comrades. For example, visual aids used for children with learning problems often are a significant help for everyone. The systematic differentiation in all teaching, in effect, becomes an added benefit for all. Although, of course, the classroom teacher has to be able to depend on both technical and human help in order to serve everyone equally. Moreover, it is a part of the school program to base all work on the uniqueness of each human being and to be open to otherness. In this way, schools must offer children the possibility of meeting and spending time with the different kinds of people they will be exposed to in society1.

Therefore the society is inclusive. Within it everybody wins as its potential expands from others’ inputs whilst being respected and respectful of others.


1 THOMAZET Serge (2008), « L’intégration a des limites, pas l’école inclusive ! ». Revue des sciences de l’éducation, volume 34, numéro 1, p. 123-139.

For further reading:

Here is a link (in French) which takes up the question of special needs children and their inclusion in normal schools with students between 10 and 13:

Concretely, how are the classes organized? Main principles

Behind all of this one can envision the ideal, which is sought after. However, can this ideal work? What are the means required?

The fist step is to learn to identify the educational needs, specific to a student. The article “Students with specific educational needs” presents an overview of learning difficulties or behavioral issues, which may occur in classrooms.

Once this is identified, each child showing specific needs must be provided with a personal schooling plan (The name of the program varies depending on the country). The plan must be established based on evaluations that are specific to the disability of the person in question and globally recognized. Such a program defines attainable and measurable objectives for the student to achieve within a reasonable timeframe as well as the specific resources required (support groups...). The plan must be regularly re-evaluated by the educational team in charge.

Once the plan is established each class teacher must receive the help of experts according to the students’ specific needs. Specialized educators as well as healthcare professionals such as psycho-monitor therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, etc...must be allowed to intervene at the school. Such interventions do not require additional costs to those that currently exist in France or in Switzerland, the only difference being the location in which they take place.

This provides the opportunity to review the traditional organization of the class in which every child is subjected to the same teaching methods. An inclusive school bases its operations on students’ needs. A more malleable operating model can be considered, which allows moments during the day for group requirements to be established, whether specialized or not. This is not a new concept, and, to a certain degree, corresponds to what takes place in so-called active schools. Each individual receives teaching methods tailored to their needs, therefore enabling them to learn whilst committing to a path of academic success. The following video demonstrates in which context and scholarly environment an inclusive-education can be deployed. One can easily imagine how each individual can focus on their needs without being subjected to stigmatization.

Video about innovative learning environments by New Zealand’s Minister of Education

Putting this new school in place requires efforts in terms of research (because "best practices" need to be identified and developed" to be extended to all students) and in terms of means to train the teachers and professionals who are working with different children1.

The map below is providing a global overview, non exhaustive, of the various aspects to take into account to succeed in welcoming a student with special needs in a classroom. These are the main aspects which should be taken into account no matter which model of inclusion is used by the country or the institution.

 Mindmap inclusion

Establishing the ideal scenario can be perceived as a lengthy process. However, some schools are already doing so and the efforts are appreciated by all (children, teachers, parents). Even if not all the elements are already in place, what is important is that everybody works towards the common goal of creating such an environment.


1 THOMAZET Serge (2008), « L’intégration a des limites, pas l’école inclusive ! ». Revue des sciences de l’éducation, volume 34, numéro 1, p. 123-139.

For further reading: 

The following provides multiple perspectives regarding the construction of an inclusive school in France:

Concretely, how does it work ? Two models to organize the educational system

Setting up inclusive schools necessitates certain structural choices which provide the conditions for students to be welcomed but also to learn. Marie-Jeanne Accietto, president of the Autism Association of Geneva, has studied this carefully and has an interesting viewpoint. If we look at what is going on in the countries in the West that are working toward inclusion, it's possible to discern two tendencies: a model which uses the help of AIS (assistants in school integration) or AVS (helper for school life) or another model which calls for two teachers in each class.

- the model which calls for the help of an AIS (assistant for school integration) in a normal class to help with special needs children is the one used in France and and the Spanish-speaking Basque country. In these two regions, and for many years, children's needs are evaluated and a person is assigned to each of them for a time proportional to their needs. The objective is to permit the students to stay in the normal classroom with the benefit of individualized help. The main classroom teacher remains in charge of the work program and the assistant helps the student he or she is responsible for. A special education teacher assigned to several students completes this arrangement, providing oversight and coordination of the network along with added help if necessary with the students.

The results of this model are very different in different countries. Its success and pertinence has been demonstrated in the Spanish-speaking Basque areas but the results in the rest of France are more nuanced. The difference seems to come from the level of training, from the teachers, but especially from the AIS. In France, teaching assistants do not have much pedagogical training, while in the Basque country the training for an AIS is equivalent to a baccalaureate + 2 in the area of specialization. This training allows the Spanish AIS person to intervene with the special needs students in a more focused and prepared fashion. Furthermore, they are treated as real professionals with an appropriate salary while the equivalent French AIS staff have a lower salary and precarious status. And finally, those who participate in the Basque program are chosen on the basis of their motivation for the job (have they done previous volunteer work in the field, internships? What is their connection with the families?) All of these factors help explain the success of the inclusive model in the Spanish-speaking Basque country where these methods have been used for the last thirty years.

- The model using team teaching is an American model which has been used, with success, since the 1980s. This time there are two teachers in the classroom. The students thus benefit from both an “ordinary” classroom teacher, although one who is very sensitive to “special needs” issues thanks to his or her initial or in-service training, and by a “support” teacher who has specific skills for dealing with children with learning difficulties. The success of this model depends on the training and skills of the two teachers. The team-teachers must be specially trained to be able to bring the right response to meet the students' needs. And it is also important to note that with this model the class size needs to be limited to between 12 and 15 students.

This arrangement allows several children with special needs to be included in the same classroom (between 2 and 4, depending on the amount of support they need). Having two teachers present allows for individualized attention and greater flexibility in forming groups. In this way, the model benefits all the children in the classroom and is appreciated by all.

The two models explained above are completed by a system of “integrated classes” (or ULIS in France) which welcome children with more important learning difficulties. These classes are led by a special education teacher and an educator (or AVS ) and include 6 to 12 children. Only children with significant learning difficulties are enrolled in these classes; otherwise all students are integrated in regular classes according to the models described above.

For further reading:

Site of the autism association of Geneva:

The model of inclusion for autistic children can be found on the website of GAUTENA (an association that supports autistic children) in the Basque country:

What is the situation in Geneva regarding inclusive schools?

In Geneva, specialized institutions have long been used for children with handicaps. Today, the Department of Education is working to put together an inclusive school. The video about inclusive schools in Geneva talks about the history of special needs education in the city and the stakes involved in the notion of inclusion.

Video prepared by the DIP concerning inclusive schools in Geneva

This commitment responds to laws, in 2008 and 2015, and calls for the establishment of an action plan to be put in place in all schools. To this end, a temporary committee of consultants for the inclusive schools was set up in 2015. This brings together professionals in the field of education who can provide suggestions to those in the government who are in charge of the project3.

Certain aspects of the program are already being tried out as can be seen in the video which is attached. 

Video Portraits – the Inclusive school of the DIP

In the Geneva private schools, the response to children with special learning needs has been varied. Some schools offer a program that is adapted for the integration of children with special needs, others still need to find ways to make this happen. In certain schools, there are structures in place which provide different levels of support for those with learning difficulties. International schools in the Anglo-Saxon tradition are already quite advanced on this path. Whatever the case, it was with a model of the inclusive school in mind that the State of Geneva addressed the private schools in the fall of 2015, and all of these schools are now reflecting on how best to advance.

In Geneva today inclusive schools seem to have become an increasingly common objective. However, it will need several years before becoming a reality in all schools. Yet, as the temporary consultative commission on inclusive schools has written, « Inclusive schools are a project in movement and a path to follow. »3 (DIP 2015)

bande people

Picture of the memo of the DIP of 18.08.2015:


3 Commission consultative transitoire de l’Ecole Inclusive (2015), « Séance introductive du lundi 5 octobre 2015). Genève, DIP.

For further reading:

Website of the Geneva Department of Education to learn about the policy of inclusiveness favored by the Geneva school system:

Website of the DIP giving specialists in education suggestions about working with children with special needs: