Sociology in the classroom: where inclusion leads to self-exclusion

Fdoes social inclusion lead to social exclusion? Do those who want to achieve equality risk increasing inequality? These are central questions for sociology. Let’s take education: the school system in Germany should enable all children to have the same educational opportunities as possible, but at the same time it has to recognize the differences in performance between these children and promote them accordingly. This support is particularly challenging for children with special educational needs.

The federal states each go their own way: In some, all schools have to commit themselves to the nationwide concept of inclusion, in others only certain, particularly suitable schools were selected for this purpose, which were equipped accordingly for inclusion lessons. Rhineland-Palatinate is currently the only federal state that only relies on such special schools. The educational researchers Marcel Helbig and Sebastian Steinmetz from the Berlin Science Center (WZB) found that little is known about the social environment of these special schools. Were they different from other schools even before they became inclusive schools? And how has the social composition of their students developed over time?

Specialized schools are avoided

Helbig and Steinmetz assumed that there is a close connection between the existence of special educational needs and social class. The children come “disproportionately from socially disadvantaged households” and therefore live “priority” in correspondingly socially disadvantaged residential areas with an already “challenging student body”. The researchers wanted to know whether inclusion promotes exclusion: i.e. whether the inclusion of socially disadvantaged children with special educational needs leads to socially better off children without these needs being sent to other schools by their parents, which leads to a reduction in social heterogeneity the student would lead at the main schools. After all, there are enough alternatives in primary school to choose from, especially in the cities, to avoid a special school. As a consequence, Steinmetz and Helbig assumed, the social segregation of the school system in Rhineland-Palatinate would increase, which would counteract the actual guiding principle of inclusion, the “appreciation of heterogeneity”.

The school statistics of Rhineland-Palatinate allow sufficient conclusions to be drawn about the social composition of the pupils in the main schools compared to the other schools via the proportion of pupils whose parents benefit from the exemption from learning materials. This data was evaluated from the school year 2007/08 to 2020. Unfortunately, it has to be said, the suspicions of the two WZB researchers were confirmed: Specialized schools emerged primarily at primary schools, which were mainly attended by children from low-income households. Both in rural and urban areas, these schools showed significantly higher rates of students who were exempt from learning materials. At non-inclusive schools, however, these rates fell everywhere during the period under study, but at the inclusive special focus schools they rose. The establishment of specialized schools has exacerbated the social segregation in the elementary school system in this state, Helbig and Steinmetz conclude. This leads to even less favorable learning environments at these schools – with corresponding consequences for further participation in education and equal opportunities in the school system there. And the inclusion of children with disabilities exacerbates the already observable segregation tendencies of the student body and thus leads to a “reduction in social interaction”. Inclusion therefore leads to the self-exclusion of socially better off students.

However, one would not do justice to Helbig and Steinmetz if one read their contribution as a criticism of inclusion itself: They are concerned with the implementation of the concept in Rhineland-Palatinate. The consequence of their observations can therefore actually only be to make all primary schools inclusive schools. However, this would mean taking away the opportunity for parents to send their children to non-inclusive schools and thus taking away a choice. According to the educational researchers, they could not fall back on parent surveys and therefore could not use their data to show whether the main schools were deliberately avoided by parents. Parents in Rhineland-Palatinate can only answer this question themselves.

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