The Netherlands has embarked on a radical reorganisation of the teaching of children with special needs. By the end of the century, if all goes according to plan, far more of these children will be catered for in mainstream schools, while the parents of handicapped children will be free to shop around with their own personalised budget for a customised educational solution for their child.
Special needs institutes are forging closer partnerships with regular schools in their region and from next year will be able to transfer budgets and staff to help keep children with learning difficulties in the mainstream.
Primary teachers are now obliged to draw up learning plans and set targets for children with difficulties.They can be held accountable if the targets are not met.
The education ministry will transfer Pounds 50 million a year from special to mainstream schools from next year. The aim is to have no more than 2 per cent of all pupils taught in special schools. And it will add on an extra Pounds 40m to help primary schools retrain staff.
Nevertheless, regional groups of primary and special needs schools will be able to redivide the budget if they fail to meet or exceed the 2 per cent target.
At the same time, the ministry is restructuring schools for physically and mentally handicapped children. Currently there are 11 categories of special schools. These will be grouped into four types, dropping the segregation policy whereby, for example, a child who is hard of hearing is not able to attend a school for the deaf.
Each child will have his or her own "action plan", drawn up each year in consultation with parents. Schools will be responsible for meeting the conditions set down in these charters. Parents, who will be allotted a budget for their child, can withhold the money until they agree with the plan. National criteria will also be drawn up for assessing a child's needs.
"In the past too many schools were referring children with learning difficulties too easily to special needs institutes. The child was placed under care. Now we are saying move the care to the child, even if this leads to catering for a handicapped child at a regular school," said Brenda Fidder, a ministry spokeswoman.
However, remedial teachers such as Emmy Kaas in Amsterdam say most primary teachers are not trained to deal with children with severe learning difficulties. "The training for a remedial teacher and for special needs teacher are worlds apart. And it seems that children who initially have been kept at normal schools in the end find their way back to special needs, " she said.
Mainstream teachers are getting better at spotting learning difficulties, Kaas conceded. But she added that the government was not adequately funding the extra care and facilities necessary to properly accommodate more special needs children in mainstream schools.