A different Danish view

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Wales can learn a lot from the Danes about special needs, but so can they from us, writes Janet Ryder

The National Assembly's education committee recently visited Denmark to study how it delivers education to young people with special needs.

Our visit was part of phase three of the committee's wide-ranging policy review of special needs - examining the transition from school-based settings to further training and employment.

Denmark is just over twice the size of Wales with just under twice the population. But with UK levels of GDP per capita, it is near the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tables for spending on education. Denmark spends a far larger proportion of GDP on education (7.1 per cent) than Wales (5.5 per cent) and with a reputation for progressive liberalism, the committee thought it could provide numerous examples of good, innovative, or even best practice.

The programme included a presentation from the Ministry for Education and visits to a youth school for 16 to 20-year-olds with learning disabilities, a training college for post-16 and adult continuing education, as well as a visit to a regional guidance centre.

The Danish definition of special needs is slightly different and extends far more widely than ours does: 11.9 per cent of Danish students are classified there as having special needs compared to 3.2 per cent in the UK and Wales.

There were indeed numerous examples of good practice. A lot of good work is going on to improve reading proficiency, with new testing and screening procedures and improvements to teacher training. Older pupils receive tailored plans and specialist intensive support to move from school on to FE and employment. Colleges receive financial incentives to take on students with disabilities and students are mentored by specialists.

I was also impressed by the technological support for students with dyslexia through an IT programme designed to help them function better in traditional education. Pupils are supported with laptops which have a synthetic speech facility, scanners and recording machines. The pupils used the computer, both in school and at home, and in all situations where it might be a help. Afterwards they had to describe their experiences. Parents said that the laptop system meant that the children wrote better essays: they could concentrate more on the contents and the language.

The Danish approach to ethnic minorities with special needs was very interesting. They recognise that language difficulties and cultural differences must first be overcome before special needs can be tackled, and there are intensive support programmes for this.

So we in Wales can learn a lot from Denmark about support for children with mild to moderate special needs. However, there is also too quick a readiness there to abandon or curtail training for those deemed "too disabled" to successfully hold down a job. In Wales we educate about half of all special needs students in mainstream schools; in Denmark only about 10 per cent are educated likewise. Half of all Danish special needs students are placed in separate special schools; in Wales it is only 22 per cent. For me, as a member of Plaid Cymru, with our commitment to social inclusion, mainstreaming and integration, it came as something of a surprise. I would hope that Denmark could learn from Wales in that respect.

Here, we recognise that the needs of the individual child come first. The overriding priority in whatever sort of school setting is to enable each child to reach their full potential. When it comes to best practice in special needs education, it is clear from the Danish experience that investment is not the sole criterion for success.

If we are to bring about a fairer society, we must, at every step, provide the best possible opportunity for those with learning and physical disabilities to maximise their potential. And we must never give up and write anyone off.

Clearly money isn't everything. Changing attitudes towards disability is the key.

Assembly member Janet Ryder is the shadow minister for education, lifelong learningand skills

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