How inclusion charmed the film festival crowd

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Documentary tracks progress of primary pupils with special educational needs

Lucas has Down's syndrome; David has poor eyesight and is hard of hearing; Anita faces deportation to war-torn Kosovo.

These children attend Berg Fidel, an experimental, inclusive primary school in Munster in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and feature in a recent documentary, Berg Fidel, which follows their progress through grades 1-4 (ages 6-10).

The school has a simple credo: it accepts all children who live locally, irrespective of race, religion or special educational needs. It has mixed age groups and abilities in every class, with older pupils helping younger ones so that teachers can focus on doing their job.

Directed by Hella Wenders (niece of Wim, of Paris, Texas and Buena Vista Social Club fame), the film has captivated audiences on the festival circuit and won prizes.

Rapt audiences listen as nine-year-old David, brilliant at maths and music but hampered by impaired vision and hearing, describes his dream of going to grammar school. Refugee Anita is scared of being deported to Kosovo because she "doesn't want to die". Lucas, who is dyslexic and has behavioural problems, is proud of a good school report.

There are light moments too: David checking love letters for "spelling mistakes", sports car-mad Lucas saying older people look "daft" when they drive fast cars. There are also touching scenes of weekly "classroom councils" with a solemn David as chairman, at which the children air their grievances.

Jakob gesticulates wildly as he talks. His speech is incomprehensible to the teacher but the children understand him and translate. "Jakob was diagnosed with severe communication deficits. He was heading for a special school," says Dr Irmtraud Schnell, an SEN expert at Frankfurt University who gives talks at film screenings. "But after six months at Berg Fidel his behaviour and speech had improved beyond recognition."

The film highlights the plight of the roughly 500,000 SEN pupils in Germany, 80 per cent of whom attend special schools despite a United Nations resolution ratified three years ago requiring schools to accept all children.

"The reality is that only 20 per cent attend regular schools," Dr Schnell says. However, some states are better than others: up north in Hamburg and Bremen, about 50 per cent of SEN pupils attend regular schools. Conversely, centrally located Hesse is still struggling to implement the UN requirements. So where is there most need for improvement?

"Teacher training methods here must place greater emphasis on SEN, so teachers can differentiate their methods and means of assessment in accordance with children's varying abilities," Dr Schnell says.

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