Inclusion boosts all pupils
Children with special needs who attend mainstream schools are likely to achieve more and live more fulfilling lives, according to speakers at a major international conference organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Many children with disabilities who in some countries may be thought unable to benefit from education in fact do well from attending school.
Peter Evans, head of the OECD's special education needs programme, said:
"The ratio of workers to retired citizens is dropping, so we need as many people as possible in the labour force, including the disabled.
"Our research shows that on average disabled children in regular schools perform better than those in special schools. Those who go to special schools follow a different curriculum and it is difficult to integrate them into society after school. There is also much less prejudice against them if they have attended regular schools."
He pointed to the OECD's Programme for international student assessment (Pisa) results for 2003 which showed disabled students doing surprisingly well. The average child with functional disability scored 460 points against an average of 483 for a student without special needs. The average child with an intellectual disability scored 390 points.
Diane Richler, president of Inclusion International, a non-governmental organisation for the disabled, said: "Classroom diversity improves academic results for all students. The classroom must have more of a focus on individualised needs - in this way, for example, children with special needs and those who are academically gifted can benefit. Canada has adopted this approach and we can see the success of its educational system."
Mr Evans said that Italy was one of the best examples of a successful, inclusive educational system. Many classrooms, with an average of 22 pupils, had two teachers - one regularly trained and another trained to teach pupils with special needs.
He also pointed to Norway where many teachers in regular schools had been taught sign language. Now more than 50 per cent of deaf children are taught alongside hearing children.