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"They Would Be Better Off At Another School" Reflections on the future of inclusive education in Spain

It all began in 2009. Rubén was 10 years old and was in grade 4 at a ordinary public school in the Spanish city of León. Right from the beginning of the year, his teacher refused to accept the disability (Down’s syndrome) and constantly subjected him to different situations of educational neglect. This same teacher told Rubén's parents that their son was "unsociable and dangerous". After a few months, and against the family's express wishes, the school management decided to refer Rubén to a special school. His parents refused outright to go down that path and denounced the situation, first locally and then broadening the claims… They embarked on a long, sad, lonely struggle, homeschooling him for 7 years with the help and support of a small group of professionals, a situation that exacted a high price on all involved, in terms of their personal and social life, health and finances. Finally, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ruled that Spain had violated Rubén's rights and discriminated against him by denying him access to ordinary schooling, systematically infringing on his right to inclusive education. This ruling, which was issued on 30 September 2020, clearly states that Spain failed to comply with its obligation to respect the right to inclusive education. But this "happy ending" is highly unusual, as indeed was the strength and duration of the family's struggle.

Like so many other countries, Spain subscribed to the principles of inclusion early in the nineteen-nineties and, since that time, has carried out several educational reforms aimed at transforming its hitherto selective education system into a more comprehensive one, particularly following the 1994 Salamanca Statement and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006), which was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 2006, came into effect in Spain on May 3, 2008 and outlined the path that the education system must follow in order to guarantee the right to be included (art. 24).

Inclusion is viewed in many Spanish educational laws as a principle to be developed rather than a real right. The ruling described above is the first of its kind in Spain and constitutes a turning point in the defense of people with disabilities and the development of educational inclusion in our country. The ruling demands that Spain put an end to all instances of educational segregation of students with disabilities, both in Special schools and in special classrooms within ordinary schools. It also states that parents of students with disabilities may not be accused of child abandonment for demanding that their child's right to inclusive education under equal conditions be respected, and orders Spain to “publish this ruling and ensure widespread dissemination, in accessible formats, in order to reach as many sectors of the population as possible”.

The ruling emphasized the fact that inclusion is not limited to the educational field, but is, above all, a political issue, linked to human rights and social justice (Artiles, 2003), with all that that entails. Principally, however, inclusion should be viewed from the point of view of non-discrimination. Spain does not have a single centralized education system. Rather, the country is divided into seventeen Autonomous Communities (regions with administrative autonomy and certain devolved powers), all with their own individual education systems. This means that progress in relation to inclusion varies from one Community to another. For example, although Spain has boasted that, in compulsory education, around 82% of students with disabilities are educated in ordinary schools, figures differ from region to region, being 78.53% in Catalonia, 67.11% in Valencia and 90.58% in Navarra, for example.

As shown in Table I, the diagnosis of students with Special Education Needs (SEN) has increased dramatically over the past ten years, whereas the percentage of those referred to special education schools has remained at a constant 20%, despite the two different education laws that have been passed during this decade. Special attention should also be paid to students from other nations. In Spain, neither race nor ethnicity is taken into account, and only nationality is reflected in the existing official statistics published by the Ministry of Education. Students born in Spain are therefore considered “Spanish” regardless of their family’s culture or cultural overlays and the cultural practices learned in their communities. For both “Spaniards” and those considered to be “foreigners”, culture is assumed to be something static, a viewpoint which entails reproducing group beliefs and practices, at the expense of people’s production of culture (Artiles, 2015).

Table I. Number of students diagnosed with SEN and placed in special schools, 2009-2020

Academic Year

Students enrolled in pre-primary, primary and secondary education

SEN students

SEN students in special schools

% SEN students in special schools

Foreign” SEN students in special schools


Foreign” SEN students in special schools







11.30 %








































































Increase: 8.78%

Increase: 57.97%

Increase: 24.23%


Source: Own elaboration, based on data from each school year provided by the Education Ministry (Spain).

If we look at the nationality of foreign students, Table II clearly shows that, during the 2019-2020 academic year, the Latin American and North African populations are the ones with the highest number of students placed in special education schools. In this sense, there is still much we do not know about the intersection of nationality and ableism in Spain, and we need to broaden our view in order to look beyond disabilities and examine the intersections of various types of identity (e.g., nationality, ethnicity, gender, social class). Furthermore, It is extremely important to explore the SEN’s label come with disparate consequences across groups of students and the role of opportunity to learn in shaping who gets these labels. We are aware the current official education data do not allow some kinds of equity analysis. So there is a need to advance a new generation of inclusive educational research in Spain that engages this and other critical equity questions.

Table II. Origin of foreign students in special education schools

Students origin country

Number students

Students in special schools














































United Kingdom








Source: Own elaboration, based on data from each school year provided by the Education Ministry (Spain).

Moreover, it is equally important to move from mere statistical analyses to in-depth studies of the school system, and to explore the “special” educational practices (services and programs) implemented in ordinary schools, particularly since these practices (and their effects) are not reflected in any of the statistics or national reports.Many “dividing practices” (Foucault, 1986) direct and group children into certain itineraries or classes, based on their ethnicity and/or disability, in which after the intention of responding to their children's needs, a progressive itinerary of low-impact exclusion is produced.

During the many years in which I worked as a SEN teacher and teacher educator, one of the statements I heard most often was the one I have used as the title of this blog: "these students shouldn't be here; they would be better off at a different school". This commonplace belief reveals that teachers see themselves as lacking the competences required to teach students with disabilities. Consequently, they believe the most sensible and even the kindest option is to recommend to families that they send their child to another school capable of providing better resources and more support. However, if parents then ask to which particular schools they are referring, teachers are unable to answer, mostly because they simply do not know.

My research has focused on determining the supports required to guarantee the right to inclusive education in ordinary schools. It has also sought to identify the "quality" of inclusion by examining the "resources" and "attention to diversity measures" available, which, while often well-intentioned, often fail to achieve the desired effects. For years now, I have listened to and recorded the opinions of teachers, students, support staff and school management teams regarding the support measures implemented in schools in various autonomous communities. I have also sought to identify common factors present in the most effective support systems, which may act as levers for overcoming educational exclusion (Rappoport, Sandoval, Simón & Echeita, 2019). In this blog, I focus mainly on specialized teaching support.

Teachers acknowledge that schools continue to have a restrictive and limited view of what is meant by the term "support". The most common support model in Spain is the "remedial" one, which basically represents the transfer of the special education model to ordinary schools.As a result of this rather limited outlook, schools tend to organize themselves in a somewhat fragmented manner, creating separate spaces outside the general education classroom for providing supports to either specific groups or individual students. Sometimes these practices are used to create new forms of segregation or inequitable educational practices—scholars in other nations have described these forms of marginalization “second generation discrimination” (Tefera, Artiles, Voulgarides, Aylward & Alvarado, under review).

In regard to support teachers, there are three different types in Spain: Special Education Needs teachers (also known as pedagogical therapists), who work with students deemed to have Special Educational Needs associated physical, intellectual or sensory disability, or behavioural disorder ; Hearing and Language specialists, who provide support in the fields of communication and language (deafness, dyslexia, specific language disorders, etc.); and Remedial teachers, who help students who are behind in the curriculum and for whom Spanish is not their native tongue. Unlike many other countries, in which support teachers have the status of assistants (no university degree), in Spain, they have the same professional status as other members of the teaching staff.

Support is mainly provided in small groups, outside the main classroom (although this varies across autonomous communities) and focuses on two areas: language and mathematics. Subject teachers prefer students to go outside the classroom and only 18% of support teachers in Spain provide support inside the classroom (Sandoval et al., 2019). However, this parallel system does not result in the class being split on a permanent basis; rather, certain students are taken out of the main group for two or three days a week (depending on the school) and attend all other sessions with their classmates. According to students, there are many different reasons why this model is unhelpful: having two teachers often makes them feel lost and they tend to separate what they learn in each situation ("classroom math" and "support math"); they are often unaware what homework is due the following day since they were not in the ordinary class when it was assigned; being taken out of the group results in them being labeled "the thick ones"; and some claim that they do not understand anything in the ordinary classroom and would rather always be taught by the support teacher in small groups (Sandoval, Simón y Echeita, 2018). So, how can we organize the work carried out by these professionals? And how can we justify the huge increase in the number of specific resources required if there is no evidence of their efficacy and inclusive nature?

One of the main issues associated with the organization of support has to do with the fact that economic and material support is linked to percentages and types of students considered to have "special educational support needs". The question of "identifying" or labeling students is one that has been widely researched and opinions regarding the practice differ substantially (Lauchlan & Boyle 2007). The question we should perhaps be asking ourselves is whether it is possible to disassociate the provision of resources from a medical diagnosis. Many authors believe that we must continue to identify students if we really wish to respond to their needs, whereas others advocate labeling the support provided rather than the student, as a means of identifying barriers to learning and participation.

What cannot be denied is that, on occasions, the identification of students is linked to a disabling context that seeks to identify student needs in order to obtain more support staff (one full-time support teacher is normally provided for every 12 SEN students), thereby enabling certain "problematic" students to be removed from certain classes in a kind of "problem draining system". This contradicts the recommendations to policymakers made by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education: "It seems generally desirable for special education funds to be earmarked for improving interventions throughout the entire school, for all SEN students, thereby creating an inclusive school, rather than focusing on just a few specific students." (EADSNE, 2003, page 14).

Moreover, a number of different aspects linked to support professionals' excessive focus on individual attention have been criticized. One such aspect is the tendency observed in many class tutors to "delegate" responsibility for certain students to their support colleagues. Authors have found that individual attention by support staff (both outside and inside the main classroom) results in the class tutor spending less time interacting with students, something which has been shown to be fundamental to fostering feelings of belonging (Rasmitadila & Goldstein, 2017; Takala, 2007). Overcoming the tradition of "educating different teachers for different students" is a priority concern, along with others focused on the level of preparation and reflection among teacher educators. As Baglieri and Knopf (2004) explained, in addition to preparing teachers on issues linked to disabilities, pathologies and learning difficulties, it is important also to instill in them the conviction that access to general education classrooms is not a privilege reserved for the few, but rather a right enjoyed by all students. So, who can help teachers? And how?

The creation of a school-centered training model based on learning communities encompassing other teachers or co-teaching models (Fluijt, Bakker & Struyf, 2016) may constitute a more effective pathway than traditional training courses that are far removed from the real situations teachers are faced with in their specific contexts, and which are limited to describing ways of acting applied in a vacuum. In this sense, support teachers are vital to providing the support required by teachers in their daily classroom contexts, both empowering them and serving as role models (EASDEN, 2019; Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson & Orphanos, 2009; Tekin-Iftar, Collins, Spooner & Olcay-Gul, 2017; Sandoval et al. 2019). The training received by these professionals should therefore be rethought, placing greater emphasis on their ability to "act as agents of change” in order to avoid the marginalization that can occur when some learners are treated differently to others (Florian & Black-Hawkins 2011). Their training would be better directed towards providing content about inclusive pedagogies, the Universal Design Approach, coteaching and community and family collaboration, rather than towards providing individual responses to disorders.

All teachers should be able to teach all students, under the firm conviction that "they have the capacity to make a difference to children's lives" (Rouse 2008, p. 14). Of particular importance is the transformation of teachers' ideas and expectations. First, because they need to stop thinking that students will be better off in some other "imaginary" place; and secondly, because teachers are influential role models for their students in everything related to social inclusion in the classroom. Teachers can infuse their classrooms with negative attitudes to disability or a desire to overprotect children (Rheams & Bain, 2005). The way they act may influence their students' decisions to include or exclude certain members of the class in a veiled manner. For example, a teacher's decision to insist that a child with a disability sit a test in a separate room may serve only to emphasize their differences in their classmates' eyes (Lindsay & McPherson, 2012).

Similarly, Betancur and Gómez (2015, p. 28) argue that it is the teacher who directs and guides the emotional climate in the classroom and, either consciously or unconsciously, establishes what type of emotions are appropriate, how students should understand them and how they should be expressed. Parameters and expectations about students' behavior and academic performance are factors that also depend on the teacher's ability to interact with students and respond to their needs.

Within the framework of inclusive education, support should not be considered in an isolated fashion, or as something extra or anomalous. Rather, it should be seen as an essential part of the teaching-learning process itself, which can be provided both during class time and as an extracurricular activity. Support teachers must be just another link in what should be a continuous chain of support (from the most natural to the most specialized), including those natural sources of support that are available in any given context. The advantage of regular environments (classroom, playground, cafeteria, a friend’s house, dance class, scouts, etc.) is that they come with a lot of (potential for) natural support (Broer, Doyle, & Giangreco 2005).

All educational support should be considered from a systematic, global perspective, rather than one focused solely on academic learning, as the result of collaboration between different educational stakeholders. This requires a significant change in the functions that have traditionally been performed by support professionals over recent decades. The school community provides us with multiple options beyond the adjustments of the curricular adaptations per subject.

Any analysis of support systems should necessarily form part of a set of context indicators and accountability mechanisms linked to inclusion that focus not only on the percentage of "students with learning difficulties" but also on the percentage of "teachers with teaching difficulties" (self-perceived teaching competence), the aim being to determine their abilities, the support they receive in their teaching activities and the effect this has on their students. Unless we base any future action on these data, we will never overcome the inertia that causes us to act as we have in the past, simply because "this is how things have always been done" (like a hamster in its cage, constantly running on its wheel without moving an inch). A radical change is required if we are to gain a deeper understanding of what we want to achieve, so that we can move away from the exhaustion and tension that currently exists in many Spanish classrooms, and the persisting embrace of the mistaken belief that many students are simply not suited to general education.


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Author Biography:

Marta Sandoval is Professor of inclusive education with the Education Faculty at the Autonomous University of Madrid, UAM (Spain). She was a special teacher and counsellor for over 10 years in Spain. She is Coordinator of both the Research Group on Inclusive Education and Diversity and the Research Area on inclusive education at the UNESCO Chair in Education for Social Justice in UAM. Her research interests are linked to equity and inclusion/exclusion processes at different educational stages, as well as teacher training (initial and lifelong) in inclusion. She led a state project about teaching experiences in the processes of support for marginalized students. She has taken part in three European project about professional development on inclusive education: “Responding to diversitybyengagingwith students’voices:astrategyforteacherdevelopment” (2011-2014), “Raisingtheachievementofalllearnersin inclusiveeducation(RA4AL)” (2014-2016) and “Reaching the 'hard to reach': Inclusive responses to diversity through child-teacher dialogue” (2018-2020). ORCID (0000-0003-1931-1872)