Can special education make a difference?

Rune Sarromaa Hausstätter, PhD, Lillehammer University College, Norway

When placed in special education, the famous philosopher and cartoon hero Bart Simpson expressed his concern about the challenge he was supposed to overcome: how can I catch up the others by working slow? The concern expressed by Bart points at a serious challenge facing the area of special education. In a historical context, special education was offered, not as an alternative, but as a solution for groups of children that were not accepted by the ordinary educational system.  As the goal of creating a school for all children became a major political goal, the role of special education changed. The special school system continued to exist, but after the Second World War special education changed from being only an alternative located in special schools to also become an educational support system for ordinary teaching.

The role and success of special education as a support system for ordinary teaching is the topic in one of my recent articles, (1), published in the Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research together with Marjatta Takala. The Finnish PISA results are another reason why we wanted to write this article. It is stated in several articles that one reason for the Finnish PISA success is the use of special education as an active support for children who struggle with school topics. In other words, it seems like the Finnish school system, at least partly, have solved the problem raised by Bart Simpson. The Finnish system is in this article compared with the Norwegian special educational system.

The historical background for understanding the role of special education is debated in one of our other articles (2). As pointed out in that article, there are some differences between Norway and Finland. However, in spite of these differences, the Norwegian and Finnish school systems are very similar to each other both in structure and content. Both countries are based on the Nordic welfare state model with a dominant public educational system, and the classrooms are relative heterogeneous. Nevertheless, the differences between Norway and Finland in the PISA test is, as pointed out in this article, considerable.

The comparative analysis presented in our article points to three differences regarding the use of special education as a support system for ordinary education. The support system in itself is the first point. The amount of special education differs considerably between Norway (8%) and Finland (30%). One reason for this is that in Norway, students are offered special education when they don’t have sufficient support from ordinary education. The high numbers of students receiving special education in Finland is due to the fact that in this country, special education is offered as a standard support for the students if they struggle to keep up with the pace in ordinary education. In other words special education functions as an integrated part of the ordinary educational system in Finland.

The second reason for the success of special education in Finland seems to be the high focus on early intervention. Most of the support is given in the first years of schooling and in pre-school. The pullout model seems to be the most used strategy – this means that the student gets extra, high-intensive, training in a resource room for a limited amount of time. The idea is that the student gets special education support before she or he develops a substantial learning problem. In comparison, the pullout model is also the most used strategy in Norwegian special education, however most students receive special education in middle school/secondary school. The principle of early intervention seems to be missing from the Norwegian special educational support system.

The last point I want to point at is the reason for giving special education – what do students who receive special education struggle with. It seems that Finland has developed a strategy where they focus largely on language skills of their students. Language and other academic skills are dominating the distribution of recourses in Finnish special education, where as “other problems”, mainly based on medically defined categories, are dominating the resource distribution in Norwegian special education.

The combination of early intervention and clear goal directed focus on specific academic skills makes the Finnish special education to a high intensive support for students. It seems that this part of the Finnish educational system has solved Bart Simpsons problem: caching up by increasing the intensity of learning. In comparison, the Norwegian system is still struggling with the problem raised by Bart. I think that the reason for this is that the Norwegian system is haunted by its past, a past where special education was looked at as something different than ordinary education, therefore it has not become an integrated strategy of ordinary education in the Norwegian school.





  1. Sounds like a very interesting study, I look forward to reading it. For clarification, is the PISA a score that represents % of the overall school population who have disabilities? So, if Finland has a low population of students because they are being served inclusively and intervened with early, does Finland also have a way of tracking post-school outcomes for students? That might be additional important information to consider related to whether the approach is working. Just a thought.

  2. I am interested in these differing approaches. We are currently undergoing changes in the structural ways we deal with some elements of these issues here. I am a teacher in a ‘school for specific purposes’ in Western Sydney, Australia – we cater for students with multiple organic disabilities, mental health difficulties and delays. I am interested in how this end of the ability spectrum is educated within Nordic countries. Are there major differences in curriculum approaches and resources ? I will be travelling through Finland and Norway in a few weeks, I hope to visit some schools and take a look for myself at some point.

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