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European School Education Platform
Expert article

Inclusive or special needs education? Current trends and considerations across Europe

Developing more inclusive education systems is increasingly seen as an imperative, but also as a challenge across Europe. Contemporary views of inclusive education see it as ‘an organising principle’ that underpins school structures and processes. Inclusive education gives all learners equal learning opportunities in line with a rights-based approach to education (European Agency, 2018a).
A teacher and a special needs pupil with a magnifying glass
Image: Adobe Stock / Tatiana Ziskova

Within this current understanding of inclusion, the aim of support systems is to increase schools’ capacity to meet the diverse needs of all learners, not only specific target groups.


Despite the growing recognition of this wider view of inclusive education, many member countries of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (EASNIE) still focus primarily on the access and placement of learners with special educational needs (SEN) and/or disabilities in mainstream classrooms (European Agency, 2018a). Inclusive education, however, goes beyond the physical placement of learners with SEN in mainstream classrooms and schools (commonly referred to as ‘mainstreaming’), and aims at providing a barrier-free learning environment for all learners, regardless of their individual differences.


In the 2018/19 academic year, EASNIE data shows considerable differences in SEN identification rates [1] across 19 member countries, ranging from 3.3 % to 14.2 % at primary and lower-secondary levels (ISCED 1+2).  Data from 25 countries at the same levels and for the same academic year also indicates that the share of children/learners who are educated outside of mainstream education ranged from 0.1 % to over 7 %. These variations can largely be explained by differences in definitions of SEN, assessment procedures, and financing mechanisms across countries rather than by actual incidence of different forms of special needs and/or disabilities (European Agency, 2022a).


It appears that rather than ‘achieving’ a fully inclusive system, countries have a range of policies that can be considered inclusive or exclusionary to differing degrees (European Agency, 2022; UNESCO 2020a). Some countries focus on specialist provision, deriving from the fear that mainstream settings do not have the expertise or capacity to support learners with more complex needs. However, relying on separate or special classes can limit expectations and opportunities, restrict access to staff expertise and resources, and reduce social interaction with peers (European Agency, 2018b).


A mapping exercise in 26 EASNIE member countries indicates main policy trends towards rethinking the role of specialist provision. These policy trends focus on promoting a rights-based approach, reshaping the relationship between mainstream and specialist provision, and developing new support systems (European Agency, 2019). As a result of these reforms, closer links are being built between mainstream and special schools. Some special schools are also being developed into resource centres, where specialised professionals (i.e. special educators, psychologists, speech therapists etc.) work as partners with mainstream schools.


As a result, more learners are being educated in mainstream settings and positive changes in school-level attitudes towards inclusive education have been noted. Additionally, it increases mainstream schools’ awareness of the need to develop inclusive and flexible learning environments (European Agency, 2019).


There are clear educational, social, and economic justifications for inclusive education (UNESCO, 2020b; Kefallinou et al., 2020). Positive developments are underway with many countries actively trying to broaden their view of inclusion. This leads to an overall focus on groups of learners who are vulnerable to exclusion, a concept that better represents the broader vision and rights-based approach of including all learners in education (European Agency, 2022).


Promoting inclusive education systems must be associated with a paradigm shift, challenging the idea that some learners will always be destined to fail. If inclusive education is not recognised as a central goal for educational policy, it will remain at the level of local practice and experimentation. Effective funding and resourcing systems are crucial for the successful implementation of general or specific policies of inclusive education (Meijer and Watkins, 2019). Simultaneously, a change of attitudes and values in all stakeholders is required to support a transformation of schools so they can respond to all learners’ needs, rather than trying to ‘fit them into’ existing provisions.



[1] Identification rates: the percentage of SEN children/learners against the whole school population.



Anthoula Kefallinou works as an Activity Manager at the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education.  





European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2018a. Raising the Achievement of All Learners in Inclusive Education: Lessons from European Policy and Practice. (V.J. Donnelly and A. Kefallinou, eds.). Odense, Denmark. Available at:

European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2018b. Evidence of the Link Between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion: A Review of the Literature. (S. Symeonidou, ed.).

European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2019. Changing Role of Specialist Provision in Supporting Inclusive Education: Mapping Specialist Provision Approaches in European Countries. (S. Ebersold, M. Kyriazopoulou, A. Kefallinou and E. Rebollo Píriz, eds.). Odense, Denmark

European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2022a. European Agency Statistics on Inclusive Education: 2018/2019 School Year Dataset Cross-Country Report. (A. Lenárt, A. Lecheval and A. Watkins, eds.). Odense, Denmark

European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2022. Legislative Definitions around Learners’ Needs: A snapshot of European country approaches. (M. Turner-Cmuchal, ed. and A. Lecheval). Odense, Denmark

Kefallinou, A., Symeonidou, S. and Meijer, C.J.W, 2020. ‘Understanding the value of inclusive education and its implementation: A review of the literature’. Prospects 49, 135–152 (2020).

Meijer C.J.W. & Watkins A., 2019. Financing special needs and inclusive education – from Salamanca to the present, International Journal of Inclusive Education,

UNESCO, 2020a. Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Inclusion and education: All means all. Paris, UNESCO

UNESCO, 2020b. Towards inclusion in education: Status, trends and challenges. The UNESCO Salamanca Statement 25 years on. Paris: UNESCO.

Additional information

  • Education type:
    School Education
  • Target audience:
    Government / policy maker
    Head Teacher / Principal
    Parent / Guardian
    School Psychologist
    Student Teacher
    Teacher Educator
  • Target audience ISCED:
    Primary education (ISCED 1)
    Lower secondary education (ISCED 2)
    Upper secondary education (ISCED 3)


Special needs education

School subjects