“Sorting out students with ‘special needs’ has long-term consequences for their lives”

By on 24.09.2018 in Research findings

Joanna Giota

Sweden is expected to provide ‘a common school for all’. However, research shows that the Swedish society has failed in some aspects in creating equal opportunities in working life and further education. Young adults with intellectual disabilities or students with other difficulties in school are facing long-term consequences.  

The ability of the Swedish educational system to support all students and offer them equal opportunities for equivalent education is questioned. JustEd researcher and Professor Joanna Giota at the University of Gothenburg has investigated the matter for 30 years:

“Equal opportunities are a prerequisite for further studies and employment. Employment is in turn a prerequisite for social, economic and health benefits for all individuals in a society”, Giota explains.

In Sweden, equity in the early 1960s referred to equal access to education as a right and a means to reduce educational inequalities between different groups in society, by increasing opportunities for further education, employment, income and quality of life. The common 9-year compulsory school was introduced in Sweden in 1962 to achieve equality in education, but already in the 1970’s studies showed that it did not fulfill its purpose.

“The educational level had risen thanks to this ‘common school for all’ but the educational inequalities had remained”, says Giota.


Special education groups reinforce inequalities

Recent research conducted by Giota, Ingemar Emanuelsson and their colleagues, shows that there are still serious inequalities facing young people of today. The segregated way of organizing special education support still persists – students receiving instruction outside their regular class or in special education groups is nothing unusual today.

“In fact this trend has steadily increased since the early 1990s, even though the inclusive approach to the teaching of all children in compulsory school is the recommended key educational policy.”

Based on a diagnosis or a disability categorization students are placed outside the regular classes in special support groups.

“This has often negative consequences for the ‘special’ students both in terms of knowledge attainment, self-beliefs and motivation to learn in a long-term perspective. The education career of these students tends to differ from the ones of their former classmates in the regular classes”, Giota explains.

These students often got a continued alternative education career in the previous individual and the new introductory programs at upper secondary school. Students in such programs show the highest dropout rates, while alternative education careers also tend to lead to insufficient qualifications and thus unequal opportunities with negative consequences for quality of life.

Another conclusion of Giota’s research is that family background is still important for student learning and achievement. There is a higher student influence in independent schools, which may imply that these students, most often representing high-educated homes, not only can make their voice heard, but also influence their schooling and school results.

“Thus, there are reasons to believe that the already existing inequity in learning opportunities between schools may increase even more. Given differences in learning opportunities and grades, this may further contribute to differences in life opportunities, and also social class differences.”


Political action needed

According to Giota, the Swedish society has failed to create equal opportunities for participation in working life, further education and active societal membership, for young adults with intellectual disabilities or students with other difficulties with school:

“It is actually not these students who are in need of being sorted, but the Swedish education system that needs to be improved.”  

Giota is especially pointing out the increasing inequalities in opportunities for learning of certain student groups, and the risk they run to become marginalized and socially excluded. The current political debate in Sweden is about how much variation in equity that can be tolerated or to what extent this variation can be of advantage or disadvantage for students and the Swedish society.

“Children and young people are different, their life projects differ and will continue to differ, but regardless of that, they need to be given the capabilities to acquire what school has to offer on their own terms. That offer should be of equal worth or have the same value for each and every individual student,” Giota says and continues:

“However, teaching does not need to be designed in the same way in every single school. Teaching should be individualized or individually adapted in order to meet every student on the basis of her or his capacities, needs and interests”.

In addition, Giota’s research shows that specific teaching practices such as the use of tests or letting students work independently are linked differently to the motivation and achievements of different student groups over time. These findings stress the importance of being aware also of the consequences of how school organizes its teaching.


Gap in support meeting abilities

The increasing amount of special schools or special education groups in regular schools is mainly due to the gap between students’ need for support and the school’s abilities to meet students’ varied prerequisites. Giota questions if it is always possible to determine whether a student has his or her place in a special school/group or not.

“This is a crucial question because the way in which students are sorted out and their placement in different special schools and special education groups have long-term consequences for these students’ lives”, Giota concludes.

According to Giota, schools should instead remove barriers so that all children can have more possibilities to live the kind of life they value in the future.

“Our research findings imply that school should consider and change their teaching practices and special support measures to more optimally assist students in need of special education support based on their prerequisites, needs and interests. That would also require changes in teacher training and various special education programs as well as special teacher/pedagogue education.” 


NAME: Joanna Giota

TITLE: Professor of Education, Gothenburg University, Sweden

LIVING IN: In Gothenburg since 1987

CAREER: Researcher in education at Gothenburg University since 1989

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Exploring students’ motivation, self-concept and mental health in relation to their achievements over time. Exploring consequences of specific teaching practices and special education support measures for different student groups over time.

HOBBIES: Playing vinyl from the 1960s and 1970s, going to rock concerts and street photography over the world

FAVORITE FOOD & BEVERAGE: Shrimpsandwich and Margarita.


Giota, J. (1995). Why do all children in Swedish schools learn English as a foreign language? An analysis of an open question in the national evaluation programme of the Swedish compulsory comprehensive school.  SYSTEM: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, 23, 307-324.

Giota, J. (2002). Adolescents’ goal orientations and academic achievement: long-term relations and gender differences. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 46, 349-371.

Giota, J. (2013). Individualiserad undervisning i skolan – en forskningsöversikt. Vetenskapsrådets rapportserie 3:2013. Vetenskapsrådet.

Sheridan, S., Giota, J., Han, Y-M., & Kwon, J-Y. (2009). A cross-cultural study of preschool quality in South Korea and Sweden: ECERS evaluations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 24, 142-156.

Giota, J., Lundborg, O., & Emanuelsson, I. (2009). Special education in comprehensive school: extent, forms and effects. Scandinavian Journal of Educational research, 53(6), 557-578.

Giota, J., & Emanuelsson, I. (2011). Policies in special education support issues in Swedish compulsory school: a national representative study of head teachers’ judgements. London Review of Education, 9(1), 95-108.

Giota, J. & Emanuelsson, I. (2016). Consequences of differentiated policies and teaching practices in the Swedish school system. In D. Beach and A. Dyson (Eds), Equity and education in cold climates. London: Tufnell Press.

Giota, J. & Gustafsson, J-E. (2016). Perceived Demands of Schooling, Stress and Mental Health: Changes from Grade 6 to Grade 9 as a Function of Gender and Cognitive Ability. Stress and Health, Aug 17. doi: 10.1002/smi.2693. [E-pub ahead of print]

Lilja, J., Giota, J., Hamilton, D., & Larsson, S. (2007). An example of International Drug Politics – The Development and Distribution of Substance Prevention Programs Directed at Adolescents. Substance Use & Misuse, 42 (2-3), 317-342.



About the Author

About the Author: Charlotta Järf is in charge of the communications and marketing activities for JustEd, The Nordic Centre of Excellence, an international research network with 14 partner universities in 8 countries. With ten years of professional experience in Communications and Marketing, and five years as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, Charlotta has a practical set of skills in strategical communications, PR, social media, graphic design, video and content production. .


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