Towards a more inclusive education system in Portugal

Students sitting around a table viewed from above

By Lucie Cerna

Analyst and Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key Points:

– Portugal is building a more inclusive education system that seeks to meet the needs of all students
– The inclusive education framework goes hand in hand with more flexibility and autonomy of local actors, greater curriculum flexibility and stronger support structures for students and teachers
– Portugal must continue to develop capacity-building of teachers and school leaders, consistent implementation of the inclusive education framework across all schools and greater collaboration between stakeholders

An inclusive education system is one that offers quality education for every student. But what does this mean? Inclusive education describes education systems that respect diversity, acknowledge and provide for different needs and characteristics of students with the aim to eliminate discrimination (UNESCO 2009). Where you come from, what your specific learning characteristics are and how you learn should not be barriers to participating in a quality education. Portugal is developing a comprehensive inclusive education framework that looks to improve equity and increase participation in learning and educational community life.

Inclusive education in Portugal

After decades of efforts to promote equity and inclusion in education, with a particular focus on students with special education needs, the Portuguese government has been driving the development of a comprehensive legal framework on inclusive education. It has implemented progressive measures aimed at addressing diversity among students. This includes significant efforts to grant more flexibility and autonomy to local actors, including schools, as well as providing support for teachers and other school personnel to develop their professional practice. Many programmes, structures and human resources are now available to support equity and inclusion.

For Portugal, inclusive education is for all students. This means that there is no distinction between student groups and no labelling of students. Instead, students’ individual needs are considered and supported by various measures in schools. Inclusive education is now the responsibility of a multidisciplinary team and the whole school community.

How does Portugal’s approach to inclusive education compare to other countries?

Other countries are also developing their policy and practice of inclusive education. Many still consider it an approach that serves students with special education needs within general education settings. In contrast, the province of New Brunswick, Canada, has focused on inclusive education for several decades and ensures that all students are part of a common learning environment. This means that students receive targeted personalised instruction to learn academically, socially and emotionally with their peers. Engaging schools, families and community stakeholders is key to implementing the inclusive education model so that inclusive education is not the sole responsibility of teachers. Similarly, in New Zealand, inclusive education means that all learners are welcomed by their local early learning service and school, and are supported to play, learn, contribute and participate in all aspects of life at the school or service. Learning spaces and activities are developed and designed so that all learners are affirmed in their identity and can learn and participate together.

Portugal’s inclusive education framework is among the most comprehensive of OECD countries. Portugal has developed various programmes, resources and support structures to meet the needs of all students and to promote educational equity and inclusion more broadly. Their reform priorities are particularly relevant for other countries that wish to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their education systems.

What challenges does Portugal face?

The educational reform process is currently in the early stages so there are some particular challenges that Portugal is facing. While the inclusive education framework focuses on supporting all students, the education system is less prepared for the inclusion of some student groups. For example, schools do not all have the same knowledge and capacity to include students with an immigrant background or those from Roma communities as they do for students with special education needs. This may lead to uneven distribution of support and resources. Classroom practices also vary considerably, within and between schools. While some teachers use collaborative learning approaches to encourage greater student participation, others might be more restricted in their discretion to vary practices in response to student diversity. Professional learning opportunities for teachers and school leaders in the area of diversity and inclusion are also limited. In addition, there are limited strategies for monitoring and evaluation of policies and practices. Despite widespread awareness and acceptance of equity and inclusion policies, there is varying levels of successful implementation of the inclusive education framework at the school and local levels.

How can Portugal move forward?

It will be important to strengthen the governance and financing of inclusive education by creating stronger collaboration strategies to broaden the understanding of inclusive education and building a coherent funding system to support equity and inclusion. Developing capacity will also be a key priority for Portugal, through expanding professional learning opportunities for teachers and building on good practices to promote collaboration to address all dimensions of diversity. Promoting school-level responses to student diversity, in particular introducing a programme of professional learning to promote inclusive classroom practices and strengthening strategies for monitoring and evaluating inclusive practices at the school and local levels, will be key areas for Portugal to develop.

Portugal’s path to an inclusive education system, while still in process, provides an opportunity for other countries to learn how better to promote equity and inclusion in education.

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