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Inclusive Education in Iceland

Inclusive Education in Iceland, an analysis by Hildur Kristjana Onnudottir

The policy of inclusive education in its current form entered into law in 2008. The policy has a very good legal basis both in local regulations, national laws and international obligations. The small population made the creation of a segregated special needs school system a practical impossibility and the right of children to be educated within their community was ensured in the 1970s. When the policy of inclusive education was introduced in 2008 it encountered little resistance or concern, many believed that implementation would be simple. Yet, in a governmental report in 2014 it was revealed that only 32% of parents and 44% of teachers agreed that the policy of inclusive education had improved the education system. An interview with a Basic Education School teacher in Iceland added context to the statistics and provided a vital insight into what teachers feel that they need for inclusive education to be successful. Inclusive education has been criticised for being a mere ideology, with Basic Education Schools in particular being criticised for failing its obligations.

The Icelandic Educational system
Mandatory education is between the ages of 6 to 16 and is provided by Basic Education Schools who are governed by local authorities and follow a national curriculum. There is very little involvement by the private or non-profit sector. While special schools are rare, all mainstream schools have a special needs department. The special needs departments have been a source of controversy, with some regarding them as being consistent with inclusive education as they are within mainstream schools, while others regard them as segregating.

The number of students identified as needing additional support increased by 55% between 2005 and 2012. By 2012, 63% of students who received additional learning support had a formal diagnosis of specific learning difficulties, psychological, behavioural or developmental disorders.[1] 37% of students who required additional learning support received that support within mainstream classes, 45% received support both within and outside mainstream classes. 17% were educated exclusively outside of mainstream classes in a special needs department. A teacher is classified as a special needs education teacher if he/she spends 50% or more of their working hours providing additional learning support or special needs education. The number of unqualified teachers has radically decreased from 20% in 2005 to 4% in 2012, though that number varies between regions.

Rural communities encounter difficulties in attracting qualified staff in education, health and social care. The majority of specialised social and health services are based in Reykjavik. Despite difficulties in accessing necessary resources, small rural schools have a smaller class size and seem to be able to provide a more individualised education and support, and demonstrate a more positive attitude from parents and staff towards inclusive education.

Attitudes towards inclusive schools
A common sentiment expressed is that greater funding, time and expert knowledge within schools is needed for the policy to be successful. Teachers feel that the policy has increased pressure and changed the nature of their job. Greater expertise is demanded and more time is devoted to paperwork. They feel unable to provide additional support to the few students with special needs without neglecting other students.  According to a large study conducted from 2008 to 2013, 93% of parents believe that education that meets every individual student’s needs is vital yet only half of those believed that the teachers had the capacity to do so. Nearly half of qualified teachers agreed with this assessment.

62% of parents and nearly half of teachers think it is important that all children are able to study in their local school regardless of disability, health or Icelandic language skills. 24% of students in basic education schools believed that children with developmental disorders should be in a mainstream class in their local school, 22% believed that they should be in a special department within a mainstream school. Parents to children with special needs stated that they did not feel that their children were given the same opportunities as other students. A common perception was that there was no place for children with special needs within a rigid educational system that is incapable of accommodating diversity.

Iceland underestimated the level of reform and resources needed to make inclusive education a success. The sentiment that is consistently repeated by parents and teachers, in studies, surveys and the media is that currently the policy is nothing but an ideology, there is no true implementation leaving children with special needs without the assistance and adjustments they need. Both parents and teachers offer the same solution, increase staff numbers. The policy of inclusive education increased the workload of teachers without providing them with the means to achieve the new standards. Iceland does not lack the resources, and was successful in decreasing the number of unqualified teachers in a few years using policy changes and incentives for teachers for further training. Ultimately, a successful implementation of inclusive education relies on the understanding that it is not an opportunity for cost-cutting.

Read the full paper which includes an interview here.


- An assessment of the implementation of ‘School without exclusion’ policy in Iceland. A report from the Ministry for Culture and Education, May 2015.
- „Skóli án aðgreiningar, innistæðulaus mannúð“ Reynsla og upplifun foreldra barna með námserfiðleika á stuðningi í grunnskólum (“Schools without exclusion, an empty humanitarianism”, the experiences of parents of children with specific learning difficulties of support in basic education schools). A masters degree dissertation in social work by Olga Huld Gunnarsdottir. University of Iceland, November 2016. 
- Statistics Iceland, an analysis of statistics regarding special education. November 2014
- Skóli án aðgreiningar, samantekt á lögum og fræðilegu efni (Inclusive Education, an analysis of the legal framework and studies) University of Iceland, 2015.

[1] Students without a formal diagnosis include students whose first language is not Icelandic and need additional learning and language support on that basis. That number may also include students who are going through a diagnostic process or on a waiting list after being referred, yet are already provided with some additional support.