What Netflix’s Rita can teach us about the challenges to implement the right to inclusive education

by Julia Biermann

The definition of inclusive education, as entailed in the General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, offers an ambitious vision for the global change of education systems. This vision, however, not only challenges “old ways” of segregated special schooling, but often also attempts of inclusive schooling. The Netflix series “Rita” vividly captures this conundrum and, even more, provokes viewers to ask: does inclusive schooling require to partially separate students with special needs from their peers in special classrooms?

According to the recently released General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, inclusive education demands that all educational environments include and serve the needs of all students. From a position of moral and legal authority, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines within this document the right to inclusive education accordingly as »a process that transforms culture, policy and practice in all educational environments to accommodate the differing needs of individual students, together with a commitment to remove the barriers that impede that possibility« (paragraph 9). Though setting clear expectations for the direction of educational change on a global scale, one could say that this vision is overloaded with vagueness. Too vague to alter the desired effects in schools?

Here, Rita comes into play; a free-spirited Danish teacher starring the eponymous Netflix series. Troubled by the intricacies of life and school, Rita fights courageously for her students, most often in rather unconventional ways. In terms of inclusion, this becomes evident in Season 3 which thematically deals with the politically backed, though troublesome, process of – as they say in the series – »integrating inclusion students with learning disabilities«. Not only is this process poorly resourced, it also pushes the limits of solidarity of nearly all involved parties; e.g. teachers, pupils and parents alike complain that »inclusion students« disrupt the class and thus slow down the other students‘ learning. To fight the resulting school-wide »inclusion blues«, Rita – a passionate inclusive education advocate – uses some of the little additional funding to create an extra space for the inclusion students in the school’s basement. This space allows them to retreat occasionally from the regular classroom. In addition, Rita collects donations for one student who wishes to return to a special school.

Given the actual circumstances, one could argue that this pragmatic solution responds to the needs of all students; in fact, the »inclusion students« are happy to have this space of their own. But, does this solution also correspond to the General Comment’s vision of transforming school culture at large? To be precise, does the occasional or partial separation of pupils with »special needs« respond to their individual needs, or does it, unnecessarily, establish barriers that prevent inclusive education?

Instead of answering this question, I want to make it the object of analysis, i.e. analysing the gap between inclusive education rhetoric and actual implementation practices in more detail. For that reason, I refer to the concept of the interregnum.

Originally used to denote the period of transition between two rulers, Gramsci has broadened and deepened this concept in his “Prison Notebooks”. Accordingly, the interregnum refers to the transition between two social orders that is characterised by morbid phenomena and a fundamental institutional crisis, summarised in the much-quoted key statement: ‘The old is dying, yet the new cannot be born’. (see also Zygmunt Baumann 2013)

It is not difficult to link this concept to the analysis at hand. Article 24 UN CRPD legally requires states to fundamentally change education systems and guarantee that all educational facilities can accommodate the needs of all students. This transition, however, »contains more friction than flows« (Levitt and Merry 2009, 448), because we witness globally the continuation or even expansion of special schools and classrooms (for Germany e.g. Klemm 2013). This trend is also reflected in the Committees Concluding Observations on State Party Reports. Overall, this paradoxical development points to an institutional crisis of schooling caused by the human right to inclusive education. For me, this institutional crisis can be traced to one particular aspect: The difficult role of (partial) separation in the wake of the inclusive imperative.

In conclusion, while segregated special schooling loses its legitimacy with Article 24 UN CPRD, the vision of inclusive education as ‘one classroom for all’ is far from being a reality. Even more, it has the power to plunge education systems into an institutional crisis. The question that remains is how to deal with this situation. For me, to openly acknowledge the “inclusion blues” would be a first step towards a deliberative process to realise inclusive education. Why? Because it would allow to advocate for inclusive education while at the same time accepting the challenges of implementing this fundamental human right – just as Rita did.

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