This study affirms that EU countries unanimously implemented the right to education for children with SEN and shows that seven of the examined factors are associated with an environment of IE in the EU through the perspective of autistic children: an established definition of SEN, support for teaching staff, general availability of support services for children with SEN, individualized learning outcomes, parental involvement, IE policies, and mixed mainstream classrooms. This suggests that various inputs or components in an education system may be key in the development of IE.
There are several benefits to conducting a QCA. First, it identifies an array of patterns that are associated with an outcome measure, which can bring attention to previously unexplored possibilities or approaches to an outcome . Second, it allows the systematic comparison of case studies by calibrating the characteristics of each case study to a format is transparent and replicable . Third, by differentiating between necessary and sufficient conditions, it can aid researchers and policymakers in developing programs that produce successful educational outcomes . Fourth, the fuzzy nature of this analysis is suitable for analyzing outcomes that can be quantified in degrees (in this study: exclusion, segregation, integration, inclusion) . Finally, whereas statistical methods can overlook the rich contextual complexity and causal complexity to achieving an outcome, QCA is suited to partially overcome this difficulty because of its “potential to account for causal complexity and allowing for generalization” .
On the other hand, this study has several limitations. First, the dataset of this study is comprised entirely of policy information and holds no information regarding practical settings. As such, practical implications of the policy recommendations later on should be reviewed before considering implementation. Second, cases should be similar in all aspects relevant to the outcome except for the analyzed conditions to be used by a QCA . As such, policies had to be analyzed by generalized characteristics. This makes it so unique elements that can make a policy effective in a certain setting could have been overlooked. Third, the coding of data was performed by an individual researcher. Given the coding was heavily based on the interpretation of qualitative data, the possibility of interpretative bias of ambiguous texts cannot be excluded, regardless of clear explanations being established for the individual conditions. To ameliorate this limitation, the coding was verified by a second, independent researcher and inter-relater agreement scores were calculated. Fourth, several conditions were coded in a binary fashion. Even though it provides a clear overview, it also brings with it the risk of overlooking nuances that be important in the interpretation of the outcome of the condition. Fifth, QCA is not a quantitative approach and cannot account for false positives. We ameliorated this by reflecting back on modern literature in the interpretation of the pathways. Sixthly, conclusions about causality should always be made with an abundance of caution, including when using QCA. It is not likely that our study was able to establish a causal relationship between the analyzed conditions and the outcome. Instead, we identified pathways within a dataset to give insight in future areas of development and should be interpreted carefully . Finally, the dataset of EDUCAUS consisted of a combination of a majority general SEN policy and a minority autism-specific policy. As such, the implications of this study should initially be interpreted from an autism-perspective. That being said, the large body of general SEN policy makes it so the results of this study can be used in a wider context, beyond autism.
After considering the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology, findings can be interpreted accordingly. The identification of general support services for children with SEN and mixed mainstream classrooms as necessary conditions are consistent with the core fundamentals of IE—which call for children with SEN to join mainstream classrooms and to have their needs addressed (albeit in-class) [4, 46]. As such, consistent with the definition of necessary conditions , the availability of general support services for children with SEN and mixed mainstream classrooms can be deemed crucial to the development of IE, but not enough on their own.
Even though the combination of necessary conditions with parental involvement, IE policies, and a lack of SEN definition fit in the DREM as a system of inclusion , it is more indicative of an integrative education environment in which children with SEN that can adapt to mainstream classrooms are admitted there and receive SEN support predominantly out of classrooms, but can receive it in-class . The place where the support services are delivered remains ambiguous because policies rarely explicitly state the place of delivery [12–17]. Parental involvement, however, was previously found to be key in letting children with SEN experience effective and welcoming educational settings in which their needs are met .
Establishing a definition of SEN, support for teaching staff, individualized learning outcomes, and IE policies combined with the necessary conditions point more towards the structural adaptation and interdisciplinarity that is required to develop IE and also complies with the DREM [4, 5, 8, 46]. While an established definition of SEN and IE policy provide clarity and consistency in the interpretation of these terms, the support for teaching staff is vital in taking pressure off teachers and allowing them to further develop their skillset in working with SEN. This, in turn, is complemented by the individualized learning outcomes in which children can develop according to their own strengths, which is integral to IE .
Adding the necessary conditions to an established definition of SEN, support for teaching staff, IE policies, and the absence of individual learning outcomes creates an environment in which teachers are being put in a position to succeed. More specifically, the availability of teacher support, involving support in classrooms (e.g. teaching assistants) and additional education for teachers on specific SEN condition—shown to be more effective than education on inclusion in general —creates an environment where teachers have the opportunity to tend to the needs of individual children more, due to (1) other responsibilities being transferred to assisting staff and (2) an enhanced skillset on how to work with children with SEN. The set definition of SEN makes sure that there is little ambiguity in terminology, which can increase transferability of practices between teachers.
Combining the necessary conditions with support for teaching staff, IE policies, but without individual learning outcomes and parental involvement creates an environment in which everything is focused on the teachers, without input from community members. It enables teachers to be open in their approach to teaching and, by extension, creative in shaping their classroom materials, which is beneficial in addressing the needs of children with SEN . However, the disconnection with the community may result in more difficulties with regards to implementation, since the community is a big factor in creating welcoming education environments for children .
The final pathway that involves the combination of the necessary conditions with support for teaching staff, individualized learning outcomes, parental involvement, and IE policies is the closest representation of the DREM in this analysis. Its multifaceted approach of enhancing teacher training, community involvement (through parents), child centered pedagogy (individual learning outcomes), and collaboration (teacher support) are all reflected in the DREM . Additionally, it corresponds with notion that developing IE requires a systemic change compared to the systems of segregation and integration .
An interesting finding of this study is that support for teaching staff was present in four out of five identified pathways. The only pathway in which it was absent, is the pathway that was more associated with an integrative environment. This is in line with the DREM where teacher training and collaborations are outlined as key factors of IE , as well as recent literature that indicates that teachers who are more experienced and have received better training in working with children with SEN are better able to lessen any negative impact of the children with SEN on the behaviour of their typical peers . They are also found to have a more positive attitudes towards IE upon enhancing their skillset and being better prepared to work with children with SEN . That being said, training teachers on SEN holistically was reported to be less effective than providing training on specific SEN . Nevertheless, support for teaching staff being identified as a sufficient condition indicates that, while it can contribute extensively to developing IE, it does so inconsistently, implying that other factors are necessary to be present (e.g. mixed mainstream classrooms and support services for children with SEN).
This line of reasoning is also applicable for the presence of IE policies in all five of the identified pathways. Policy should be a guiding tool for the relevant areas in developing IE. However, for policy to be effective, these other areas need to have both the capacity and willingness to develop towards IE. For instance, IE policy can prescribe that community members should be involved, but if community members do not see the importance of building IE, they will be less inclined to work towards it.
This study has implications for future research. We identified seven key policy areas that can be used as benchmarks in future studies to keep track of the development of IE. The identified conditions were based on state-of-the-art evidence surrounding IE combined with the internationally used DREM [4, 5, 8].
This study also has two recommendations for IE policy development. Firstly, the results of this study indicate the need for enhanced teacher support networks. There are already some instances where collaborative networks are seen in the EU. In Luxembourg, a framework was created for institutions that worked with children with SEN that included the assistance of psychologists, special education teachers, primary school teachers, other educators and instructors, and nursery school teachers . Latvia implemented provisions that should be present in mainstream and special classrooms based on specific forms of SEN , such as visual- and hearing impairments, physical disabilities, speech disorders, learning disabilities, mental health problems, and severe mental disabilities or multiple severe disabilities—which are all common co-occurring conditions for autism .
Secondly, improving teacher training is also emphasized as a vital point for IE. Various approaches have been found in the EU as well. Finland, for example, adopted a teaching curriculum that includes courses on each potential step of the education system, making it so that every teacher has at least a basic understanding of SEN . Sweden acknowledged the need to address at a system-wide level and at an individual level by distinguishing two types of special education teachers: SEN teachers that focus at the individual level, and special education needs coordinators, who specialize at addressing the education environment as a whole . As such, it is imperative that a course on autism specifically is created for teachers to improve their understanding and ability to work with autistic children, especially since courses on specific conditions are found to be more effective than general courses on SEN and teachers with more training on SEN were found to have better attitudes towards inclusive education .