Mass school segregation in Flanders breaches rights of children with mental disabilities, says top European social rights body

The European Committee of Social Rights has ruled that the systematic denial of inclusive education to tens of thousands of children with disabilities in Flanders breaches their fundamental rights.

Merel Coen from Ruiselede, Belgium, was denied enrolment at her local school due to her disability. Photo: Family. Merel Coen from Ruiselede, Belgium, was denied enrolment at her local school due to her disability. Photo: Family.

In a decision on a complaint under the Revised European Social Charter, the Committee found that the refusal to allow enrolment of children with mental disabilities in mainstream schools and maintenance of a separate system of special schools breaches the rights to social protection and inclusion in the community.

The complaint was initiated by international human rights organisation Validity Foundation (formerly the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre) in collaboration with Flemish organisation “Equal rights for every person with a disability” (GRIP – Gelijke Rechten voor Iedere Persoon met een handicap).

Stressing the importance of inclusive education for all children regardless of their impairments, the Committee found that placing children with intellectual disabilities in segregated educational environments had no legitimate aim.

The decision has immediate implications for authorities in Flanders, which must now undertake rapid reforms of the education system. It also calls into question government policies across the Council of Europe region which maintain segregated or special schools, a situation which affects hundreds of thousands of students with mental disabilities.

In responding to the complaint, Flanders authorities argued that they had adopted a programme of “integrated education” for some children with disabilities. However, the Committee found this insufficient and noted that the policy discriminatorily excluded children with moderate or severe disabilities. Furthermore, recent reforms of the education system in the region were criticised for requiring pupils with disabilities to “fit the mainstream system” rather than being truly inclusive.

The decision is an important validation of the concept of inclusive education which is set out under binding international law including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Belgium ratified in 2009 and which has been adopted by the majority of countries in the Council of Europe. Globally, children with disabilities are frequently denied quality, mainstream education and are instead separated from their peers, often in special schools.

In a warning to both Flanders and governments across the Council of Europe, the Committee also said it was insufficient to simply place students with disabilities in mainstream classes without fundamentally reforming the forms of support provided. Instead, the state must ensure that children are provided with “support and reasonable accommodations” to access education, reflecting standards set out under Article 24 of the CRPD.

The Committee said that Flanders had no “objective and reasonable justification” for denying such forms of support, holding this to amount to discrimination on the ground of intellectual disability which is prohibited under the Charter.

Merel is an 8-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who lives with her parents, Monica and Filip, in Ruiselede, Belgium. They tried to enlist their daughter in a local mainstream school, yet this was refused:

“Last year, Merel made the transition from nursery to primary education. She was refused at our local school. This refusal was unfair but there was not much that we could do. The refusal of that school was unjust. We think that this is discrimination. Our child is excluded in our local school because she has an intellectual disability. We, as parents, are powerless.”

The family were forced to enroll Merel in a more distant school in September 2017 and, although she is now receiving the support she needs, the family remain frustrated that she was not accepted in her local school.

Commenting on the decision, Patrick Vandelanotte of GRIP said: “Efforts have been taken by the Flemish government to realise inclusive education, but they are not effective. As a result of this decision made by the Committee, we ask for a new and stronger plan. This plan should include more efforts to provide reasonable accommodations and support in the classroom.

Steven Allen, Campaigns Director of Validity said: “This decision vindicates the notion that inclusive education benefits all children, both those with disabilities and without, and requires governments to end policies of segregation. It highlights the damage caused to children when governments continue to maintain systems of ‘special education’ instead of investing in inclusion and support for all. We intend to use this important precedent to challenge special education across the continent.”

GRIP and Validity are calling on the Flanders authorities to enshrine the right to inclusive education in law and to adopt a comprehensive strategy to end the system of educational segregation. All children and parents must be provided with effective remedies where enrolment, support or accommodations are refused.