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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Separate special education needs provision in early childhood and school education


12.Educational support and guidance

12.2Separate special education needs provision in early childhood and school education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Definition of Target Group(s)

According to the Intercantonal Agreement on Cooperation in Special Needs Education (Special Needs Education Agreement) the integration of pupils with disabilities is to be preferred to segregation. Integration is, however, only pursued if the child’s welfare and developmental potential allows this option. Pupils for whom integration in mainstream schools is not a suitable solution can attend a special school which meets their needs.

Special schools form part of the compulsory education level and specialise in particular forms of disability or learning and behavioural difficulties. Thus, for instance, there are special schools for the intellectually disabled, for pupils with learning disabilities, the physically disabled and severely handicapped, for hearing, speech or sight-impaired pupils or in some cases also for the chronically ill (hospital schools). The cantons are free to organise special school provision; however, they must maintain the option of attending a special school in all cases.


Admission Requirements and Choice of School

Special schools only take children and young people with a proven need for enhanced measures. Enhanced measures are characterised by one or more of the following:

  • long duration
  • high intensity
  • high degree of specialisation among the specialist staff
  • significant impact on the everyday life, environment or later life of the child or young person

The Intercantonal Agreement on Cooperation in Special Needs Education (Special Needs Education Agreement) provides the standardised evaluation procedure (SAV) for all cantons to assess individual needs for enhanced measures. The use of this instrument is compulsory for those cantons which have signed the agreement.

The SAV is guided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), in particular the version for children and young people (ICF-CY), and systematically records information which is relevant to the assessment of need. The approach is multi-dimensional, whereby the decision to apply enhanced measures is not triggered by specific characteristics (e.g. an impairment) but determined on the basis of transparent development and education objectives. The assessment procedure consists of two standardised steps. Each step consists of several elements recording information on different areas.

1. Basic assessment:

The basic assessment records the child’s current condition and covers the following elements:

  • personal details (child and parents or legal guardians)
  • information on registration and problems/questions
  • current support environment
  • family context
  • recording of functionality (short list of activities/participation, bodily functions)
  • recording by category (primary and secondary diagnosis, symptoms)


2. Needs assessment:

As part of the needs assessment a comparison is made between the target condition and the actual condition. This involves the following:

  • laying down development and educational objectives 
  • carrying out evaluation of needs (special education measures, guidance and support, care, medical measures)
  • making recommendations (main support location, measures)

A third step (identification of needs and decision-making) is deliberately not defined in the SAV. Given the different legal provisions the rules can differ in the individual cantons. On the basis of the basic and needs assessment the cantonal school authority, as set out by law, decides whether or not there should be a referral to a special school. The parents or legal guardians or the pupils are entitled to have proven individual needs met. Where a need has been proven the canton must provide the corresponding special education programme; however, the parents or legal guardians cannot specify where this support should be implemented. The competent cantonal authority is responsible for the organisational decisions. However, the involvement of parents or legal guardians in the referral process must be ensured. This applies to the assessment procedure and to the choice of measures or school. Smaller cantons do not have any or only a small range of special schools, in which case programmes of other cantons are used.

Attendance of a special school may also be combined with in-patient accommodation or with care in day-care centres. A person may also attend two different institutions. For instance: a pupil may attend mainstream school two days per week and be taught in a special school the other three days (part-time integration). 


Age Levels and Grouping of Pupils

Special schools are also divided into levels. However, these levels are aligned strongly to the special educational needs or type of disability and the number of pupils concerned. This also applies to the age mix of the classes. Classes are generally formed on the basis of the type of special educational need or type of disability. Often children and young people of different ages attend the same class. A common breakdown is a combination of the first to third school years, the fourth to sixth school years and the seventh to ninth school years. There are usually five to eight children per class.


Curriculum, Subjects

Special schools have not until now had binding official curricula. The learning content has been adapted to the abilities of the pupils, with particular attention paid to teaching basic skills – both reading, writing, arithmetic, and the skills essential to the child’s development in terms of independence and social integration (motor skills, perception, language, emotional and social skills).

Learning objectives and requirements are tailored to the individual abilities of the children in question and are increasingly enshrined in individual development plans. The learning objectives largely depend on the type of disability: a sensory or physical impairment does not a priori also mean a limitation of cognitive learning. In this case special teaching material and aids are available to meet the requirements and objectives of the mainstream schools.

In cases in which the limitation of development and of the learning ability of a pupil does not allow orientation to the curricula of the mainstream schools, the fixed learning objectives focus in particular on the greatest possible independence and the best possible social integration of the pupils.


Teaching Methods and Materials

The teaching methods in both special schools and mainstream schools are guided by the type of disability or special educational need of the pupils. Individual guidance and support is key. Teaching in special schools takes place in small groups or also on a one-to-one basis. There are usually five to eight children per class.

As part of integrative schooling a pupil may be allocated collective or individual measures. The organisation of the teaching can take different forms:

  • the mainstream class teacher works alone with a class which also contains children with special educational needs. The remedial education teacher is involved in the development of integrative support and helps develop the individual teaching methods. Where there are difficulties the mainstream class teacher can refer to the remedial education teacher,
  • the mainstream class teacher and remedial education teacher teach the class together; different forms of team teaching are possible,
  • the remedial education teacher teaches a group of children with special needs selectively in a separate room,
  • the remedial education teacher teaches a mixed group of children selectively in a separate room,
  • the remedial education teacher teaches a child with special needs selectively in a separate room (individual support, support diagnostics).


Progression of Pupils

Pupils from special schools usually move up into the next class; there are no rules governing transfer to the next grade. For the purposes of permeability a change from a special school into a mainstream class is also possible. 

The preferred assessment procedure in special needs education is a continuous and formative assessment which enables regular feedback for pupils and parents or legal guardians. The development of the child or young person is recorded in a report at the end of the school year or halfway through the school year. Examination or grading at the end of the school year is more of an exception.

Pupils who are integrated in mainstream schools and subject to the normal curriculum are assessed in the same way as their fellow pupils. Pupils with disabilities can, however, request the compensation of disadvantages. This may comprise different measures:

  • extension of the time allowed to sit an examination
  • support from a third person, e.g. sign-language interpreters in oral examinations for pupils with a hearing disability
  • individual breaks
  • oral examination instead of written, and vice versa
  • provision of specific work instruments (computer, tape recorder, etc.)
  • adapting examination media or the form of examination



In the compulsory education sector there are no leaving certificates. At upper secondary level pupils with special educational needs at general education schools and in vocational education and training (VET) receive the same leaving certificates as other pupils. In VET learners with learning difficulties or slight disabilities can take a Federal VET Certificate, while those with greater learning disabilities or performance impairments can complete practical training (PrA INSOS, practical training under the INSOS regulations) – however, this is not recognised at federal level.



Legislative References

Interkantonale Vereinbarung über die Zusammenarbeit im Bereich der Sonderpädagogik [Intercantonal Agreement on Cooperation in Special Needs Education]