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Do the education systems reproduce the existing social structure and with it, social differences? The power of a label (poster presentation)

Marta Moretti, Zurich University of Applied Sciences, School of Education


Education systems are environments created by society to fulfil two main functions (1) to prepare for full participation in adult life and (2) to assign social roles and reproduce the existing social structure and with it, social differences. For children with disabilities, difficulties in school or from disadvantaged backgrounds a tension often arises between these two functions. These school-related issues may be more relevant to the processes of labelling than the actual abilities or disabilities of the individual child.

Like many countries, Switzerland uses «mental retardation» as an eligibility criterion for providing additional resources in education systems. A canton was selected for a pilot study because its rate of children excluded from regular education is amongst the lowest in Switzerland, suggesting a coherent practice in identifying children. At national level, all children are reported to fall under the national category of «mental retardation». But do these children share the same characteristics? Are they facing the same problems in their school activities?

Pilot Study Design

The study focused on the interdependency between educational goals, resources, context of schooling and student characteristics (functioning, national category). It included 32 children between the ages of six and sixteen all labelled as "mental retardation" in the national education statistics.

Data was collected using the ICF-CY (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Children & Youth version, WHO 2007) questionnaire, semi-structured interviews with the teachers, and participant observation. Students were interviewed focusing on their participation in school activities. Data collection included:

  • Children: functioning, abilities and social involvement of the children within the school environment
  • School environment: resources made available to children, educational measures provided to meet special education needs
  • Goals and contents of education: Individual Educational Plans

Results at the Individual Level

The analysis of individual profiles of functioning reveal considerable differences between children despite sharing the same national disability category.

Results at the System Level

The results were used to understand the present system of eligibility and allocating additional resources. Disability-related information is used at different levels of the education system (national, cantonal, school, individual) to communicate and to organise resources and placement. The category «mental retardation» may therefore reflect clinical information, information related to the placement or to the educational programme of a student.

The school system of this canton - in accordance with the Swiss invalidity insurance scheme - uses a clinical diagnosis as an eligibility criterion.


The study illustrates that diagnosis alone may be adequate to claim more rights for a clearly identifiable group, but cannot guide educational processes. The intervention process is determined not only by the functional needs of the child, but by policies and organisational arrangements.

Differences in local practice cannot be explained by the functional profile alone. In many cases, the student-teacher relationship, student migrant background or class size were more relevant to understand differences in educational programmes and support measures than functional profiles.

The results suggest that educational goal setting and allocation to programmes and resources may not be dependent on the functional status alone.

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