Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun

Rannsóknarstofnun Kennaraháskóla Íslands

Grein birt 27. júní 2005

Gretar L. Marinósson

Research on special education
in Iceland 19702002

This overview of research on special education in Iceland spans more than three decades. Documentation of research in this area from 1970 to 2002 has been surveyed in detail and classified. The article describes and reflects upon the resulting database and its implications. The article appears here in a translated version based upon previous publications in Danish and Icelandic. The author is a Professor at Iceland University of Education and directing manager of its research division.


For some time the need for a thorough analysis of research in the field of special education in Iceland has been pressing. The reasons are multiple and a primary one is the country’s participation in Nordic and international discourse on developments in this field. Six years ago the author made an evaluation of the state of the research field in special education based on data available at the time (Marinósson, 1997). This overview may be seen as a continuation of that work.

The questions seeking answers are multiple: What research has been carried out in this area? How has the research activity developed? What characterises its theoretical orientation and methodology? What is its organisational context? Who sets the agenda for special education research, who carries it out and how is it supported and funded? What ideas emerge from the research and what are their sources? What is the theoretical and practical value/relevance of the research for policy makers, practitioners, teacher education and other disciplines? What are the communication/dissemination channels of research, locally, nationally, and internationally? What effect has research had on Icelandic (special) education? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research and what areas are missing or in need of further development?

At this point evidence is still lacking for tackling all these issues properly. However, a general overview and broad analysis of research that has been carried out up to the present can be provided and a look at its professional and organisational context. Less attention is given here to individual projects, such as the ideas emerging from this research and their value; and the impact of research on the practice of special education (see however Marinósson 1997).

Delimitation of the field

The delimitation of the field of special education presents a number of difficulties. What is the relationship between the terms special educational needs and children’s disorders? Does the term special educational needs refer to all kinds of diversity or only some? Should, for example, difficulties related to behaviour (e.g. ADHD), social interaction (e.g. bullying), giftedness and multiculturalism be categorised as special needs or disorders? What age groups should the research refer to? Should the database be restricted to the educational system or also include research on habilitation provided by other systems?

For the purpose of this paper, special educational research is understood as original investigations undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding of responses by the school system to pupils’ special educational needs and of children’s disorders as these relate to schoolwork. Although special education may strictly be understood as referring to what happens within the education system, the other side of the coin is what happens within the child. It was therefore decided to include research on children’s disorders. The term special education is used here in a wide sense, equivalent to the term education for special needs, as referring to all school based activity aimed at responding to educational needs of pupils of all ages that the system sees reason to provide extra resources for. The term disorder is used here (in preference to the terms impairment or disability) in the same sense as it is used in the reported research projects that are based on the “individual” or “medical” theoretical perspective (WHO, 1980). The present selection includes all research that relates to special education and disorders related to school work of children aged 218 but excludes research dealing with disabilities and habilitation outside the school system. It excludes difficulties in school that relate to social interaction, including bullying. However, it includes research that attempts to understand the nature and dynamics of difficulties related to schoolwork, including behaviour (e.g. ADHD) whether done under the influence of the individual theoretical perspective or the “social-relational” perspective. Although this selection includes research on educational inclusion it excludes studies focusing on school or teacher activity unrelated to special needs or disability.

Data collection and analysis

No overview of existing research in education in Iceland has been done, let alone research in the more restricted areas of special education or children’s disorders (see though Marinósson, 1997). In order to improve on this situation a detailed survey of writings in this area was undertaken. A database, consisting of all original material in the field in Iceland to be found on the world-wide web and in print during the years 1950 to 2002 was first created. As venues for the publication of research are few in Iceland and researchers are increasingly publishing in international journals, requests for information on material published abroad and unpublished research projects were made to institutions dealing with child disability and special education and to professional associations. Despite efforts to make the database complete, it is likely that some projects are missing, particularly in the clinical category in the latter years. Finally, items were entered into the EndNote programme to facilitate handling and classification. From this collection a more restricted database was compiled consisting of original research projects only. It soon became clear that the database consisted of two major categories: research on children’s clinical disorders on one hand and educational issues on the other. This article is constructed around this major characteristic of the collection.

An overview of research projects
in special education 19702002

Number of research projects by decades and profession
of researchers (research based theses)
Research conducted by pedagogues 3 (3) 11 (6) 32 (19) 9 (8) 55 (38)
Research conducted by clinicians 3 (2) 3 (0) 12 (0) 4 (0) 23 (2)
Total 6 (5) 14 (6) 44 (19) 13 (8) 88 (40)

Table 1 - Number of research projects by decades and profession of researchers
(research based theses)

This overview indicates that no research was conducted before 1970, apart from one study (the standardisation of the Terman-Merrill IQ test) by a single psychologist in the early 1950s. Thereafter the number of research projects trebles from one decade to the next. Two thirds of these projects are carried out by teachers, social pedagogues (developmental therapists) or sociologists connected to education and a third by psychologists and medical doctors (child psychiatrists and paediatricians).

Ongoing research projects

Apart from several research projects by Masters and Doctoral degree students, two projects by experienced researchers are currently in progress in special education in the Iceland University of Education. One is a study of the experiences of parents of children and young people with disability and the other surveys and analyses the education of pupils with intellectual impairments at pre-school, compulsory school and upper-secondary school. Several projects are ongoing in the clinical field studying the epidemiology and subtypes of clinical categories of impairments. The database is incomplete as regards these projects but it seems fair to say that the annual increase in research activity will continue.

Research focus and theoretical background

The research projects discussed here have two main focus points based on diverging theoretical perspectives. One is an individual, clinical focus: on children’s impairments and disability, seeking descriptions, categorisations and explanations of disorders of behaviour. This type of research is usually based on psychological and biological theories of deviance from ‘normal’ functioning, such as theories of intellectual impairment, ADHD, dyslexia and the autistic spectrum. The second focus is an educational one - on school responses to children’s diversity as represented by age, gender, interests, culture, attainments or ability. It may concentrate on segregated areas of special education or institutions as a whole in their efforts to offer inclusive education to all pupils. This type of research is usually based on theories of social construction, institutions and labelling seeking explanations to school responses to diversity in the socially and historically situated processes of social inclusion and exclusion. Within the former perspective a child is considered to have difficulties of some sort while within the latter it may be said to be in difficulties (Emanuelsson, Persson, & Rosenquist, 2001).

The categorical model represents an attractive choice for researchers as it is based on traditional principles of scientific research methodology and focuses on delimited areas of study, be that individuals or designated categories or sub-categories of impairments. In comparison the social or contextual model represents a complex research field involving, for example, different participants’ perspectives (e.g. that of pupils, parents, teachers or assistants), a variety of processes and routines (e.g. processes of social construction and institutional routines), outcomes (e.g. of instruction) and cultures (e.g. of schools). Within this model special needs and special education are looked at in the context of mainstream education and larger service systems thus overlapping with and facilitating links with other disciplines (Haug, 1998).

There is a certain trend in the direction that research having an individual, clinical focus uses a quantitative methodological approach and research with an educational focus a qualitative one, although there are a number of exceptions to this rule. The explanatory factor appears to be the profession of the researchers. Thus the projects carried out by the clinicians (mostly psychologists) are all basically quantitative although they may include some interview or open observation data. Half of the projects carried out by the pedagogues are quantitative in their methodological approach and half qualitative. In addition there are a few action research projects, all carried out by teachers.

What are the reasons for the present situation?

The overview of research presented here raises a number of questions. Why was research in this field so slow to start compared to neighbouring countries? Why has there been an annual increase in the number of research projects during the last 30 years? Why is the field split in two between research by clinicians and pedagogues? What is the reason for the present institutionalisation of the research activity? More detailed research is necessary to provide plausible answers to all these questions. The explanations suggested below may, however, guide the way.

Icelandic education policy

Despite declarations on festive occasions, the 20th century was characterised by a limited interest in education as a political issue, particularly in education below the university level (Marinósson, 2002). Despite being amongst OECD nations with the highest per capita income, national expenditure on education was, during this period, lower in Iceland than in most neighbouring countries (Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1996b). However, since the middle of the 20th century significant changes have been introduced. The education system has been decentralised so that authority and responsibility of individual institutions over their own affairs has been increased accompanied by added accountability and supervision from above ( Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1993). Legal responsibility for compulsory education was moved, first from the state to 8 education authorities (Althing, 1974) and then to the municipalities (Althing, 1995). Pre-schools continue to be under the auspices of municipalities and upper-secondary schools under the State. Universities have gained authority over their affairs (Althing, 1997) and the education of all pedagogic personnel has been moved to university level. Distance education at secondary schools and universities has become a favourite form of obtaining education for up to half the population of students following a rapid development in the application of information and computer technology in society. National curricula have been revised extensively to cover three school levels for ages 2-20. Teacher conditions of employment have been re-negotiated to allow for greater flexibility of work in compulsory schools. The major policy change has been away from state control of education towards local responsibility; away from curriculum guided by content towards teaching by objectives; from the freedom of schools towards their self-evaluation and accountability; from a social pedagogy towards an individual, competitive one; from annual budgets to contractual management of schools; from a social to a technical conception of change and development; and from a central administration towards the devolution of responsibility for administration and finances monitored through performance indicators (Mýrdal, Jóhannesson, Geirsdóttir, & Finnbogason, 1999; Marinósson, 2002).

Developments in education are affected by a number of different influences. In Iceland they have been dependent on the policies and executive efficiency of the minister of education at any one time ( Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1994, 1998) within the restrictions set by the education budgets and rules laid down by the Ministry of Finance. Policies have been further influenced by local professional or parental pressure groups and international agencies (see e.g. Kennarasamband, 2002). Reform of the compulsory school system in the direction of inclusive education was, for example, strongly affected by international conventions, such as the UN convention on children’s rights (Aðalsteinsson, 1990) and the Salamanca statement and framework for action (UNESCO, 1994). Inclusive education, based on the principle of access for all children to their neighbourhood school where they are to receive individually appropriate and effective education, has been adopted as a government policy ( Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1999). As a consequence the term special education no longer appears in legal texts (Althing, 1995). Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education still maintains a Regulation on Special Education ( Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1996a), a separate quota is still allocated by municipalities for the education of pupils with special needs and the Iceland University of Education offers education for special needs teachers who also run their separate professional association. There is a large measure of integration of pupils with impairments and special needs into mainstream schools, as only about 1% of the school age population attends special schools or units. It is clear from official reports, however (Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, 1996b; Reykjavik, 1997) that, as yet, no Icelandic school meets all the educational needs of its pupils, let alone in mainstream classes. Moreover there appears to be a paradox inherent in the principles of social inclusion on one hand and the policy of competition and accountability on the other.

All this indicates an inconsistent situation where the policy on inclusive education vies with a long tradition of segregated education for pupils with special needs or disorders. Research in the field of special education in Iceland clearly reflects this ambiguity, at the same time connecting up with similar ambiguous discourses in neighbouring countries and to larger historical and cultural trajectories.

The institutionalisation of research

No official policy on research in special education exists, nor indeed on research in education in general. Over the years, the agenda for research in special education has been set by individuals, professional associations and institutions rather than countrywide. The National Institute for Educational Research, established in the late 1980s, was changed in 2000 to the Educational Assessment Institute for the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. An Institute for Research in Education was established at the Iceland University of Education (IUE) in the mid-1990s and has expanded considerably since. At the instigation in 2003 of the IUE, the Ministry of Education, in association with the Iceland Research Council, agreed to carry out the first evaluation of educational research in the country. The report is expected in 2005.

In 2003 the Iceland Research Council had annual funds of 450 million Icelandic kronur for allocation to all research in the country (excluding technology). Around 28 million thereof was allocated for social science research in 2003, and 3 million to projects related to education (RANNÍS, 2003). The total amount is gradually rising over the years. Other local funding organisations for research are miniscule in comparison. Despite Icelanders being active in availing themselves of European Union funds for research, the present situation leaves the majority of projects looking for research funds from non-governmental organisations, private individuals or remaining unsupported. This situation explains to some extent the small number of research projects in special education over the years. The Research Council’s operation was changed in 2003 to a general advisory and executive centre for research in the country to serve the government, the research community and the funding organisations under its control (ibid.). It remains to be seen what influence this has on research activity within education.

Most of the research identified here has been initiated and carried out by individuals or small groups. Only about 3 studies have been initiated by official institutions (e.g. the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture). Nevertheless, there is a strong indication of the influence of institutions upon research activity. Research looked at in this study was largely carried out by two groups of professionals. The former group (labelled the ‘pedagogues’), was related to departments of education at Iceland University of Education, the University of Iceland or the University of Akureyri; the latter group (the ‘clinicians’) was related to the State Assessment and Advisory Centre for disability, the Child and Adolescence Psychiatric Unit of the National University Hospital or the Department of Psychology at the University of Iceland. It is apparently rare for individuals not linked to institutions where research is encouraged or allowed to initiate and implement research projects.

For any research programme to be sustainable it needs institutionalising, which may incorporate research knowledge and skills, organisation of career opportunities, avenues for publication and possibilities for collaboration; and finally links with practice (cf. Geiger, 1993). One may ask to what extent this situation has been attained in the area of special education research in Iceland.

As regards research knowledge and skills, education in psychology has traditionally had a fairly strong research focus in most of the countries where Icelandic psychologists have received their training (Germany, France, the UK and the US), excluding the Scandinavian countries. Since the late 1970s, when the Department of Psychology was established at the University of Iceland this focus has also been apparent locally. A first degree in psychology has therefore produced a number of fairly skilled researchers, who can now build on their skills through a more recent post-graduate programme. Paediatricians and psychiatrists have entered into the research field relatively recently, some with research training, and others producing research in collaboration with psychologists. No research training has been on offer to teachers until after 1994 when the Iceland University of Education established a Masters Study Programme. Such programmes are now being offered at two other universities. Since then several scores of teachers and developmental therapists have completed a research based thesis in education, several in the area of special education. The first doctoral students in education were enrolled in the year 2001. The problem with research carried out for the purpose of completing a Masters or a Doctoral degree, however, is that there is rarely a continuation of research activity by the author unless he or she is employed at an institution where research is expected or accepted as part of the job. This is rarely the case in schools, although it is at university level. Such research, therefore, does not enter into a corpus of knowledge which is being developed. One may safely infer that research training as part of teacher education coupled with a research orientation in schools would greatly encourage educational research.

Research by clinicians has mostly been conducted under the auspices of institutions operated on a deficiency paradigm, such as the State Diagnostic and Advisory Centre for disability, run by the Ministry for Social Affairs and the Child and Adolescence Psychiatric Unit of the National University Hospital which is under the health services. This research overlaps or links up with projects by lecturers in psychology at the University of Iceland focusing on developing psychometric instruments for children’s disorders. These institutions are administratively divorced from the education system although their work with individual children has considerable, yet indirect, influence on the way schools conceptualise these pupils. This tends to maintain a quest for a system of special education where each diagnostic category has its own separate special education unit with separate personnel and resources, harking back to the time of expansion of special education provision in the 1960s and 1970s (Emanuelsson et al., 2001 p.12).

Avenues for the publication of educational research are few and far between as efforts to hold out professional journals have failed in the past few years. One survivor is a journal of peer-reviewed articles published by the Iceland University of Education (Uppeldi og menntun). This is now supplemented by a web journal (Netla). In addition the Association of Special Needs Teachers publishes a periodical (Glæður) for practitioners. Increasingly researchers publish their work in international journals and in book form. Publication abroad, however, has the disadvantage of benefiting only to a limited effect the majority of local practitioners in educational or clinical work.

This relates to the question of what effect research in special education, or education in general, has on pedagogic practice. It would be correct to assume that research has resulted in limited change in educational organisation, teaching methods or personal interaction (see also Marinósson 1997). This is partly due to lack of cultural integration of the research. Thus, research projects are rarely conducted in collaboration with proficient researchers and school institutions at the initiative of the school. Even when this has been the case, as with action research projects, their impact on school operation has commonly been limited in time and space, as they have lacked institution-based support and implementation.

Teachers and schools, primarily preoccupied by the moral and personal welfare of their pupils, have a tendency to look to normative ideas for change and development rather than descriptive or analytic results from research. This perspective is reflected in teacher education establishments, such as the IUE, where emphasis is placed on teaching rather than research. Thus, the integral research part of the job of university lecturers (43%) tends to disappear in more teaching as remuneration for research is less reliable. One may also consider other more complex reasons such as institutional values, established work routines and lack of research orientation, knowledge and skills by staff. The recently introduced system of linking research activity to lecturers’ salary through a point system has, however, had the effect of multiplying publications by staff.

It is not suggested here that special education should be sustained as a separate research programme divorced from other pedagogic research programmes. On the contrary it should define its programme as an integral part of research on mainstream educational and other social issues, particularly in view of the restricted possibilities for institutionalisation of research in a small community such as Iceland.

Summary and conclusions

Although special education is probably the field of education in Iceland where there has been greatest research activity over the past 50 years, trebling during each decade since 1970, the total number of research projects is less than 100. The database divides easily into two parts. On the one hand there are projects carried out by pedagogues studying school responses to pupil diversity in some form, from a social-relational theoretical perspective. On the other hand are investigations of children’s disorders by clinicians guided by an individual-medical perspective. Half of the projects carried out by the pedagogues are quantitative in their methodological approach and half qualitative. In addition there are a few action research projects. All the projects carried out by the clinicians are basically quantitative although they may include some interview or open observation data. Half of the projects by the pedagogues are (masters or doctoral) theses submitted as part of their research training. The overwhelming majority of research projects is initiated by individuals or groups, only a few are initiated by official institutions (e.g. the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.).

It is difficult to talk about trends in research in this field where the number of research projects is as limited as this and significantly dependent on individual researchers. However, one can broadly portray the available research as belonging to either holistic or inclusive educational research or more categorical, clinical research. There appears to be a strong surge of research activity at the present time, building on a steady increase during the last 30 years.

The educational research is institutionalised at university education departments, the latter to a large extent at state assessment units and a university psychology department. The institutional basis for all educational research (indeed all social science research) in Iceland is weak on account of lack of resources: under funding, lack of trained researchers and the embryonic state of research institutions. It would therefore be considered essential for those few who engage in research within similar fields to collaborate. This is, however, not the case. The researchers at the different institutions hardly ever meet to discuss their research, probably precisely because of the weak structure that they operate within. As regards research in special education this reflects the present uneasy relationship between the individual and the social theoretical perspectives in disability research (Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999). Recently, however, an Association for Educational Research was established that has the aim to further educational research in the country. Its members include lecturers from the three universities that offer programmes in education plus individual professionals from other institutions. Clinicians, however, are as yet missing from the group.

It would be safe to maintain that the development of research on special education in Iceland is 20 years behind that in other Nordic countries. Compared to similar research in the UK and the US, the delay is probably 3050 years.

Which way forward?

Any effort towards greater research activity in education must consider the training of researchers in education, avenues for collaboration and publication as well as the links between researchers and practice. Of these issues the training and induction of individuals into the research mode of thinking and working is probably the most urgent. In addition it is necessary to look at task preferences and work routines of university lecturers in education, where teaching traditionally seems to usurp the time that should be set aside for research.

Regarding the focus of research we urgently need research that seeks to describe, analyse, evaluate and find solutions to a number of educational issues of vital importance, including research on issues related to the special needs of children. Thus, we need answers to questions such as what is really happening with children and how educational institutions respond to their varied educational needs, why things are as they are, what results the present practices produce and how we best can achieve the aims of education.

Special education should not be studied separately from mainstream education but as an inherent part of it. One implication of such context-oriented approach is that the methodology should not solely be based on logical positivistic assumptions of truth and objectivity but also assumptions of the contextual nature of social phenomena. In an era where emphasis is on the strengths of individuals and the failings of the system to meet their needs, increasing collaboration between researchers within social, health, and educational institutions is called for. There is a need for larger and longer term projects that can gain an overview of the situation in education from policy to grass roots level over an extensive time period. This necessitates comparison with similar research projects in other countries. But before we achieve any of these aims we need to turn our attention to encouraging and developing the research knowledge and skills of those working in education.


This research was made possible partly by a grant from the Iceland University of Education Assistants Fund 2002. I am grateful to Sigurður Fjalar Jónsson for gathering the data and entering it in the EndNote programme and on a website.


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