Nordic research on special needs education in upper secondary vocational education and training: A review

  • Camilla Björk-Åman Åbo Akademi University
  • Robert Holmgren Umeå University
  • Gerd Pettersson Umeå University
  • Kristina Ström Åbo Akademi University
Keywords: special needs education (SNE), special educational needs (SEN), upper secondary education, vocational education and training (VET)


The purpose of this article is to describe and analyse the state of the art of research on special needs education (SNE) in the context of the Nordic countries’ vocational education and training (VET) systems during the period January 2010 to September 2018.  Twenty studies remained after the search procedure and thematic analysis, 15 of which deal with the practice level and five with the organisation level. No studies were identified as belonging to the policy level. The following themes were found at the practice level: teachers’ work and role, teaching and learning, student transition and student dropout. Themes identified at the organisation level were changes to vocational policy documents and educational practices, and school organisation and its implementation. Finland dominates in terms of number of studies. Furthermore, the review shows that there were few studies in the area of SNE in VET. The results show that further studies are needed to acquire more knowledge about SNE in vocational education.


Act relating to primary and secondary education and training (Education act). (1998). Lov om grunnskolen og den vidaregåande opplæringa (Opplæringslova). Kunnskapsdepartementet.

Ahlberg, A. (2009). Kunskapsbildning i specialpedagogik [Knowledge of special education]. In A. Ahlberg (Ed.), Specialpedagogisk forskning: En mångfacetterad utmaning [Special education research: A multifaceted challenge] (pp. 9–28). Studentlitteratur.

Bell, S., Hirvonen, M., Kukemelk, H., Pancocha, K., Vadurova, H., & Hion, P. (2014). The inclusion of students with special educational needs in vocation-al education and training: A comparative study of the changing role of SEN teachers in the European context (Finland, England, the Czech Republic and Estonia). Socialiniai Tyrimai [Social Research], 35(2), 42–52.

Björk-Åman, C. (2013). Extremfall, stjärnelever och verktygsskramlare: En diskurs-analytisk studie av lärares tal om studerande som behöver särskilt stöd [Extremcases, starpupils and toolrattlers: A discourse analytical study of teachers’ talk about special needs students]. (PhD dissertation). Åbo Akad-emis förlag.

Cedefop. (2010). Employer‐provided vocational training in Europe: Evaluation and Interpretation of the third continuing vocational training survey. Publications Of-fice of the European Union.

Cedefop. (2015). Skills, qualifications and jobs in the EU: The making of a perfect match? (Cedefop Reference Series No. 103). Office for the Official Publica-tions of the European Union.

Cedefop Dk. (2012). Vocational education and training in Denmark: Short descrip-tion. European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training. Publi-cations Office of the European Union.

Danish Evaluation Institute. (2019). Elever, der modtager specialpædagogisk støtte, klarer sig ganske godt [Students who receive special educational support do quite well]. Danmarks Evalueringsinstitut.

Decree on teacher qualifications. (1998/2017). Förordning om behörighetsvillkoren för personal inom undervisningsväsendet. Undervisningsministeriet.

Eiriksdottir, E., & Rosvall, P.-Å. (2019). VET teachers’ interpretations of indi-vidualisation and teaching of skills and social order in two Nordic coun-tries. European Educational Research Journal, 18(3), 355–375.

Finnish National Agency for Education. (2018a). Oppilas-/opiskelijamääräraportit syksyllä 2017 [Reports on the amount of students, autumn 2017].

Finnish National Agency for Education. (2018b). Lägesöversikt, andra stadiet. [Situation overview, second stage].

Finnish Vocational Education and Training Act. (2017). Lag om yrkesutbildning (531/2017). Undervisnings- och kulturministeriet.

Fischbein, S., & Österberg, O. (2003). Mötet med alla barn: Ett specialpedagogiskt perspektiv [The meeting with all children: A special education perspective]. Gothia.

Foreldreutvalget for grunnopplæringen. (2018). Spesialundervisning/IOP [Spe-cial needs education].

Government of Iceland. (2019). Education.

Graneheim, U. H., & Lundman, B. (2004). Quality content analysis in nursing research: Concepts, procedures and measures to achieve trustworthiness. Nurse Education Today, 24, 105–112.

Hakala, K. (2010). Discourses on inclusion, citizenship and categorizations of ‘special’ in education policy: The case of negotiating change in the govern-ing of vocational special needs education in Finland. European Educational Research Journal, 9(2), 269–283.

Hakkarainen, A., Holopainen, L., & Savolainen, H. (2013). Mathematical and reading difficulties as predictors of school achievement and transition to secondary education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 57(5), 488–506.

Helms Jørgensen, C. (2018). Vocational education and training in the Nordic countries: different systems and common challenges. In C. H. Jørgensen, O. J. Olsen, & D. P. Thunqvist (Eds.) (2018). Vocational education in the Nordic countries: Learning from diversity. Routledge.

Helms Jørgensen, C., Lundahl, L., & Järvinen, T. (2019). A Nordic transition regime? Policies for school-to-work transitions in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. European Educational Research Journal, 18(3), 278–297.

Hermanoff, A., Määttä, K., & Uusiautti, S. (2017). The opportunities and obsta-cles of school paths of Finnish young people with intellectual disability (ID). Problems of Education in the 21st Century, 75(1), 19–33.

Hirvonen, M. (2011). From vocational training to open learning environ-ments: Vocational special needs education during change. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 11(2), 141–148.

Hirvonen, M. (2012). Towards inclusion? Vocational special needs education from a historical perspective. In S. Stolz, & P. Gonon (Eds.), Challenges and reforms in vocational education: Aspects of inclusion and exclusion (Studies in vo-cational and continuing education, Vol. 11, pp. 165–178). Peter Lang.

Hirvonen M. (Ed.). (2015a). Suunnitellen ja koordinoiden: Kohti kaikille yhteistä am-matillista oppilaitosta [Planning and coordinating: Towards a vocational edu-cation institution for all]. Jyväskylän ammattikorkeakoulu.

Hirvonen M. (Ed.). (2015b). Yhdessä toimien ja erilaisuutta arvostaen: Ammatilliset opettajakorkeakoulut erityisopetusta kehittämässä [Collaborating and celebrating diversity: Schools of professional teacher education developing special edu-cation]. Jyväskylän ammattikorkeakoulu.

Hirvonen M. (Ed.). (2018). Hei me HOKSataan! Ammatillisten opettajakorkeakoulu-jen puheenvuoro erityisten tuen tilasta ja kehittämisestä [Hello we individualise! Comment from Jyväskylä School of Professional Teacher Education on the state and development of special support] (Jyväskylän ammattikor-keakoulun julkaisuja 252). Jyväskylän ammattikorkeakoulu.

Hirvonen, M., Ladonlahti, T., & Pirttimaa, R. (2009). Ammatillisesta er-ityisopetuksesta tuettuun ammattiin opiskeluun: Näkökulmia ammatillisen erityisopetuksen ja koulutuksen kehittämiseen [From vocational special training to supported vocational studies: Perspectives on the development of vocational special needs education]. Kasvatus, 40(2), 158–167.

Kirjavainen, T., Pulkkinen, J., & Jahnukainen, M. (2016). Special education stu-dents in transition to further education: A four-year register-based follow-up study in Finland. Learning and Individual Differences, 45, 33-42.

Kiuppis, F., & Sarromaa Hausstätter, R. (2014). Inclusive education: Twenty years after Salamanca. Peter Lang.

Kvalsund, R., & Bele, I. V. (2010). Students with special educational needs: So-cial inclusion or marginalisation? Factors of risk and resilience in the tran-sition between school and early adult life. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 54(1), 15–35.

Lundahl, L. (2016). Equality, inclusion and marketization of Nordic education: Introductory notes. Research in Comparative and International Education, 11(1), 3–12.

Michelsen, S., & Stenström, M. L. (Eds.). (2018). Vocational education in the Nordic countries: The historical evolution. Routledge.

Ministry of Children and Education, Denmark. (2010). Statistik om erhvervsuddannelserne [Statistics on vocational education].

Ministry of Children and Education, Denmark. (2019a). Klare mål 2: Flere skal gennemføre [Clear goal 2: More vocational students must complete].

Ministry of Children and Education, Denmark. (2019b). Ungdomsuddannelser til en elev med en funktionsnedsættelse [Youth education for a student with a disability].

Ministry of Children and Education, Denmark. (2019c). Bekendtgørelse af lov om erhvervsuddannelser [Vocational education act]. (LBK nr 957 af 17/09/2019).

Ministry of Education and Culture & Finnish National Agency for Education. (2018). Finnish VET in a nutshell.

Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Iceland. (2011). The national curricu-lum guide for upper secondary schools: General section.

Myklebust, J. O. (2013). Disability and adult life: Dependence on social security among former students with special educational needs in their late twen-ties. British Journal of Special Education, 40(1), 5–13.

Námsmatsstofnun. (2014). Brotthvarf úr framhaldsskólum [Drop-outs from upper secondary education].

Niemi, A., & Kurki, T. (2014). Getting on the right track? Educational choice-making of students with special educational needs in pre-vocational educa-tion and training. Disability & Society, 29(10), 1631–1644.

Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. (2011). Learning together: Meld. St. 18 (2010-2011) Report to the Storting (white paper) Summary.

Opetushallitus. (2018). Erityinen tuki ammatillisessa koulutuksessa [Intensive spe-cial support in vocational education and training].

Pereira, E., Kyriazopoulou, M., & Weber, H. (2016). Inclusive vocational educa-tion and training (VET): Policy and practice. In A. Watkins, & C. Meijer (Eds.), Implementing inclusive education: Issues in bridging the policy-practice gap (International Perspectives on Inclusive Education, Vol. 8, pp. 89–107). Emerald.

Pettersson, G. (2017). Inre kraft och yttre tryck: Perspektiv på specialpedagogisk verk-samhet i glesbygdsskolor [Inner power and outer pressure: Perspectives on special needs education in rural schools]. (PhD dissertation). Umeå univer-sitet.

Pirttimaa, R., & Hirvonen, M. (2016). From special tasks to extensive roles: The changing face of special needs teachers in Finnish vocational further educa-tion. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 16(4), 234–242.

Pijl, S. J., Frostad, P., & Mjaavatn, P. E. (2014). Students with special educational needs in secondary education: Are they intending to learn or to leave? Eu-ropean Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(1), 16–28.

Ramberg, J. (2013). Special educational resources in the Swedish upper second-ary schools: A total population survey. European Journal of Special Needs Edu-cation 28(4), 440–462.

Ramberg, J. (2016). The extent of ability grouping in Swedish upper secondary schools: A national survey. International Journal of Inclusive Education 20(7), 685–710.

Ramberg, J. (2017). Focus on special educational support in Swedish high schools: Provision within or outside the students’ regular classes? In S. Bag-ga-Gupta (Ed.), Marginalization processes across different settings: Going beyond the mainstream (pp. 44–80). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Swedish education act. (2010:800). Skollagen. Swedish Ministry of Education.

Swedish National Agency for Education. (2011). Läroplan för gymnasieskolan [National Curriculum for upper secondary school].

Swedish National Agency for Education. (2014). Allmänna råd om arbete med extra anpassningar, särskilt stöd och åtgärdsprogram [General advice on work with extra adaptations, special support and action programs].

Swedish National Agency for Education. (2018). Gymnasieskolan: Personalstatistik [Upper secondary school: Personnel statistics].

Statistics Iceland. (2016). Talnaefni: Framhaldsskólastig [Statistics: Upper second-ary level]. Hagstofa Íslands.

Statistics Norway. (2018). Upper secondary education.

Stefánsdóttir, G. V., & Björnsdóttir, K. (2016). ‘I am a college student’ postsec-ondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 18(4), 328–342.

Studyinfo. (2019). Fields of vocational education and training. education -and-training/

Tangen, R. (2012). Hva er spesialpedagogikkens mål og oppgaver [What are the goals and tasks of special education]. In E. Befring, & R. Tangen (Eds.), Spesialpedagogikk [Special education] (pp. 17–30). Cappelen Akademisk För-lag.

Upper secondary education act. (2008). Ministry of Education, Science and Cul-ture. -media/media/law-and-regulations/Upper-Secondary-Education-Act-No.-92-2008.pdf

Utdanningsdirektoratet. (2017). Ordförklaring och roller: Spesialundervisning [Glossary and roles: Special education]. /ordforklaring-og-roller-spesialundervisning/

Utdanningsdirektoratet. (2018). Gjennomføring i videregående opplæring [Completion in upper secondary education]. (2019). Upper secondary education.

How to Cite
Björk-Åman, C., Holmgren, R., Pettersson, G., & Ström, K. (2021). Nordic research on special needs education in upper secondary vocational education and training: A review. Nordic Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 11(1), 97-123.
Peer-reviewed research articles