The early 1970s saw the beginning of the Head Start and Learn Well programs in the US. They worked on the premise that there is no such thing as a test for pure intelligence and that, in actual fact, IQ improves with a proper education at the right time, that is, during the early learning years.
Compensatory education draws on the belief that intelligence is acquired rather than innate, that to a certain extent it can be learned or cultivated, especially when intellectual deficits caused by unfavorable circumstances and social and cultural problems need to be overcome.
Compensatory education tools
The aim of compensatory education programs is to try to make up for the education that very young children failed to receive at the right time. They use suitable psychological techniques to boost cognitive development for failing pupils who did not have access to this at the time. The idea is not to turn normal individuals into geniuses, it is more a question of bringing people who are at risk of falling behind in terms of mental development up to standard. The training programs focus on specific areas such as perception, language and intellect. There is some criticism about the proposal though, which stresses the importance of immersing the children in a stimulating and participatory environment.
What are the aims?
The primary objective of these programs is to guarantee access, retention and promotion within the education system for socially disadvantaged children from ethnic minorities, immigrant groups and families facing social and economic hardship. They also include care for pupils who undergo long periods of hospitalization or convalescence. Some issues tackled are: how to foster equal opportunities in education; promoting social and cultural inclusion and integration and access to education for all children; developing communication and mutual respect among all pupils regardless of their cultural, linguistic and ethic background; encouraging participation from the different sectors of the education community and other strata of society; and emphasizing the enriching aspects of cultural diversity.
Complementary vs compensatory
Although this kind of program has been met with an uneven appraisal (the initial reaction was one of great enthusiasm, quickly followed by disappointment), some sociologists, for example Halsey (1972), who prefers the term complementary education, based on the idea that education should not make up for, but rather complement cultural poverty in the context of children, proved that when the programs are designed well, last for long enough and are led by highly-competent teams, the intellectual ability of the target pupils significantly improves. Also, sometimes, the training sessions undertaken or designed for a specific area have an impact on a different one than expected. Therefore the results cannot be perfectly generalized.
It has been proven, however, that inclusive approaches, and consequently the recommendations targeted at the development of equitable and efficient educational policies, are linked to improved academic results. There are three initiatives that highlight the restructuring of compensatory education:
- the research project INCLUD-ED. Strategies for inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from Education, under the European Commission’s Fifth Framework Program;
- the training program Developing basic skills and inclusive approach, driven by the Spanish Ministry of Education;
- and the PROA program for compensatory education, mainly promoted by the Departments of Education.
So, in spite of a number of problems yet to be tackled and solved, when it boils down to it, compensatory, or complementary, education seems to work. Many children would not have had normal access to school activities and, later on, the workplace, if it were not for this type of educational program. And this is what should most matter to society: even if just one single child is rescued, this makes up for everything else.