Today, the regional edition of the GEM Report on inclusion and education in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been released in Russian, with an executive summary version produced in almost 30 regional languages, from Albanian to Uzbek and from Latvian to Georgian.
A regional webinar and region-wide media release called on countries to shed one of the most poignant legacies of the second half of the 20th century: segregated education, once wrongly regarded as an efficient solution. All means all, produced by the GEM Report, the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education and the Network of Education Policy Centers, shows that in 15 out of 30 education systems, school admission depends on medical-psychological assessment and other selection procedures. While there has been progress, for instance as the percentage of children with disabilities in special schools fell from 78% in 2005/6 to 53% in 2015/6, segregation persists. One in three students with special needs in Central and Eastern Europe is placed in a special school. Even those no longer enrolled in such schools may be placed in other non-inclusive arrangements, such as special classes or home schooling.
What is considered in some countries to be inclusive pedagogy may instead be a medically defined focus on disability. In Belarus, integrated classes use two curricula: a standard one for general education and another for special education; joint instruction is limited to a narrow list of subjects.
Roma children continue to be the most excluded in the region. New analysis found that about 60% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth in the Balkans do not attend upper secondary school; only 3% of the Roma complete secondary school in Montenegro. Roma children are also disproportionally diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. In Slovakia, learners with a Roma background, made up 63% of all children in special classes and 42% of those in special schools.
A rights-based commitment to national minorities has resulted in 22 of the 30 education systems creating separate schools or classes in the home language, with additional content on history and culture for linguistic minorities. However, this parallel provision often works against inclusion; few examples provide truly inclusive practice with ethnic majorities and minorities learning together from one intercultural curriculum, as in Slovene-Hungarian bilingual schools. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the education system is segregated along ethnic lines.
As the region enters the final decade of action to achieve SDG 4, with COVID-19 raising new inclusion challenges, the Report urges countries to follow these 10 recommendations:
Widen the understanding of inclusive education: It should include all learners – and all means all. In laws and other documents, 19 of the 30 education systems reviewed in the region define special education needs in relation to disability.
Put students at the centre: Inclusion is not just a result; it is first and foremost a process and an experience. A review of history, civics and geography curricula in 14 countries found no mention of national minorities in Albania, one in the Czech Republic, and no mention of Roma in 9 countries, including Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia, where they are a sizeable minority. Only the Republic of Moldova reported involving students in curriculum design. Aside from student councils in some countries, little evidence is found of student voices being heard and acted upon.
Engage in meaningful consultation with communities and parents: Inclusion cannot be enforced from above. In total, 25 out of 30 education systems in the region have policies supporting parental involvement in school governance. Such involvement has helped provide feedback on curriculum and annual programme plans in Croatia and manage additional financial resources in the Russian Federation. But many efforts in the region to encourage parental participation are isolated initiatives carried out as pilot projects or implemented by NGOs.
Make space for non-government actors to challenge and fill gaps: Ensure that they work towards the same inclusion goal. In Romania, a grassroots push for desegregation of schools for Roma led to legislation and policy changes. Armenia’s development of a national inclusive education policy is largely attributed to effective support by and collaboration with non-government organizations. In total, 24 education systems have legislation or policy setting out a role for organizations representing vulnerable groups, though not necessarily in both advocacy and watchdog tasks.
Ensure cooperation across government departments, sectors and tiers: Inclusion in education is but a subset of social inclusion. Analysis of responses from the 30 education systems showed that inter-ministerial collaboration in policy development, implementation and coordination was common. In Lithuania, the education, health and social ministries have agreed to jointly develop measures to help children identified with autism or other developmental disabilities. However, collaboration on data collection is missing in nearly half of the education systems.
Share expertise and resources: This is the only way to sustain a transition to inclusion. Countries should allocate funds based on recognized needs of schools or local authorities for support services. In the Czech Republic, a per pupil allocation is being replaced by an amount per staff member with the aim to take into account the cost of support measures and salary levels. Schools should be granted autonomy to allocate funds flexibly to support those with the greatest needs, as in Slovakia.
Apply universal design: Ensure that inclusive systems fulfil every learner’s potential. All students should learn from the same flexible, relevant and accessible curricula, which recognize diversity and enable teachers to respond to various learners’ needs. Romania’s curriculum has offered a comprehensive framing of Roma history since 2017. Various models of adapted assessment can help learners demonstrate their progress and increase opportunities for those with special education needs. In Georgia, sign language standards have been elaborated to assist inclusion of learners with hearing impairment, and standards for learners with visual impairment are in preparation. Nevertheless, national assessment systems have a long way to go to become fully inclusive and respond to individual needs.
Prepare, empower and motivate teachers and support personnel: They should all be prepared to teach all students. Among 14 countries in the region, only about one in two lower secondary school teachers in 2018 felt prepared to work in mixed-ability classrooms and one in three in culturally diverse classrooms. The ageing of the teaching force makes this need more pressing. Support personnel are often lacking: In about a dozen education systems, for every 30 teachers, there is 1 specialist and 1 teaching assistant, on average. Teaching assistants are just becoming part of policy in countries such as Albania and Serbia.
Collect data on and for inclusion with attention and respect: Avoid labelling that stigmatizes. Historically, the region has focused data collection efforts on learners with special education needs and disabilities. Identifying groups helps make those who are disadvantaged visible. But it can also reduce children to labels, which can be self-fulfilling. The desire for detailed or robust data should not take priority over ensuring that no learner is harmed.
Learn from peers: A shift to inclusion is not easy. Inclusion in education represents a move away from discrimination and prejudice. Much can be learned from sharing experiences at all levels, whether through teacher networks and learning communities or through national, regional and global platforms.