Education for all – together

None grins more widely than Ahmed. This smartly-dressed boy joins in all the activities with his classmates, and leaps into action as teacher’s helper, distributing flash-cards around the room.

Guy De Launey
Ahmed with friends at school
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

07 October 2014

Any eight-year-old would surely love to be in Vesna Dmitrasinovic’s class.

This teacher at Dusko Radovic Primary School in Sremcica, on the outskirts of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, achieves the perfect balance between fun, learning and discipline. 

The engagement of her students is clear for all to see, as they respond to the challenges she sets. From mathematics to music, the room is full of eager voices and smiling faces. 

None grins more widely than Ahmed. This smartly-dressed boy joins in all the activities with his classmates, and leaps into action as teacher’s helper, distributing flash-cards around the room.

All of this is part of the daily routine as far as the class is concerned. But in fact Ahmed’s involvement and engagement – and the acceptance of both his teacher and fellow students – are testament to the success of Serbia’s commitment to inclusive education. 

Ahmed was born with Down Syndrome – and he and his family are Roma. In the past, either of those factors might have made it difficult for him to obtain education of any kind, let alone join a mainstream class in a mainstream school.

But now his presence in the class in Sremcica – along with a number of other Roma children – is living proof that things are changing for the better.

Children from vulnerable and minority groups as well as those with disabilities are moving into the mainstream thanks to Serbia’s inclusive education policies. 

All of this would mean little if the students did not benefit – but Ahmed’s father, Serif Vejselji, says his son has progressed beyond all his expectations. 

“The teacher has been so good,” he says. “Since starting here, Ahmed has really made progress – we’ve seen great benefits. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best school in Serbia. Ahmed will continue to develop well as long as he stays here.”
 

Serif’s eagerness to make sure his son remains at Dusko Radovic School is understandable.

It is one of 14 model institutions for Serbia’s inclusive education programme. It is demonstrating how the ideas can work if everybody gets involved.

This does not just mean teachers but all the other staff at the school from management to cleaners. As Serif has shown, parents are partners in the process too. 

Serbian schools have resident pedagogues who work on the design and implementation of teaching methods and philosophy.

Svetlana Komlenović has been heavily involved with applying inclusive education thinking at Sremcica. 

“I personally think that inclusive education is both possible and needed,” she says.

“It often happens that children surpass the expected limits – and we in school have realised that in fact nobody knows the limits of some children, in how far they can go. Because if the conditions are appropriate, then there are no limits.”

Vesna Dmitrasinovic has been making sure the conditions are more than suitable in her class. She is not just a committed teacher, but also a member of the Network to Support Inclusive Education. 

UNICEF has been supporting this coalition of more than a hundred education professionals. They offer training, promote good practice and peer support, and facilitate the provision of grants to model schools. 

It all helps towards the goal of putting the principles of inclusive education into practice. What looks good on paper has to work for the teacher in the classroom, as well as the students they instruct. 

Ahmed playing harmonica in classroom.
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl
The engagement of Ahmed, a ten year old boy with Down Syndrome, is clear for all to see, as he responds to the challenges that his teacher, Vesna Dmitrasinovic, sets before him.

For Vesna, the backing of the Network is vital as she stretches beyond the old restrictions, on a learning curve of her own. But it is not the only support she receives. 

“I have the support of the school and colleagues – as well as that of the inclusive education Network,” she says.

“But honestly, the biggest support comes from the parents and children. The children are those who actually very often help me to develop ways to go forward.”

This is all in keeping with the principles of inclusive education, which has been a legal obligation in Serbia since 2009. At Dusko Radovic School, it has become a matter of fact.

Almost a third of its students are drawn from local Roma families, and teachers like Vesna devise individual learning plans for children who need them. 

Still, for some schools and teachers the new ideas can be difficult to accept until they have seen how they can be applied. So members of the Network like Milena Jerotijević take to the road to show the methods and possibilities to their colleagues. 

“We come to schools and we involve teachers,” she says.

“We demonstrate what inclusive education is – and that reduces tensions among the other teachers, so they come to see it as something regular.”

UNICEF is another partner in the process. It has been working with the government, municipalities, schools, teachers and parents to take inclusive education from an abstract idea to a classroom reality. Initially that involved helping to draft the 2009 Education Law.

These days the emphasis is on more practical matters. 

“Now that Serbia has an excellent legal framework, our job is changing,” says UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Serbia, Lesley Miller.

“It’s much more about helping the government and its partners to actually implement and operationalize these good principles they have on paper.”

That means everything from providing financial and technical support to the Network to encouraging parents from minority groups to join parent associations at their children’s schools.

The results are encouraging: enrolment and completion rates for Roma children have risen by around a fifth over the past decade, for example.

There may still be some way to go before Serbia’s education system is truly inclusive to all. But in Vesna Dmitrasinovic’s classroom it is easy to see the possibilities.

Children from different backgrounds and with different abilities playing, learning and thriving together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As it should be.