Transforming law into reality: education for all in Serbia

Two schools in Belgrade transform the lives of children with disabilities

Angela Hawke
UNICEF Serbia/2011/Shubuckl

09 June 2011

It is the day before the summer holidays, and there is a buzz of excitement at the Dragan Kovacevic Primary School for Eye Safety in Belgrade.

In the gymnasium, a group of five year olds are playing a rough-and-tumble game of cat and mouse, galloping after a football that represents 'the cheese'. 

In the classrooms, children are going over what they have learned this year. In the geography class, they map out the main cities and rivers in Ukraine.

In physics, they reproduce Gallileo's experiments on acceleration and gravity. Under the watchful eye of their teachers, they just about manage to contain their 'end of term fever'– at least, until the bell rings.

The school was built in the 1950s to cater – as its name suggests – for children with visual impairments.

Today, some of its pupils are visually impaired, but the school accepts children with all kinds of disabilities, whether physical, cognitive or developmental.

In its earliest days, this school provided an education that focused on the child's disability, rather than on their ability. But there has been a major shift over the past ten years.

Today, the goal is to prepare children for mainstream secondary education.

These children follow exactly the same curriculum as children in ordinary schools.

The only differences are the class size – no more than ten pupils in each class, the expertise of their teachers and some specialized equipment.

The school sets a high standard across the board, with children learning English from the age of seven, and Russian from the age of ten.

Over the past decade, 87 per cent of students have moved on to mainstream schools, and 39 per cent have gone on to university.

"Amazing, when you think that forty per cent were once rejected by the regular system," says the Principal, Olivera Abadzic.

When Pavle Dimic arrived at the school seven years ago he was very withdrawn as a result of his serious visual impairment.

Now, aged 13, he is still quiet. But that is the result of his natural modesty, rather than any underlying anxiety.

He was recently ranked third in the national chess championships for the visually impaired, and seventh in the world. The school's chess club has proved a lifeline for Pavle, and his talent has taken him to chess competitions in Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In a fortnight, he is heading for Russia. 

Asked how long it took him to learn, he raises his eyebrows: "It takes a whole lifetime to learn and to improve. To be any good, you must practice at least two hours every single day."

But why chess? He tries to claim that it is all about the socialising, until Olivera points out that he is also just plain brilliant at it. And not only chess, but drama, maths, languages and anything else he tries.

Pavle is headed for a mainstream secondary school in the coming year, and is expected to excel there.


A ground-breaking law

This Belgrade primary school is one of a growing number that are helping to transform Serbia's laws on inclusive education into a reality in the classroom.

Serbia's landmark 2009 Law on Education – seen as a global model – requires the full inclusion of children who were once shut out of mainstream schooling.

It is a key part of Serbia's efforts to ensure full social inclusion for all children, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. These include children with special needs and those from the very poorest families, often in Roma communities.

There is a long way to go, in particular to reach such children during their crucial early years.

Most children from vulnerable groups do not attend pre-school programmes. As a result, many are not 'ready' for school, and are more likely to drop out early or never enroll at all. 

Many children with disabilities, and up to one third of Roma children, still attend 'special' schools, and find it hard to make the transition to mainstream schools, where hard-pressed teachers often lack the training and support they need to apply inclusive practices in the classroom.

Parents, meanwhile, may be unaware of their child's right to education, or how to claim that right. 

"Most of their parents are very poor," says Olivera.

"They have to struggle so much to put food on the table that they don't have the time or the skills to provide the specialized support these children need." 

UNICEF Serbia/2011/Shubuckl

From law to the classroom

In another part of Belgrade, the Ivan Goran Kovacic School is showing how it can be done.

Like the Dragan Kovacevic Primary School, this school pre-empted Serbia's inclusive education legislation.

"We didn't wait for the law", says Principal Miomir Dragas.

"With help from Save the Children, professors from the Institute for Psychology at Belgrade University and the Ministry of Education, we began our inclusive education approach seven years ago".

Of the school's 600 pupils, around 30 are children with special needs who have individual learning plans. Every teacher in the school has had training to help them cater for children with special needs. 

Teacher Mirjana Markovic explains what this means in practice.

"To the other children in the classroom, it makes little or no difference to the lesson. They don't see or feel any marked difference."

What it means for Mirjana is some extra preparation in terms of individual learning plans for children with special needs, giving them a head-start on the class and helping them to prepare for lessons in advance.

The needs of these children vary enormously, from a child with basic communication problems and a lack of social skills, to a girl with extreme stress anxiety that manifests itself physically and in hyper-sensitivity.

But Mirjana is constantly impressed by the attitude of their classmates.

"They are very supportive, applauding and praising them."

Those who finish their work first often mentor the children with special needs, pulling them along with them, and all the children go to the theatre and on excursions together – "we don't force it, that's their choice."

When one girl who arrived from a special school had some trouble adjusting, the class wanted to discussit as a group, to see how everyone could help.

Ruzica Djurovichas seen this story from both sides.

She works full-time with children who have disabilities, and advises their parents on their children's development. Yet she found herself facing a real dilemma when it came to the education of her own son, Petar, who has Down Syndrome.

Petar spent his first two grades in a special school, with Ruzica providing as much support as she could at home, working intensively with him to improve his speech, motor skills and social skills.

She was determined to get him into a mainstream school, and visited many schools in her quest for the perfect place. It was a painful and sometimes humiliating process.

"They asked me things like 'what does he look like?'".

Finally, she read an article about this school, paid a visit, and decided to go for it. Petar is now in fifth grade, bird-happy and doing well.

"My son is a child who deserved this second chance in a regular school, and his teacher is excellent – so patient and sweet."

But she points out that Petar has had the advantage of her professional skills to give him the best possible start.

She is adamant that "the inclusion of such children in school must start early," with individual support for every child before they enter mainstream schools. 


What next?

The challenge now is to reach children early, so that they are ready for school.

And while this particular school is doing well in terms of classroom inclusion, it has no resources at all for the 'extras' that are so crucial for children with special needs, such as speech therapists or classroom assistants.

As well as providing support for pre-schooling, UNICEF is calculating the true cost of inclusive education, based on a per capita funding system that will shift the focus from the costs per class, to the costs per child.

UNICEF is exploring ways in which the poorest municipalities can find the resources they need for inclusive education, and is working with the Institute for the Improvement of Education to support a partnership project between special and mainstream schools in five municipalities.

Here, special schools act as resources to help the inclusion of children in mainstream schools, bolster cooperation between special and mainstream schools to prepare children for mainstream schools, and support those children them once they get there. 

It is vital that this transition goes well.

As Natasa Stanic-Jovanovic, a school psychologist explains, "Every child has a different story. One specific moment can have an impact on a person for the rest of their lives."