Education for All, Serbia

Anupam Ahuja

Historically, children with disabilities in Serbia have been segregated. An alarming number of these children are not included in any form of public education. A recent UNICEF analysis of the overall educational system in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia shows that only one per cent of pre-school children with disabilities are actively included in any form of education.

A key goal in Serbia today is improving the educational outcome for all children. Ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for all is an essential part of the national policy. The Serbian Plan of Action for Children, a strategic document of the Government, is designed to help eliminate any kind of discrimination against children. The Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) plans special measures to support enrolment and reduce drop-out rates. It also aims to increase the percentage of children from the Roma population and children with development difficulties completing primary education by 2007.

The special education system operates in parallel to, and without co-ordination with, the general education system. The Commission for Classification (a medical assessment) decides on educational placement and possible institutionalisation of children with disabilities. Parent participation is limited. The main tool for determining a child's educability is IQ testing, which does not identify a child's strengths. Children with socio-emotional and behavioural challenges are taken care of by school psychologists, but there is no organised follow up in the wider school environment. Negative attitudes towards students with disability prevail. Children are placed in residential institutions and receive poor-quality education, or none at all. Minority groups, especially Roma, are grossly over-represented in these special schools and classes. Education of special educators is mainly based on the medical model of disability. Accessibility in general, and access to information in particular, for students with disabilities is limited. The current legislation relating to children with disabilities is seriously inadequate. Vocational training and higher education of persons with disability is overlooked in both legislation and practice.

Despite the policy and practical challenges in realising quality education for all children, there has been a shift from institutionalised, segregated care towards more inclusive and responsive educational practice. This has been due to the recent education reform movement, the need to fulfil international obligations, and pilot programmes promoting inclusive practice. In addition individual success stories, such as Danijela's, have provided inspiration and encouragement.

Capacity building to support IE practice

Save the Children UK (SC UK) is supporting the national and local efforts through a combination of practical work, research, advocacy and direct policy involvement. In March 2005 SC UK ran a five-day training, using the UNESCO 'Teacher Education Resource Pack: Special Needs in the Classroom'. Participants included staff from MoES, universities, pre and elementary schools, special schools, health centres and SC UK, as well as psychologists and defectologists.

The methodology focused on problem solving and experience sharing, which are fundamentally linked to inclusive education philosophy. A variety of active learning methods was used to demonstrate the changes needed when addressing individual needs and planning for the whole class.

It was decided that the trainees would form a core team and support innovation at the school level. There will be a small innovation fund for the pilot schools. The core team and the school staff of the SC UK pilot programme in Subotica will give each other collective support.

Danijela's story

Danijela Vukovic, a counsellor in the Ministry of Education and Sports, describes her journey through the Serbian education system.

My birth was very hard and strenuous; long hours of labour pain and struggle. The medical staff dealt with a complicated and risky delivery, and I came through with lifelong consequences - cerebral paralysis. The consequences became evident to my parents when I was two, through the way I spoke and walked. However, as I grew older they saw I was quick at grasping new ideas, analysing situations and had a good memory.

Aware of my mental capabilities, my mother (a teacher) insisted on my inclusion within the community and studying with children without special needs. I was enrolled in a regular kindergarten. Of course this was preceded by numerous discussions with the school head master, psychologist and educators. This complicated procedure was not required for my younger brother who was, according to them, 'a healthy child'. This implied I was unhealthy… but how, I never really understood.

As far as I remember I liked very much going to the kindergarten and I felt at ease there. I fully participated in the learning and sang and recited at school parties. My parents maintained very close contact with my teachers and I never felt that my slow speech and walk (my so-called disabilities) bothered the other children. My playmates knew me well and always gave me a role in our plays; I participated in all the activities on an equal footing.

As primary school approached my parents had to put in additional efforts to persuade the authorities to allow me to attend regular school. Again I was lucky that my mother was a teacher. She was familiar with the terms, procedures and ways of tackling issues of children who are different. I was tested, diagnosed, and subjected to what seemed endless check-ups. My mother tried to handle all the opinions and questions: 'Is she seeing a speech therapist? Will she be able to handle things on her own? Other children will be… Maybe the other parents will…'. All this in order to find a teacher who would accept me in his or her class.

In grammar school I studied, wrote, drew and did all my learning exercises like the other children. Of course my low grades in physical education were directly linked to my motor difficulties. It depended on the good will of my teachers how they would tolerate this and let me show my skills in other areas. I faced situations like:

  • 'Do not sing, you sing falsetto, be silent!'
  • 'Walk fast, I do not have all the time in this world!'
  • 'You always have to go to these therapies - always have an eye on the watch!'
  • 'Go away I do not want to look at you any more!'
  • 'Yes I have always given you lower grades because your mother works in the school, so the other children wouldn't be jealous of you.'

There were teachers who appreciated my efforts and ability to persevere. And there were people who felt pity for me and didn't mix with me except when they had to: they never got to know my abilities and skills.

By high school I had grown accustomed to the unequal conditions of schooling: my good exam performance made some classmates proud of me while others envied my grades. I was now capable of finding ways to establish communication. I learned that actively participating in class using short sentences helped me to show my understanding and knowledge. This provided my teachers with regular feedback about my learning and helped them evaluate and support me for my exams. The untimely death of my father weakened my stamina and will, but I completed high school with top marks.

With the university admission tests and subsequent exams I once again faced having to prove my capabilities and that I should be allowed to study with other students. The Commission, after a lot of persuasion, made only one provision and allowed me to take one final graduation exam orally.

Although I was eager to continue my training, I did not want my schooling to depend any longer on my constant efforts to prove my abilities and on the 'kind consideration' of the authorities. I hated hearing: 'Your case has been put to the Commission and now they…' Why was I always a case for them, I wondered!

Following my graduation, I made a decision to end my education. My life goes on and I witness stories of unequal living conditions for people like me. People with challenges are still striving to adjust to those not challenged and to fit into their world. And - you have to admit - it is not an easy task. Contact Danijela Vukovic by email:

Anupam Ahuja is a freelance consultant who has worked recently with SC UK in Serbia. She has experience at national and international levels in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Click here for more details of the EENET Asia network in which Anupam is involved.

Final Report June 2003 - June 2004 'A Kindergarten Fit for All Children' Inclusive Programme in Pre-school Institutions in Kula and Novi Pazar
SC UK has been implementing projects aimed at children with disabilities in Serbia and Montenegro since September 1996. The conceptual framework for planning and carrying out the activities comprises: the right to equal education opportunities for all children; the right to development based on the healthy potentials of the child; the right to independent living to the greatest possible extent; active support to families of children with disabilities; and co-operation with parents in selection and implementation of programmes designed for their children. This report discusses project implementation, difficulties encountered, and suggestions for future work.

To obtain this report please contact:
Ms. Dusanka Gacic Bradic
Save the Children UK Serbia Office
Ljutice Bogdana 20
11000 Belgrade
Serbia and Montenegro
Email:


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