This article has been published in Enabling Education Review – Special Issue 2015 – Inclusive Education Advocacy
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Moving from special schools to inclusive schooling: Bridge of Hope’s advocacy in Armenia

Susanna Tadevosyan and Hasmik Ghukasyan

Since 2001, Bridge of Hope, an Armenian NGO working for the rights of people with disabilities, has been conducting advocacy to generate a nationwide switch from segregated education for children with disabilities and special educational needs towards inclusive education. The latest stage of advocacy, from 2009 to 2014, resulted in a new legal and budgetary framework to roll out inclusive education and transfer funding from special schools to inclusive mainstream schools and special educational needs support centres. This article describes the advocacy work done by Bridge of Hope during this process.

The need for a fully inclusive education system
Bridge of Hope’s work piloting the transfer of children with disabilities from special boarding schools to mainstream schools had already led to changes in the law to support schools in becoming inclusive. However, only a stand-alone law allowing inclusive education for children with disabilities had been produced. This meant that overall budgets for education were not affected, and only pilot schemes to promote inclusion remained. One of the problems this caused was that existing budget lines for children’s accommodation and care in special boarding schools could not be reallocated effectively towards the costs of extra teaching support in inclusive mainstream schools.

Objectives and targets
In 2009 Bridge of Hope came to the conclusion that separate laws could not support inclusive education in Armenia. They realised that the ‘mother law’ for education should be revised to promote inclusion of all children, including those with disabilities and special needs. Bridge of Hope started working to get a new overall law for education which would promote inclusive education as a central concept. This law should require a reallocation of funds away from boarding school costs and towards the costs of supporting children with special educational needs in local mainstream schools. Achieving this would involve targeting all parts of government involved with law-making and education.

Advocacy strategies and strengths
Bridge of Hope used many of the strong relationships it had built up. Some of the principals from Bridge of Hope’s initial inclusive mainstream school pilots had become parliamentarians; one had become the head of the mainstream education department in the Ministry of Education; and one had become Head of the Education Department for Yerevan Municipality. These individuals helped to encourage discussion of the need for a new law behind the scenes. Susanna, the President of Bridge of Hope, was also very well regarded and had good relationships of trust with key people in government, including the Minister of Education.

At the same time, the coalition of disability-focused civil society organisations in Armenia was campaigning for government ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which added pressure on the government to increase progress on inclusive education by reworking the legal framework.

Once demand for a review of the law had built up in this way, the Minister of Education ordered a group of experts to work with Bridge of Hope to conduct a situation analysis, investigating: the limitations of the current special educational needs law and mother law; funding issues for special schools and inclusive mainstream schools; and capacity needs for widening inclusive education.

Activities in detail
The expert group conducted many interviews with teachers and students from the 40 inclusive mainstream schools then operating. Every point in the consultation process was shared with the disability advocacy coalition, to maximise input from teachers, parents and young people affected by disability and inclusion issues. Bridge of Hope’s ongoing relationship with UNICEF and Danish Mission East was used to bring in technical support from external experts to develop recommendations for legal change, referencing the UNCRPD and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The expert group developed recommendations from the situation analysis, producing a package of documents which was sent to the Minister of Education. The package contained proposals for existing articles of the main education law to be changed, or for new articles to be inserted, to enable it to promote inclusive education.

The Minister agreed that the documents be disseminated to various departments within the Ministry of Education and to other key ministries involved with disability and inclusion. These ministries responded with amendments, and the Minister of Education prepared a consolidated document for national government, which approved the draft and sent it to the National Assembly for adoption.

There was then a campaigning process to get the law taken up by the National Assembly. Bridge of Hope organised a documentary which followed up on the first four children to have been moved from special school into mainstream school in 2001. The film was broadcast on national TV, and showed how these young people’s lives had benefited from their inclusion in mainstream education and society. This was very influential, as there had been some resistance to examples from other countries; local examples were needed to convince people that this campaign was relevant to Armenia.

The minister of education asked the National Assembly’s education steering committee to set up a co-ordinating group for the revised law, involving Bridge of Hope and other experts and organisations. This co-ordinating group organised public hearings of the draft law. As part of this process, Bridge of Hope arranged for young people with disabilities to speak at hearings and to address Parliament. Some of these were among the first disabled graduates of inclusive mainstream schools, and their testimony was very powerful in convincing parliamentarians of the need for a clear new law to promote inclusive schooling.

Then, once the National Assembly had been convinced of the need for a new law, there were three or four consultative meetings to prepare the first draft of the law for its first hearing in parliament. After this hearing, in 2011, parliamentarians requested further reworking.

It was hoped the law would pass in 2012. However, in 2012 and 2013, other urgent developments postponed this. Major political protests due to pension reforms took the government’s attention. Shifts in customs and trading union arrangements required the redrafting of many laws. Then a new government was set up, with many personnel changes. Bridge of Hope and its partners needed to start at the beginning again, raising the awareness of new members of government. The Minister of Education (who stayed in post) was also influential, and made a powerful speech in support of inclusive education. After all the legislation for other priority areas was completed, the inclusive education law moved up the queue.

Results: new inclusive education law and financial framework
The new education law and policy was approved on 1 December 2014. It declares that the Republic of Armenia’s system of mainstream education is inclusive and recognises inclusive education as the way to protect the rights of all children to education. The policy describes inclusive education, and gives examples of children who need special support in education.

The policy provides for special boarding schools to be transitioned into support centres for inclusive mainstream schools. Children with special educational needs will receive pedagogical and psychological support through their local mainstream schools, which should receive funding to bring in teacher assistants and specialist teachers. Schools will also be supported by experts from the support centre who will visit their schools, work with children and advise or train teachers. These support centres will register children with special educational needs in order to secure additional funding down to school level for their support. At national level, a co-ordination centre will be set up to oversee support centres and provide training.

Children identified as having special educational needs will receive pedagogical and psychological support from 3 levels: at the mainstream school; through specialists from the support centres; and at national level to ensure supervision of quality support to all children.

By 2022 all mainstream schools in Armenia will become inclusive. All special schools will become support centres, except schools for children with visual and hearing impairments, and institutions for young offenders. The new law requires changes to the special schools budget line, to enable them to work as support centres, and to use any surplus to fund direct support to mainstream schools.

Next steps 
The Ministry of Education will now form a working group to prepare action plans for implementing each section of the new law. Bridge of Hope will take part in this process. Donor support will then be sought to implement the action plans. The Ministry will make it clear to donors that only support which is complementary to these plans will be accepted.

Once the planned training of 20 special schools in inclusive education and mainstream school support is completed, their budget will change and they will become pedagogical/psychological support centres.

Bridge of Hope has trained one special school and will train 10 more with support from UNICEF. The Ministry of Education has not budgeted for training, so international organisations and donors will be asked for funds.

The government will need to establish new support centres in more remote areas, using the support centre budget line. Now special educational needs funding will be based on the number of children in each region, using a projection that 10% will need support.

It will be important to re-allocate the full special school budget to the new model of special educational needs support, so that the budget is not reduced in future years. New financial procedures have been drafted, and Bridge of Hope will keep advocating to ensure that they are implemented.

Susanna Tadevosyan, President
Bridge of Hope
19A Koryun str., 2nd floor
Yerevan 0009

This article was compiled from an interview in January 2015 with Susanna Tadevosyan and Hasmik Ghukasyan, Bridge of Hope Armenia’s President and Project Coordinator.