Inclusive Schools in Bulgaria – current practices and future possibilities

On July 7, a National Conference on “Inclusive Schools in Bulgaria” was held in Sofia. The event was organized by the C.E.G.A. Foundation, the Bulgarian partner in the implementation of the international project “Inclusion4Schools”, financed under the Horizon program of the EU. The project brings together universities, scientific units and civil organizations from Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania and Slovakia and aims to fight against the model of exclusion in education and against the systematic reproduction of inequalities in isolated schools and communities. Among its leading tasks is the development of models for successfully overcoming closedness by actively involving in a dialogue the communities around the schools, made up of both the students themselves, teachers, principals and other professionals in the field of education, as well as parents, cultural and social institutions .

With this approach and with its work on the ground in the four project countries, the “Inclusion4Schools” Project differs from the other two projects fighting social inequalities through education, supported by the Horizon program, whose approach is more narrowly focused on research work on the topic – “PIONEERED” and “SMOOTH”. They were presented at the beginning of the conference by Dr. Bela Kardon from the Regional Center for Information and Scientific Development (Hungary). He drew explicit attention to the fact that “Inclusion4Schools” is an “unusual” European project, since all partners, as well as the coordinating organization, are entirely from the so-called “new” EU member states admitted after 2004, and Albania is at the beginning of its accession path.

The second part of the conference drew the attention to the national integration policies in Bulgaria. The topic was introduced by Dr. Lalo Kamenov, director of the Center for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities. Based on his observations of the development of institutional policies in this area since 2003 he stated that it is visible that while at the beginning the talk was on integration, today the leading concept is inclusion. Dr. Kamenov emphasized that it is important to distinguish educational integration and intercultural education, as practice shows that the incorrect use of these concepts can lead to a specific type of discrimination, in which the educational system treats groups of children as if they had specific educational needs only because of their ethnic origin. These examples are becoming less and less common, but they still exist.

Prof. Siika Chavdarova from SU “St. Kliment Ohridski” continued the conversation about the intersections and differences between intercultural education and educational integration, sharing that both forms are well described in the regulations, but the difficulties come from their implementation in practice. In this regard she recalled that apart from the obvious prejudices, which are easily and immediately recognized, it should not be forgotten that there are hidden prejudices and they are the biggest problem for all stakeholders in the educational process. She also emphasized that intercultural education is always mutual and not one-sided process and that it can take place in a class in different forms and that teachers should not limit themselves to the number of classroom hours specified in the regulations on certain topics, but should think how to integrate it in the presentation of the material in other subjects as well.

Prof. Yosif Nunev from VTU “St. St. Cyril and Methodius” shared his working definition of the two concepts, according to which inclusive education has the task of making educational institutions resemble the family environment for children, while intercultural education should deal with the ethnic integrity of each child. Prof. Nunev presented his research on the situation in the municipality of Sliven. Some of the observations show that 90% of pedagogical specialists do not differentiate between intercultural and inclusive education, and that a very serious share of teachers look at their students of Roma origin through imposed clichés and without a good knowledge of the history and internal structure of these communities. Secondary segregation is also a serious problem and the leading reason for parents to withdraw their children from schools with predominantly Roma students is the fear that in these schools the level of education is very low and there “almost no learning takes place”.

In the final part of the event, Roma activists, teachers, school principals, social workers, mediators, researchers and other professionals in the field shared their experiences. In his closing words Dr. Rumyan Sechkov noted the repeatedly mentioned necessity and productivity of the field work, which ensures the connection between all parties in the educational process on a daily level.