Inclusive education is understood as a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all children, youth and adults through increasing their participation in learning in regular schools and reducing and eliminating segregation and exclusion. Inclusive education implies that children with disabilities are mainstreamed in regular schools and the ‘categorization of children’ based on disability is abolished.
The 2016–20 Strategy for the Social Inclusion of Roma Men and Women highlights that the principle of inclusion ‘that constitutes the basis of this strategic approach to improving the position of Roma in our society requires the environment’s adjustment to the subjects of inclusive policy’ and that inclusion ‘requires deeper changes within the social, educational and cultural system, that are already underway, consisting of adapting public policies to the needs of the vulnerable groups, accepting diversity as a permanent condition and not an exception to the rule, accepting different social styles, and accepting the fact that the inclusion is a comprehensive process and not just one segment of a particular public policy.’
The Strategy for the Development of Education 2020 sets that the education system should ‘contribute to the prevention of poverty and social exclusion by implementing inclusive education’.
Special education needs
Students with special education needs include pupils who have learning difficulties because of specific cognitive impairments or behavioural or emotional problems; developmental disorders or disabilities (physical, motor, sensory, intellectual, multiple disabilities or autism spectrum disorders); or extraordinary school achievements and learning abilities.
The 2009 Law on the Foundations of the Education System provided the legal framework for inclusive education. It placed special education needs within the framework of the mainstream education system and marked a transition from the medical model to the social model. The guiding idea of this law is that all children, regardless of the severity of their disability, have the right to participate in regular school programmes in regular schools and are entitled to additional individual or group educational support. An individual education plan based on a psychological assessment determines the needs of a particular student. This plan may involve the adjustment of curricula, teaching methods, materials or grading and achievement standards and learning outcomes. In mainstream schools there can be up to two pupils with developmental difficulties and disabilities per class.
Article 36 of the 2016 Law on the Prevention of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities mandates institutions at the central and local levels to take measures with the aim of educating and training persons with disabilities within the general system of education and training. In parallel, the Ministry of Education has established intersectoral committees for inclusive education at local level comprising education, social welfare and health sector representatives.
Students with severe conditions of disability or learning difficulties can attend special education schools if their parents prefer so. In these schools, children are enrolled following the advice of an interministerial commission responsible for assessing the need for additional education, health and social support. Classes in special education primary schools cannot have more than 10 pupils, in secondary schools not more than 12 students, while preschool developmental groups may include 4 to 6 children.
Serbia ratified the 1960 Convention Against Discrimination in Education in 2001. Moreover, Article 71 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia states that everyone shall have the right to education. In addition, in accordance with the Law on the Education System Foundations, the education system must provide equal rights and access to education to all children, students and adults, without discrimination or separation of any kind. The law supports the enrolment of all children within the regular school system and defines additional support in education for students with disabilities, students with learning difficulties and students with disadvantages. In addition, the Ministry of Education refers to a regulated policy of inclusive education in Serbia that includes education through personalized methods of work or individual education plans; enhanced and expanded programmes for talented children; the establishment of inclusive education expert teams; the involvement of the representatives of vulnerable children‘s parents in the parents’ council; and the implementation of local intersectoral committees for assessment of the needs for education, healthcare and social support.
The Bylaw on Additional Education, Health and Social Support for Children and Pupils regulates the conditions for assessing the needs for additional support to children and students. Additional support can be provided for children and pupils from vulnerable groups in the cases of social deprivation, developmental and other disabilities, learning difficulties and other conditions requiring additional support. The Bylaw on Individual Education Plan Implementation and Evaluation aims to coordinate the construction of the child’s pedagogical profile. The individual education plans are based on the curriculum, teaching methods, materials and space adjustments, as well as a specific schedule of school activities and the engagement of personal pedagogical assistants.
Finally, the Law on Higher Education ensures that tuition fees are not levied on members of the Roma national minority; students without parental care or from single-parent families; students with disabilities, those with chronic diseases and convalescents; refugees, returnees and displaced persons; and students from families with lower socio-economic status.
Serbia ratified the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. Individual education plans are used for students with disabilities. Disabled persons in higher education institutions may receive financial support, for example in relation to accommodation, subsidized meals and student loans and grants.
Article 2 of the 2016 Law on the Prevention of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. It promotes the respect for human rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of social life, the involvement of persons with disabilities in all procedures and activities in which their rights and obligations are decided upon and the provision of equal rights and obligations. Article 6 describes direct and indirect discrimination, while Article 18 prohibits discrimination in education on grounds of disability at all levels of education. Such discrimination includes denial of admission of a child or a student with a disability to an education institution that corresponds to his or her previously acquired knowledge or educational possibilities and exclusion from an education institution solely for reasons related to disability. Article 20 refers to discrimination carried out by an educator, teacher or other person employed in an education institution.
Serbia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2001. Besides that, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development (MESTD) in collaboration with the Incest Trauma Centre – Belgrade established the First National Network of Schools and Preschool Institutions Against Sexual Violence. The network organizes a series of trainings to connect education workers and institutions at the national and local levels and strengthens their competences for the protection of pupils and students against sexual violence. Provision of anti-sexual violence training packages for kindergartens and primary and secondary schools officially started in 2016.
Article 15 of the Constitution affirms that the state guarantees equality between men and women and develops policies of equal opportunities for all. The 2009 Law on Gender Equality stipulates in its Article 30 that:
‘ ... educational, scientific and vocational-training institutions must not discriminate based on sex, in particular with regard to: conditions for admission to the institution; the conditions and opportunities for access to continuing education; conditions for exclusion from education, scientific work and professional development; assessment of knowledge and evaluation of achieved results; conditions for obtaining scholarships and other assistance for education and study; conditions for choosing or obtaining a vocation, vocational guidance, professional development and obtaining diplomas, etc.’
Article 31 states that gender equality should be an integral part of education and provided within the curriculum.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
Article 79 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia set the right to preservation of specificity of national minorities. It also establishes the right to education in minority languages at all levels of education. Teaching can be delivered in a foreign language or in sign language and it can be bilingual. In addition, in all municipalities where a minority language is in official use, it is possible to organize classes at all levels of education (primary, secondary and tertiary) in the learners’ native language; at least 15 students enrolled in the first grade of a certain level of education is a required condition for organizing such classes. The Bylaw on Individual Education Plan Implementation and Evaluation recommends overcoming language barriers in the case of children whose native language is other than Serbian. Serbia adopted the Law on Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities in 2002. The Law on National Councils of National Minorities (in its newest version from 2018) outlines the role of the councils in various areas; in education, this includes establishing education institutions and proposing curricula for native language education and curricula for subjects that are of significance for the national minority.
The government also adopted the 2016–20 Strategy for Social Inclusion of Roma, in accordance with Article 45 of the Government of Serbia Act, in order to achieve the objective of ‘effectively involving representatives of the Roma community in the process of developing and implementing strategic measures and exercise of guaranteed human rights to employment, housing, education, social and health protection’. The document lists several laws (Fundamental Grounds of the Education System Act; Preschool Education Act; Textbooks and Other Teaching Aids Act; Primary Education Act; Secondary Education Act; Higher Education Act; Standards for Elementary, High School and University Students Act; Textbooks and Teaching Aids Act) which guarantee the development of inclusive education for Roma. The Education System Act, in several articles (3, 4, 6 and others), clearly states the values, goals and methods of achieving inclusion of Roma in education.
Students from socially disadvantaged families may receive social scholarships. Children with disabilities as well as socially deprived children have the right to additional education, health and social support. The project Inclusive Preschool Education launched by the Ministry of Education aims at increasing access to quality preschool education for all children, especially those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The project contributes to the improvement of the educators’ professional capacities and the improvement of the plans and programmes. With grants for at least 30 municipalities, the project will include measures to increase the coverage of children from the most disadvantaged groups.
Children who have been absent for a long period due to illness can benefit from individual education plans and access additional classes, individual teaching and other support.
The Ministry of Education, supported by the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and UNICEF, established an intersectoral working group for providing support to refugee and asylum-seeker pupils and in 2017 issued the document Technical Instruction for Involvement of Refugee/Asylum Seeker Pupils in the Education and Training System, which provides instructions to relevant schools on how to prepare all refugee children for enrolment in primary education.
In accordance with Article 14 of the 2014 Law on Ministries, the MESTD carries out public administration activities to improve the social protection of pupils with special needs. It has the overall responsibility for developing and implementing education policy in Serbia. The ministry carries out the activities of the State administration relating to supplementary education for children of Serbian nationals abroad; participation in the construction, equipment and maintenance of facilities for preschool, elementary, secondary and higher education; validation and equivalence of public documents obtained abroad; improvement of social care for gifted students; and improvement of social care for students with special needs.
Since 2015, the Group for Social Inclusion within the MESTD has been the main resource in the government for strengthening institutional capacities and for further development, monitoring and support to inclusive education. In addition, the Institute for Education Quality and Evaluation provides recommendations for the provision of quality education and trains participants in the education system. The Ministry of Education works in collaboration with the Government of Serbia’s Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit, the Fund for an Open Society and UNICEF (for example for the preparation of the Monitoring Framework for Inclusive Education in Serbia). A network for support of inclusive education composed of 120 practitioners and experts spreads good practice, peer learning and communities of practice for inclusive education.
Furthermore, since 2018 Serbia has been a member of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education. Locally, a representative of the parents of children and students with developmental disabilities is generally included in parents’ councils. School inclusive education teams are also established (including teachers, psychologists and pedagogues). Finally, in all municipalities, mechanisms of coordination have been established among the educational, health and social care sectors to provide resources and additional support to education and social inclusion of children with disabilities and other children requiring additional support.
The Monitoring Framework for Inclusive Education in Serbia identifies the key actors involved in the development of inclusive education in Serbia (Table 1).
Since 2012, the curriculum in special education schools has been the same as in regular schools. The number of classes per week and year are also the same; however, school hours are 30 minutes shorter. The curriculum in regular schools can be adjusted partially or changed entirely by individual education plans, depending on the child’s needs.
A new curriculum policy was set up in 2015 covering individual education plans and personnel. The plans provide for the adaptation and procurement of adequate textbooks and teaching materials, in line with the type of disability, as well as for the use of assistive technologies and organized transport services from home to the educational institution and vice versa. The 2018 Law on Textbooks and Other Teaching Materials stipulates that a textbook previously approved by law can be adapted to the education needs of students with disabilities and that the type of textbook adaptation ‘is determined by the team for inclusive education of the school that the student attends; and the manner of adjusting the textbook is prescribed by the Minister of Education’ (Art. 6). It further specifies that additional teaching support can be adapted in a way that especially contributes to the achievement of the goals and outcomes of the given subject and which follows the needs and possibilities of students and trainees who need additional support (Art. 7). The law also established the Center for Low-cost Textbooks (Art. 15).
The Guidelines for the Appropriate Presentation of National Minorities in Curricula and Textbooks were presented in April 2019 by the MESTD and the Council of Europe. The guidelines were produced as part of the project Strengthening the Protection of National Minorities in Serbia, implemented by the Council of Europe and the European Commission in cooperation with line ministries.
The Law on the Education System Foundations regulates initial education of teachers and conditions of their service and professional development.
According to the Bylaw on Education Specialists’ Programme of Work, special education teachers complete their studies at the Faculty of Special Education and Rehabilitation or Faculty of Medicine. These faculties offer subjects relevant to teaching and work with children with disabilities. Based on the Bylaw on Education Specialists’ Programme of Work, these teachers are responsible for the counselling, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of all children who need additional education support (children with sensory, perception and motor disorders, psychophysical disorders, speech and language disorders, learning difficulties, social and emotional disorders and others). Speech therapists work with children with speech disorders and on prevention, identification, diagnosis, stimulation and rehabilitation, and psychologists provide support for vulnerable groups, identify and support gifted pupils and collaborate with parents to ensure education support for children. Pedagogues work on the identification and elimination of pedagogical causes of learning/behavioural difficulties and, in the process, collaborate with pedagogical and personal assistants who are trained to work with children with special education needs and their families, as prescribed by the Bylaw on the Training Programme for Pedagogical Assistants.
Individual education plans provide for the organization of training for children/pupils (e.g. on the Braille alphabet, independent movement, sign language, etc.).
A higher vocational school for teachers has been established for students who have acquired the title of vocational educator (or vocational educator of preschool children), who have attended classes in the Romani language and passed specific courses in the Romani language and who are issued a certificate on knowledge of the Romani language.
Article 175 of the Law on the Foundations of Education established that the Unified Information System of Education (UISE) supports the collection and processing of all education data while ensuring privacy.
Monitoring the quality of inclusive education is integrated within the school quality assurance policy/quality standards for schools and is part of the regular external evaluation of the Institute for Evaluation of Education Quality; however, the lack of a comprehensive and multifunctional national database in education has been observed. Various units of the Ministry of Education develop their own databases.
The following are the most important databases:
- The database of secondary school enrolment (MESTD)
- The registry of licenses of school teachers, preschool teachers and psychologists/pedagogues (MESTD)
- The database of children with developmental disabilities in the education system (Institute for Improvement of Education)
- The database of professional development training of school teachers, preschool teachers and psychologists/pedagogues (Centre for Professional Development of Education Workers, Institute for Improvement of Education).
Data received from different schools are not always comparable and cannot be aggregated at higher levels.
The project Development of Comprehensive Monitoring Framework for Inclusive Education in Serbia, initiated by UNICEF and the Government of Serbia’s Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit, with the support of the MESTD and the Fund for an Open Society, Serbia, developed a monitoring framework for inclusive education in Serbia.
The parliament and independent bodies (Ombudsman and Commissioner for Equality) play an important role in monitoring the implementation of inclusive education. The Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia also collects data on education.