Customised support for learners
In addition to acquiring knowledge and skills, education should also prepare people for life in a diverse society. Therefore, it should reduce inequalities, address the needs and develop the potential of all learners as much as possible, and prepare learners to succeed in their personal, civic and professional life. This objective can be fulfilled only if the schools can address the diverse learning needs children have and provide them with high-quality and customised support.
As in other countries, learners in Slovakia are entitled to receive support in education based on the concept of special educational needs (SEN). This concept was first introduced in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and aimed to divert attention from medically-based categories of disability towards their consequences for the learning process. In Slovakia, SEN status is granted to children with physical disabilities, talented children, and children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The findings in the Learning Makes Sense project indicate that the current concept of SEN has several limitations. These limitations are related both to its legal definition and its implementation in practice. What gives rise to special needs is mostly ascribed to factors relating to the child themselves (child's disability or talent), or issues in the family background. Regrettably, such an approach diverts attention from existing barriers and responsibilities pertaining to schools and the education system. Moreover, as children are categorised based on their disabilities or talents, the individual differences in their educational needs are disregarded, yet the differences within a single “category” can be very significant. The very principle of categorising children seems to be undesirable, because each child has individual needs that the system should primarily address.
Another problem is an increasing proportion of SEN designated children and pupils. The proportion of SEN designated pupils at primary schools in Slovakia is the fourth highest in Europe and it has increased by more than a third over the past decade. At primary schools, almost one in five pupils are granted SEN status of some kind, while in certain districts this holds for a third or even a half of all pupils. Despite this fact, not all children that would need support and a customised approach to their education receive it in practice, because they are not covered by the current categories of SEN students. More than a half of teachers and professionals in education confirmed in the questionnaire survey that such children attended their school. These children can be, for example, those whose mother tongue differs from the language of instruction at their school, children in institutional care (orphanages), or children facing acute or long-term crises in their families.
Based on the Learning Makes Sense findings, the increasing proportion of SEN designated children can be related to a more precise diagnostic process, the demands placed on children, and the current system of school financing. Paradoxically, providing a higher financial contribution for pupils with physical disabilities or talents can indirectly support excessive diagnostics for those groups of children for whom schools receive inadequate or even no funds to carry out support measures. Such examples include children from socially excluded Roma localities where one in five children are diagnosed with a mental disability. However, there are several indications that the diagnosis of mild mental disability, i.e. serious and irreversible damage to cognitive abilities, is also granted to children failing in education due to other reasons, where late and inadequate support measures are a common feature. Since receiving support is conditional upon granting a diagnosis, preventive measures at schools are rather limited. Yet such prevention could reduce the likelihood that the child's risky development might lead to disadvantage or even defect.
Aside from the high number of SEN designated children, another problem is that only half of them attend mainstream classrooms with their peers. Yet findings from relevant international research sources show that such a practice has negative effects on learning outcomes and social skills, both for children with disabilities and other children. Slovakia occupies a discouraging first place among European states in its proportion of primary school pupils educated separately in special needs classrooms and special needs schools. The number of children in special needs education remained almost stable during the past decade, pointing to a relative stability of capacity in special needs education. A particular problem is that there is “no passage” between the mainstream and special needs schools. Special needs schools and classrooms are not used to providing temporary support for a child, but rather constitute a permanently separated education path with most children being tracked into it as they start their schooling. The separation of both education paths is reflected in limited co-operation between mainstream and special needs schools. However, the Learning Makes Sense findings show that staff at both types of school would appreciate more co-operation.
The education system is unable to provide conditions for educating pupils with various needs in mainstream schools, and this has an extremely negative impact on certain groups of children. For some children with physical disabilities, this situation results in their total exclusion from education at schools and their forced homeschooling. Also, a large proportion of Roma children are educated in ethnically homogeneous Roma classrooms or schools. Currently, education policies cannot prevent the segregation of Roma children and some policies even indirectly support it. Separate education is the most commonly used form in the case of intellectually gifted pupils. International research findings show that this form of education is not optimal, neither for children with special needs, nor children without any disabilities or gifted children.
An important finding is that despite the prevailing trend for SEN designated children being educated separately, most survey respondents from the mainstream schools tend to agree that the majority of SEN designated groups should be educated in mainstream schools (in their special or regular classes). However, many mainstream schools do not have adequate conditions in terms of their organisation, funding, staff and space to educate these children. There is a lack of teaching assistants and moreover, their duties are sometimes not effectively delegated, leading to an increased demand for assistants in the system. Many schools lack professional staff (SEN teachers, school psychologists etc.) and medical and personal assistance services for children with physical disabilities remain virtually non-existent. Apart from the lack of staff, there are no precisely defined standards for their work, including a model for co-operation with teachers and their work at schools.
According to respondents from the Learning Makes Sense survey, another problem is that teachers in mainstream schools are not ready to educate children with diverse needs. At group interviews, students in teaching programmes pointed out the lack of attention placed on this issue in their pre-service training, and no remedy is provided during in-service teacher training. Almost three quarters of teachers at mainstream schools participating in the survey did not attend any further training on supporting children with diverse needs in education. Despite two thirds of teachers expressing a need to attend such training, it is not actually available. According to the international survey TALIS 2018, it is in this field that the highest proportion of current teachers feel they need to develop professionally.
At the same time, the Learning Makes Sense findings indicate that even at special needs schools, conditions for educating children with various needs are not optimal. Respondents from special needs schools claim there is a significant lack of funds and staff in this education segment (teaching assistants, professional staff, other support service staff). At the same time, many mainstream and special needs schools lack adequate support from advisory and prevention centres. Across Slovakia, respondents express widely varying experiences with the form and quality of support provided by advisory and prevention centres. While the centres are currently understaffed and underfunded, this situation can also be explained by the lack of quality standards for services provided by centres, and the inadequate methodological advice received by the centres themselves.
Analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data in the Learning Makes Sense are examined in more detail in the following sections:
Diversity of children's learning needs
Children and pupils have diverse learning needs, but the system only fulfils the needs of some of them
Separate education of SEN designated children
In pre-primary to secondary schools, the prevailing trend is for separate education of children with diverse needs
Problems in education of SEN designated children
Many barriers prevent schools from being ready to educate children with diverse needs
Selected supporting measures in education
Education should be a quality public service enabling all people to lead a decent and meaningful life, regardless of their health or social conditions. This is only possible if schools do not exacerbate the initial disadvantages children might have, but instead, thanks to well established support at schools, children can experience success both there and later in their lives.
According to the Learning Makes Sense analysis findings, the Slovak education system is unable to sufficiently address the diversity of children's learning needs, and this negatively impacts on certain groups of children (children with physical disabilities or children from excluded Roma communities) that have been systematically excluded from access to quality education. A high proportion of children educated in separate schools and classes for students with the same/similar disabilities runs contrary to the international commitments and trends supporting education of all children in their local communities. It limits interaction of these children with the rest of society and increases their chances of exclusion from the labour market or society in the future.
Separate education also prevents children without a diagnosed disability or talent from learning to live in a diverse society and benefit from professional and customised support. Moreover, in a situation where almost a fifth of primary school pupils have been SEN designated, and a significant group of children are ineligible for additional support despite needing it, we should ask whether it wouldn’t make more sense to change the education system as such, instead of investing in “special” support for SEN designated children. All children could thus develop to their maximum potential.