Segregated education and exclusion persist in Eurasia

Cracks in our education systems were apparent before the pandemic struck. These are now deeper and wider. As is very often the case, the most disadvantaged children pay the biggest price – including in Eurasia.

UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report in partnership with the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education and the Network of Education Policy Centers, released a new report this weeks that analyses the response of 30 education systems in the region over the last twenty years.

Before the pandemic, real change had taken seed. If there are still children in institutions, there are far fewer today than a decade ago; if Roma children in Central and Eastern Europe are still disproportionately excluded, they have better protection and more rights; where once children with disabilities had very few chances of attending a mainstream school, today many of them do. The percentage of children with disabilities in special schools fell from 78% in 2006 to 53% in 2016. The percentage of children in residential institutions in the region also fell by 30% over that period. There has been real momentum in this region, sparked by a combination of national commitments and a desire to closely align policies and laws with the EU.

Out of school rates have fallen by half over the last twenty years so there is now near universal access to education. Importantly, there have been great strides towards inclusivity with two in three education systems having adopted a definition of inclusion that embraces multiple marginalized groups. Schools are making their support systems broader and more flexible. Among the 30 education systems reviewed, a large majority of them offer counselling and mentoring, learning assistance, specialist and therapist support.

However, the legacy of segregation –  which was wrongly regarded in the past as a solution – persists today. Children are still being separated because of their identity, background and ability. There are separate schools for linguistic and ethnic minorities in 22 of the 30 countries. While educating students in the mother tongue is important, there are too few examples of bilingual education, where students from the majority and minority group can learn from each other’s history and traditions together.

Inclusion is still an elusive dream for some of the most disadvantaged groups. Displacement, a nomadic way of living, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation still represent marginalisation in the region.  In Mongolia, 94% of the richest complete secondary school  compared to only 37% of the poorest. Roma children are still the most excluded in the region. The report finds that about 60% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian youth in the Balkans do not attend upper secondary school and they are also disproportionally diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.

Covid-19 has led to further exclusion of these groups. During school closures only 38% of countries designed learning materials for speakers of minority languages. This legacy of segregation will require strong commitment from governments to correct. 

For a start, diversity should be seen as  something to be celebrated, not a problem to be fixed. Barriers that prevent students from accessing quality education such as medical diagnosis to determine the placement of learners with disabilities, have no place in their education experience. Yes 15 out of 30 countries still adhere to this medical model of education.

The education systems in the region can emerge stronger than before COVID-19. Recovery from the pandemic can be the the impetus to addess unjust policies in the region. History shows us that change is possible.

Recently, eight countries have moved to create resource centres shared between schools for a shift to full inclusion of those with special needs. Resources and logistics have been rallied to open school doors to the refugees who have arrived in some corners of the region. Turkey has absorbed 600,000 refugee children in schools around the country.

We were caught short by COVID-19 and have had our eyes opened to the need for greater resilience to future shocks around the corner. Despite the increadible challenges, the pandemic has forced us to re-assess the way we live, the way we treat other people, and the type of future we want to build once it is over.

All of us need the knowledge and skills to change mindsets that can build a inclusive and democratic society built on solid community values. Yes, COVID-19 interrupted education in a way we have never seen before. Now we must make sure this break is a pause for much-needed reflection about the societies we want to build, and the education we need to build them.

Stefania Giannini
Stefania Giannini
Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO