by Tata Burduli, Senior Researcher at GeoWel Research
Fifteen years ago, Georgia took the decision to radically change its approach to children with special educational needs (SEN). The change led to the abandoning of decades of Soviet and post-Soviet practice that saw children with severe needs were either educated in separate, often inadequate institutions, or just kept at home. Children with less severe needs, meanwhile, were left to go it alone in regular school with no extra support.
From 2004, the country embarked upon a journey to create an inclusive learning environment for all children, with pilot programmes running from 2004 to 2010. Since that time, Georgia has done a lot to include children with special educational needs in the general education system. In 2009, the number of students with SEN registered in Georgia was 160. In the academic year 2020/2021 there were 9,637 children with special educational needs in Georgia’s public and private schools — some 60 times the figure in 2009. This growth reflects an increase in awareness and access, as well as an increase in requests for professional diagnosis. It also indicates the state’s increased ability to provide inclusive education: today, 68% of Georgia’s public schools educate children with SEN, employing around 2000 special education teachers. After fifteen years of reforms, children with SEN are increasingly able to engage in academic and social learning.
The positive shift has been reflected in changing of negative attitudes and a reduction in stigma around children with special needs.
“In the beginning the public looked students with special educational needs differently,” a special education teacher from Tbilisi, who has been working for over a decade, told us. “They perceived me differently too, they used to call me ‘the special educational needs teacher’. They had different perceptions about what these children want. They pitied them. And they were afraid, worried that their own children would learn tics from them. The teachers were afraid too. If we recall the old times, teachers simply refused to have these children in their classes. Especially when some of them exhibited difficult behavior…But this has been overcome slowly.”
Special educational needs vary enormously from child to child, and often require an individual, tailored approach. Therefore, with almost 10,000 children with SEN to educate, there is a huge responsibility on the public school system in terms of accommodating these diverse needs and assuring inclusion of all children in the school and consequently, in public life.
As part of the U.S. Embassy-funded Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, we reviewed quantitative and qualitative data and spoke to a public and private special education teachers and specialists, parents, state representatives and experts to examine the issues children with special educational needs face in general education. The research showed that despite the significant strides in inclusive education provision that have taken place, there are still multiple challenges faced by students with SEN.
Since 2004, Georgia has adopted much international best practice when it comes to SEN. The identification of SEN is no longer tied to children with disabilities. Public schools identify students with special educational needs, parents request a special education teacher from the Education Ministry, which then provides a ‘multidisciplinary group’ to study the case. Based on which special needs are identified, a special education teacher is assigned to the school and an individual curriculum is developed. Special education teachers work with children during and after school hours, most often in specially allocated resource rooms equipped with additional materials and specially designed literature. Official assessment and teaching standards are provided by the ministry and additional guidebooks are available or being developed.
All this represents a significant positive shift away from the stigma related to SEN. However, on the implementation side of the mechanism there are important gaps, caused by a lack of sensitivity and awareness among teachers, parents and school administration, best reflected in a case one special education specialist shared with us.
“Someone told me, they wanted to enroll their kid with SEN in a public school and the school did not accept them, even though they did not have a right to reject. The parent made a formal complaint and the school received an official rebuke. The principal then called [the parents] apologized and said they would accept the kid.”
Cases like this indicate that stigma is still prevalent, but varies on school-by-school or class-by-class basis. In some cases however, stigma is more pronounced, especially in cases of children with problem behavior.
“I found out from a [SEN] child’s parent that their class was going on a school excursion and they were not notified about it. I don’t know whether this was because of the other parents or the teachers but that’s what happened. They said that the kid would not be able to keep still,” said a special education specialist from Tbilisi.
The biggest problem appears to be human resources. In the multidisciplinary assessment group, there might be one person responsible for an entire region of Georgia, or a couple of hundred children. This makes it impossible to conduct monitoring or follow-ups after the initial assessment is made. According to the Georgian human rights Ombudsman, “the quality of inclusive education largely depends on the existence of qualified teachers, the involvement of specialists in the educational process and their qualifications.” A lack of specialists leads to a lack of in-depth assessment of students, inconsistencies in individual curricula development, gaps in inclusive teaching and a lack of monitoring. Often special teachers are general education teachers retrained in inclusive education, but such retraining is seen as insufficient. “We don’t have professionals with focused specializations [in the school system]. Special education teachers with master’s degrees are rare, basically nonexistent in regions. Mainly these are [regular] teachers who did training as special teachers, especially in regions. They don’t have a deep field knowledge and long experience, only basic knowledge,” said Diana Janashia, Family and Community Services Coordinator at MAC Georgia, an educational charity.
In addition, stigma among parents, who are at times unwilling to have their child assessed by a specialist, hinders diagnosis and inclusion. This is especially problematic in the regions. Most children with SEN tend to be from municipal centres, and very few from remote villages. This suggests that more active work is needed in hard-to-reach communities. Low finances seem to account for the lack of qualified personnel. Recent increases in school funding and teacher salaries could serve to increase the quality of inclusive education. Special education teachers were only recently enrolled in the Teacher’s Professional Development and Career Advancement Scheme, a career ladder which allows them to receive extra status and salary add-ons. This will hopefully attract more qualified personnel and increase the motivation of existing special education teachers, resulting in a higher quality of inclusive education. The first qualification exam is yet to come.
While overall Georgia has successfully introduced inclusive education, the qualification of special education teachers, the number of field specialists outside large cities, and the awareness of teachers and the public in general still requires fundamental work. The system needs to provide enough incentives to attract qualified personnel and keep them motivated to excel.
As Tatia Pachkoria, Chief Specialist at the Inclusive Education, National Curriculum and Assessment Center, remarks: “We need more qualification and more belief in inclusive education. We need to instill the unconditional belief that this is an organic part of education. The more you imbue education with inclusiveness, the more successful the education system is in general. We need to see and believe this: That inclusivity is a priori an indicator of a properly functioning education system.”