Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia

Inclusion and education: All means all

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Credit: UNICEF/UNI42671/Roger LeMoynee

Inclusion in education, a commitment enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, is a process consisting of actions that embrace diversity, build a sense of belonging and are rooted in the belief that every person has value and potential. Education systems need to be responsive to all learners’ needs and to consider learner diversity not as a problem but as a resource. Provision of inclusive education of high quality is linked to social inclusion.


Chapter 1 PDF

Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia has made progress towards a rights-based approach to inclusive education. In the past 20 years, out-of-school rates have fallen by half. But the shift to inclusion is far from complete. Many countries have yet to shed one of the most poignant legacies of the second half of the 20th century: segregated education, once wrongly regarded as an efficient solution. What is considered in some countries to be inclusive pedagogy may instead still be a medically defined focus on disability.

Other forms of segregation and discrimination persist, hindering inclusion. Characteristics beyond disability that are commonly associated with inequality of education opportunity include gender, remoteness, poverty, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and religion and other beliefs and attitudes. A range of policies boosting inclusion are needed, especially as the COVID-19 education crisis, which fed on existing inequality, is creating new gaps.

Laws and policies

Chapter 2 PDF
International conventions have been widely adopted but are not always integrated in national laws to ensure that all learners’ rights, both to education and within education, are fulfilled.
  • The adoption of the United Nations conventions on the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the influence of international bodies, such as the Council of Europe and European Union, have led to important reforms.
  • Laws and policies promoting a rights-based approach to inclusive education have been adopted, from Estonia to Slovenia and from Armenia to Ukraine. Azerbaijan is moving from a needs-based, medical model to rights-based language.


Laws and policies for inclusive education look beyond learners with special education needs.
  • Of the 30 education systems reviewed in the region, 23 have a definition of inclusion in documents; of those, 20 focus on marginalized groups beyond learners with special education needs or disabilities.
  • Just 7 of 23 countries have policies or action plans explicitly addressing and prohibiting school bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity.


A strategic approach is needed to achieve more coherent and sustainable policy.
  • Strategies or plans for inclusion exist in 21 of the 30 education systems. Tajikistan’s inclusive education strategy addresses disability, ethnicity, migration and gender.


Laws and policies are often disconnected from school and classroom realities.
  • Political will to include disadvantaged groups, action to overcome resistance to new forms of education provision, development of positive attitudes, and capacity in terms of resourcing, coordination and workforce development are needed.
Censuses and household surveys help disaggregate education outcomes.
  • In Mongolia, 94% of the richest youth but only 37% of the poorest complete secondary school. About 60% of Roma youth in the Balkans are out of In Montenegro, no poor Roma youth complete secondary school. In Georgia, internally displaced youth are seven percentage points less likely to complete secondary school than their non-displaced peers.
  • Among the poorest, girls in Turkmenistan but boys in North Macedonia are more likely to complete secondary school.
  • Formulating questions on nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity can touch on sensitive personal identities. No question on ethnicity or language has been asked in the Turkish population census since 1965.


Statistical measurement of disability is catching up with the social model.
  • In nine education systems, the share of 5- to 17-year olds with a functional difficulty in at least one domain was 7.5%, on average. In Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, the share of youth with disabilities in the out-of-school population is twice as large as their share of the in-school population.
  • The share of students identified with special education needs ranges from 3.3% in Poland to 13% in Lithuania. Bulgaria is moving away from a medical model in identifying special education needs.


School-level data point to persistent exclusion and segregation.
  • The percentage of children with disabilities in special schools fell from 78% in 2005/06 to 53% in 2015/16. In the Republic of Moldova, the share fell from 77% to 9% in 10 years, and in Serbia from 100% to 36% in 7 years.
  • Still, one in three students with special needs in Central and Eastern Europe are placed in special schools. Latvia and Slovakia have among the highest shares.
  • In Slovakia, Roma constituted 63% of all children in special classes and 42% of those in special schools in 2018.
  • The percentage of children in residential institutions fell by 30% in the 10 years to 2016.
  • Turkey, which has the world’s highest number of refugees, has absorbed more than 600,000 Syrians in its public schools, but 37% of Syrian refugees are still out of school.
  • Schools in Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia are among the world’s least inclusive in terms of diversity of student populations by economic, social and cultural status.
  • Less than 8% of 15-year-old students from the bottom 25% in terms of socio-economic status scored in the top 25% in reading in Bulgaria and Hungary, among the lowest levels in the world and less than half those in Estonia and Kazakhstan.


It is necessary to monitor students’ experiences.
  • About 2 in 10 children feel like outsiders in school, on average, with shares ranging from 1 in 10 in Albania to 3 in 10 in Bulgaria.
  • The Monitoring Framework for Inclusive Education in Serbia has been integrated within the overall school quality assurance policy.

Governance and Finance

Chapter 4 PDF
Horizontal collaboration across ministries is widespread in the region.
  • In Lithuania, the education, health and social ministries have agreed to jointly develop measures to help children identified with autism or other developmental disabilities.
  • The Russian Federation reformed its needs identification system to engage multiple government services.


Vertical collaboration between central and local authorities is needed for delivering inclusion.
  • Croatia’s action plan to relocate and resettle third-country asylum seekers and refugees engages ministry, agency and NGO representatives but also local and regional governments.
  • In Estonia, county education departments usually have only a supervisory role, but some have proactively established development plans and encouraged school network building.
  • Romania’s education ministry, county school inspectorates and quality assurance agency follow different procedures and do not collaborate in assessing schools.


Governments engage non-government and international actors to varying degrees.
  • In Albania, NGOs were involved in the design and implementation of the National Action Plan for Integration of Roma and Egyptians.
  • In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the concept of inclusive education was introduced in an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe strategy.


Local management responsibilities must be clearly outlined to support efficient resource use.
  • In Slovakia, a high degree of school financial autonomy enables schools to promote improvement.
  • Slovenia’s school councils have autonomy to decide annual work plans while taking national regulations into account.


Disability-inclusive education funding must be sustainable and promote efficient resource use.
  • In the Russian Federation, mainstream and special schools operate in parallel, as mainstream schools do not receive additional funds to enrol students with special needs.
  • In the Czech Republic, a per pupil allocation is being replaced by an amount per staff member so as to take into account the cost of support measures and salary levels.


External financing has been supportive of inclusive education reforms.
  • Turkey’s successful conditional cash transfer programme was scaled up in 2017 to reach Syrian and other refugee children, with European Commission and UNICEF support.
  • The European Social Fund has supported various social cohesion reforms, including an educational counselling system in Estonia and a new Roma education model in Slovakia.

Curricula, textbooks and assessments

Chapter 5 PDF
Curricula should represent all learners and be flexible.
  • A review of history, civics and geography curricula in 14 countries found no mention of minorities in Albania and one in the Czech Republic.
  • There was no mention of Roma in 9 countries, including Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia, where they are a sizeable minority.
  • Since 2017, Romanian curriculum has offered a comprehensive framing of Roma history.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina has distinct curricula for its three constituent groups; each emphasizes the respective group and mentions the others only in passing.
  • Turkish curricula in 2016 barely mentioned women’s rights and had removed grade 9 content referring to gender equality.
  • Russian Federation law prohibits talking in school about the existence of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.
  • Slovakia’s annual citizenship education manual offers detailed proposals to schools for actions to help prevent racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance.
  • In Belarus, integrated classes use two curricula: a standard one for general education and another for special education; joint instruction is limited to a narrow list of subjects.
  • Estonian parents and Moldovan students are among the few examples of external stakeholder involvement in curriculum development.
  • Some 70% of the region’s countries provide schools or classes using the home languages of the largest minority groups. But parallel provision often works against inclusion.
  • In Slovenia’s Slovene-Hungarian bilingual schools, the ethnic majority and minority learn together using an intercultural curriculum.
  • In Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, a project seeks to increase preschool education coverage in remote rural areas through mobile groups and a cycle of television programmes.


Learning materials and textbooks may promote inclusion but also reinforce stereotypes.
  • The trilingual education policy in Kazakhstan led to new Tajik, Uighur and Uzbek primary school textbooks.
  • In Bulgaria, specially developed teaching aids and exercise books are available for electives on Roma history and traditions.
  • Azerbaijan introduced a gender equality criterion in the textbook assessment process, although it assigned it a low weight.
  • Montenegro uses textbooks in the Digital Accessible Information System format, which allows easy recording of written material containing audio and visual information.


Assessment frameworks that do not consider learner diversity hinder inclusion.
  • In Lithuania, formative assessment is encouraged to enable individual learner progress.
  • In Georgia, sign language standards have been elaborated to assist inclusion of learners with hearing impairment, and standards for learners with visual impairment are being prepared.
  • National assessment systems have a long way to go to become inclusive, respond to individual needs and not result in segregation.
Pre-service teacher education should be based on the inclusion paradigm.
  • Only about 1 in 2 lower secondary school teachers in 2018 felt prepared to work in mixed-ability classrooms and 1 in 3 in culturally diverse classrooms.
  • In the Czech Republic, the respective ratios were 1 in 5 and 1 in 10.A master programme on inclusive education in Montenegro aims to introduce the inclusion paradigm at university level and within the entire education system.
  • The teacher training institute of the University of Miskolc, Hungary, partners with schools and practitioners to enable future teachers to gain experience in inclusive environments.
  • But in Uzbekistan, Tashkent State Pedagogical University offers a course on inclusive education in the defectology faculty, a field based on the deficiency model.
  • In the Russian Federation, licensing does not require demonstration of practical classroom skills. Pedagogical universities are under little pressure to have inclusive education courses.


In-service teacher education fills gaps, but not systematically.
  • Teachers in Romania express consistently higher than average demand for training.
  • An ageing teaching force is a challenge. In Lithuania, 27% of teachers with up to five years of experience, but only 17% of those with more than five years, had been trained to teach in a multicultural or multilingual setting.
  • Armenia’s approach to professional development focuses on competences for various teaching strategies instead of specific skills for some categories of students.


Teacher diversity is not representative of student diversity.
  • Montenegro has no qualified teaching staff capable of teaching in Romani.
  • Kazakhstan supports admission to education faculties for applicants who are poor, come from rural areas or have a disability.


Support personnel are often lacking, and their roles are not always clearly defined.
  • Among 12 education systems, there is 1 specialist for every 30 or so teachers. Latvia and Lithuania have the most (1 for every 12 teachers). There is also 1 teaching assistant for every 30 or so teachers. The Czech Republic has the most (1 for every 9 teachers).
  • In Albania and Serbia, the teaching assistant role is recognized in legislation and policy.
  • In North Macedonia, little of support personnel’s work time is dedicated to teacher and student support. In Armenia, only 3 of teaching assistants’ 14 responsibilities refer to supporting teachers with individualized education plans.
Legal barriers hamper fair school admissions.
  • Admissions in 15 education systems depend on medical-psychological assessments and other selection procedures.
  • In 15 education systems, mainstream schools have special classrooms. In Serbia, children with a developmental disability are enrolled in mainstream schools but placed in groups where they do not benefit from daily inclusion in mainstream classroom activities.
  • Home schooling is another exclusionary practice. Although it allows schools to be flexible with the support offered to children, only a reduced curriculum is usually accessible.


Organization of learner support is a key school responsibility.
  • Education systems offer multiple support functions as they shift towards inclusive and in-school support: out of 30 systems, 25 offer counselling and mentoring, 22 learning support assistance and 21 specialists and therapists.
  • Latvia has established a pedagogical-psychological support service. The challenge is to overcome the exclusionary and often medical approach that has dominated such support.


Special schools have a new role to play in an inclusive education system.
  • Poland, where 34% of learners with special education needs are taught in special settings, is developing resource centres to support mainstream schools.


Inclusive education requires appropriate and accessible school buildings and facilities.
  • In Georgia, schools must be adapted to learner needs and equipped using universal design standards.
  • In Kyrgyzstan, only about 8% of schools have the necessary infrastructure for children with disabilities.
  • Lithuania collects online information by municipality on various aspects of accessibility and adaptability in general schools.

Students, parents and communities

Chapter 8 PDF
Parents can drive, but also resist, inclusive education.
  • In Croatia, parental involvement in school governance has enabled feedback on the curriculum and annual programmes.
  • The Republic of Moldova organizes information activities for parents, activates parent councils and establishes partnerships between parents of children with special needs and teaching staff, supporting teachers, multidisciplinary team members and social workers.
  • In Tajikistan, parents cannot influence education content but can, for example, determine the language of instruction.
  • In Hungary, Sure Start Children’s Houses support children from poor, often Roma, families in the transition to pre-primary education at age 3.
  • In many cases, parents are uninformed and their permission may not even be required regarding support decisions. Even some well-informed parents prefer early identification and placement in special schools, fearing that mainstream schools are unprepared.
  • Negative attitudes about inclusive education are common: 62% of people in Romania and 70% in Uzbekistan said children with disabilities should be in special schools.
  • Parents can organize networks to press for inclusive education. In the Russian Federation, parents sued the government for access to schools for children with cerebral palsy.


A move towards inclusion will not succeed without communities on board.
  • In all, 24 education systems have legislation or policy setting out a role for organizations representing vulnerable groups, though not necessarily a role in both advocacy and watchdog tasks. In Romania, a grassroots push for desegregation of schools for Roma led to legislation and policy changes.
  • Armenia’s development of a national inclusive education policy is largely attributed to effective support by and collaboration with NGOs.
  • In North Macedonia, two-thirds of the population was exposed to a campaign aiming to increase support for inclusion of people with disabilities: 46% of those exposed said environmental barriers needed to be overcome, compared with 32% of those not exposed.
Despite strong government education response to COVID-19, many learners were left unassisted.
  • Access to online education was a challenge for the estimated 1 in 4 secondary school students in the region without a laptop and 1 in 10 without internet access.
  • Data on actual non-participation are hard to come by. During the first school closure in the Czech Republic, 16% of students in basic schools were not involved in online learning.
  • Even patchier data suggest the more vulnerable were less likely to continue learning. In Ukraine, just 1% of students but 20% of Roma students did not take part in remote learning.
  • Among 23 countries, 76% provided support to learners with disabilities (e.g. sign language in online learning programmes) and 52% flexible and self-paced learning platforms.
  • Fewer supported access to infrastructure in remote areas (43%), designed learning materials for speakers of minority languages or provided additional support to poor households (38%).
  • In rural Hungary, schools took homework to students’ homes once a week and collected it the following week.
  • Uzbekistan ran video lessons on national television in Uzbek and Russian with sign language interpretation.


Teachers also need to learn how to use technology.
  • A study of about 1,000 primary school teachers in Poland found that 52% reported some difficulty using digital tools.


Flexible approaches to assessment try to take student needs into account.
  • In Estonia, grade 12 examination was voluntary, permitting students to graduate without it.
  • In Kazakhstan, assignments and tasks for assessment were simplified and the number of tasks used for assessment reduced.


Content needs to be adapted and attention given to socio-emotional well-being.
  • Two in three countries offered psychosocial and mental health support to learners through online counselling, 40% offered support to make up for interrupted school meal services and 25% expanded their child protection services.
  • In North Macedonia, a dedicated platform was developed to provide online assistance to teachers and parents of students with special education needs.
  • In Ukraine, when boarding schools sent students home, social workers were instructed to maintain communication with parents or even visit to ensure their needs were met.


Chapter 10 PDF

As the region enters the final decade of action to achieve SDG 4, these 10 recommendations take into account the deep roots of barriers and the wide scope of issues related to inclusion.

1. Widen the understanding of inclusive education: It should include all learners – and all means all.

Inclusive education should encompass all learners. While a majority of the region’s education systems have embraced definitions of inclusion that recognize multiple marginalized groups, beyond learners with special education needs or disabilities, even this expanded scope should be seen as just one step towards eventually moving away from any form of categorical or group-based definition or learner identification. Clarity in terminology at all levels of implementation will be critical.

2. Put students at the centre: Inclusion is not just a result; it is first and foremost a process and an experience.

Students may feel unrepresented or stereotyped in teaching materials. Yet they are not involved in curriculum design. Aside from student councils in some countries, little evidence is found of student voices being heard and acted upon. Everybody’s view should count in efforts to provide an education of good quality. The right to be in good physical and mental health, happy, safe and connected with others is as important as the right to learn. A positive classroom atmosphere, where teachers recognize and support students’ effort, is crucial. A sense of belonging to the school and the peer group is vital, especially for vulnerable children at greater risk of exclusion.

3. Engage in meaningful consultation with communities and parents: Inclusion cannot be enforced from above.

A key barrier to inclusion in education is lack of belief that it is possible and desirable. Parents, guardians, families and communities may have discriminatory attitudes with respect to gender, disability, ethnicity or religion, which thwart or cancel efforts to implement inclusive education reforms. Conversely, parents of vulnerable children may opt out of mainstream schools if they feel these do not cater for their children’s needs. Governments should open space for parents and communities to voice their preferences in policy design. Parents also need a voice in decisions based on medical and psychological assessments; inclusive alternatives need to be made available.

4. Make space for non-government actors to challenge and fill gaps: Ensure that they work towards the same inclusion goal.

Organized civil society activity has played fundamental advocate and watchdog roles regarding the right to inclusive education. Awareness campaigns help shift public opinion in favour of inclusion. Governments should create conditions enabling NGOs to monitor fulfilment of government commitments and stand up for those excluded from education. As NGOs are also filling gaps in service provision, either on contract or their own initiative, governments must provide leadership and maintain dialogue with NGOs to ensure that such services lead to inclusion, meet standards, do not replicate what other providers do or compete for limited funds. Instead, they should be sustainable, embedded in and aligned with national strategies, plans and policies.

5. Ensure cooperation across government departments, sectors and tiers: Inclusion in education is but a subset of social inclusion.

Partnership is the keyword in government efforts to achieve inclusion. Ministries sharing administrative responsibility for inclusive education must collaborate on identifying needs, exchanging information and designing programmes. Inter-ministerial collaboration in policy development, implementation and coordination is common in the region. However, data sharing needs to be reinforced to promote early interventions and mitigate the impact of adverse initial conditions on school progression and learning. Vertical collaboration between central and local authorities is needed for delivering inclusion. Coordinated actions on quality assurance are crucial to achieving successful inclusive education practice.

6. Share expertise and resources: This is the only way to sustain a transition to inclusion.

In many ways, achieving inclusion is a management challenge. Human and material resources to address diversity have been concentrated in a few places, because of the legacy of segregated provision, and are unequally distributed. Mechanisms and incentives are needed to reallocate them flexibly to ensure that specialist expertise supports mainstream schools’ transition to inclusion. Changes to funding mechanisms are also needed. Special, separate education funding linked to formal decisions of social and medical services leads to strategic behaviour by parents, schools and local authorities seeking eligibility for resources. Countries should allocate funds based on recognized needs of schools or local authorities for support services.

7. Apply universal design: Ensure that inclusive systems fulfil every learner’s potential.

The simple but powerful concept of universal design is associated in education with design of accessible school buildings for learners with disabilities. It has been extended to describe flexible learning environments. The huge potential of assistive technology for learners with disabilities has not yet been fully tapped. But the underlying idea of flexibility to overcome barriers in learner-system interactions applies not only to form but also to content. All students should learn from the same flexible, relevant and accessible curricula. Challenges arising from how textbooks reflect gender equality or ethnic identity need to be overcome. Adapted assessment should help learners demonstrate their progress and increase opportunities for those with special education needs.

8. Prepare, empower and motivate teachers and support personnel: They should all be prepared to teach all students.

Teachers need training in inclusion, not as a specialist topic but as a core element of their initial and ongoing education to avoid perpetuating entrenched views of some students as deficient and unable to learn. Competences related to inclusion are not always required for teacher licensing and certification. Head teachers should be prepared to communicate and instil an inclusive school ethos. Support personnel are often lacking and their time diverted away from teacher and student support. Teaching assistants should not take sole responsibility for learners, a practice which may contribute to their segregation.

9. Collect data on and for inclusion with attention and respect: Avoid labelling that stigmatizes.

Focusing data collection efforts on identified groups helps make those who are disadvantaged visible. But it can also reduce children to labels, which can be self-fulfilling. The desire for detailed or robust data should not take priority over ensuring that no learner is harmed. Not all children facing inclusion barriers belong to an identifiable or recognized group, while others belong to more than one. Education management information systems should cover inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes on all learners and for multiple uses, not just resource allocation. They should look into monitoring student experiences of inclusion as part of a quality assurance and accountability framework. Monitoring should be inclusive in methodology.

10. Learn from peers: A shift to inclusion is not easy.

Inclusion in education represents a move away from discrimination. Neither the pace nor the specific route of this transition can be dictated; each society may take a different route. But much can be learned from sharing experiences at all levels through teacher networks and learning communities or national, regional and global platforms. Opportunities for policy dialogue should be used to steer education systems to appreciate diversity as something to celebrate.


Image credits:

 Cover Credit: UNICEF/UNI42671/ Roger LeMoyne
Chapters 1: Credit: Akos Stiller/Open Society Foundations
Chapter 2 Credit: UNICEF/UN040214/
Chapter 3 Credit: Imrana Kapetanović / Save the Children
Chapter 4 Credit: UNICEF/UN0338737/Nabrdalik VII
Chapter 5 Credit: UNICEF/UN0248592/Dickinson
Chapter  6 Credit: GEM Report/Askar Nuraken
Chapter  7 Credit: GPE/ Carine Durand
Chapter  8 Credit: UNICEF/UNI276637/Cosic
Chapter  9 Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk / Save the Children
Chapter 10 Credit: Natela Grigalashvili