How to make schools more inclusive in Bulgaria


Lessons learned from the Centre for Inclusive Education (CIE), together with partner schools in Bulgaria, while creating and implementing the Bulgarian Model for Building an Inclusive School Environment: One School for All.

What were the main aims of the initiative?

The One School for All programme has one strategic objective: to contribute to quality education for all children that will allow everyone to develop their full potential.

It also has three specific objectives:

  1. to test the applicability of the CIE Model in different school environments, further advance it and demonstrate its effectiveness. This will result in more efficient organisational infrastructure, enhanced teachers’ skills, knowledge and confidence to work with a diversified group of children in a mainstream classroom, and more efficient school leadership;
  2. to create momentum and implementation infrastructure for further national scale‑up of the CIE Model;
  3. to create a countrywide community of inclusive practitioners.

The definition of an inclusive school that CIE applied in its work reaches further than the definition provided by the Bulgarian Education Law in its understanding of inclusive education. The CIE defines inclusive education as a process of receiving and ensuring support for all children and adults in the educational process. An inclusive school environment is only possible if every child feels safe, welcome and supported in school, and has opportunities for personal development and expression. However, an equally important condition is that every teacher feels supported, because only a supported teacher can be confident, motivated and supportive. In inclusive schools, every parent feels assured of their child’s safety and development, feels welcome in school and is fully aware of the opportunities to participate in school life.

Inclusive education does not include one or more specified groups of children or adults, but seeks acceptance, combined with providing opportunities for development and support to all involved in the educational process – learners, school principals, teachers, professionals, parents and non-teaching staff.

In connection with the creation of the Model, the CIE team developed a tool for school teams to help them assess the school environment. This self-assessment is based on what the CIE believe to be the four most important areas of inclusive education – school leadership, teaching practices, child safeguarding and partnership with parents. The self-assessment tool aims to help the school team to build a picture of the school’s current situation in the four areas and to identify possible areas for improvement. The tool systemises the achievements of the school so far and gives guidance and ideas for further work on the four elements of the Model.

In summary, the Model consists of a self-assessment tool and 18 practices, encompassed in four areas of school development and a training methodology:

  • Shared and visionary leadership
  • Child safeguarding
  • Inclusive pedagogy
  • Partnership with parents.

These four elements are interrelated, and their combination enhances the effect of each of them. The Model follows several key principles which have proven impact for the successful implementation of inclusive policies and practices: team decision-making, decisions based on data and practices based on evidence of their effectiveness.

The Model offers concrete, step-by-step instructions on how to introduce it; analysis of the school environment; a choice of priorities and the establishment of specific goals; formation of school teams; elaboration of a plan, according to the priorities; work towards the plan; progress monitoring.

The Model:

  • works with the school as a system, at all levels – culture, attitudes, policies, practices – and reaches out to all participants, not only to teachers;
  • is flexible and adaptable to different school contexts;
  • allows the school to be the creator and implementer of the change, by self-assessing and prioritising changes. The ability to self-assess needs and to prioritise change objectives is the key to successful change;
  • is holder of the new concept of inclusion, in which inclusive education is beneficial and important to learners, but also to teachers and parents.
Location, Setting, Scope, Key Events etc.

Bulgaria is a post-socialist country and a member of the European Union since 2007. The legacy of segregated education (special schools for children with special educational needs (SEN) or separate institutions attended mainly by learners from ethnic minorities) still influences attitudes and the curricula. Most importantly, the legacy of this separation of learners still influences and prevails in the attitudes of educators, managers, parents and the public.

Over the past ten years the CIE has been looking for answers to questions like ‘Who is inclusive education for?’ ‘Why inclusive education?’ ‘How does inclusive education work?’ The team studied global models and partnered with Bulgarian schools and kindergartens to adapt some of these models into Bulgaria’s context. They explored the attitudes and perceptions of different social groups, facing contradictions, fears and concerns, and countless questions.

As a result of this process, they developed a Model for the inclusive school environment and a methodology for implementing this Model in every Bulgarian school open to the idea that children are different and this is a value, not a flaw.

The Model has been adapted in 15 partner schools in different parts of the country, all with different needs, backgrounds and problems to solve.

Issues Addressed

In Bulgaria, the process of integration (not inclusion) for learners with special educational needs started 16 years ago. It was mainly perceived as the placement of learners from special schools in mainstream schools. Little support was provided to the teachers, besides a resource teacher who would work with a child with SEN for one to two hours per week.

In 2015, there was still little support for inclusion from teachers and parents – 36% from parents, 32.5% from teachers (Centre for Inclusive Education, nationally representative surveys).

In 2016, the Education Law stated that inclusive education is a part of the right to education. The Law also states that:

Inclusive education is the process of understanding, accepting and supporting the individuality of each child or pupil and the variety of needs of all children and pupils through involvement and inclusion of resources aimed at removing the obstacles to teaching and learning and at creating opportunities for development and participation of children and pupils in all aspects of life in the community (Education Law, 2016, Supplementary Provisions §1, 22).

Following years of advocacy efforts from NGOs and isolated successful inclusive school practices, there is finally the political will to promote inclusive education in Bulgaria, and the legislative basis for it is already there. However, it is now important not to stop and to make the next steps – provision of methodological and organisational support to schools and provision of transparent funding to schools, channelled directly to support learners. It is also important to ensure the presence in mainstream education of learners with severe disabilities who, for the most part, are at home or in an institution. There should also be a national vision and a road map for inclusive education, including the values and principles, goals and objectives, resources, deadlines and responsible parties for inclusive education. The process of elaboration of such a national vision and road map should be participatory and transparent, with community discussions at regional level including teachers, principals, parents, governmental and non-governmental organisations. These discussions will provide opportunities for all stakeholders to express their opinions and to understand the logic of the reform towards inclusive education and the important components of the process of inclusion. Such a process will also help a change of attitude in the participating parties.

The work of Centre for Inclusive Education showed that when focused efforts to promote inclusion are put in at system level, support for inclusive education from teachers and parents increases.

How was the initiative implemented?

In its essence, the Model is a reflective and participatory approach, developed entirely by the CIE over the course of five years. The aim was to reinforce inclusive attitudes and practices as a sustainable and system-level change in mainstream schools. As such, it is based on a couple of leading principles and requires schools to undertake a continuous and elaborate process of inner change.

A diagram showing the reiterated cycles of reform

In the Model, an inclusive environment is understood as a safe and positive community climate where everyone is welcome and supported at school (not only a particular group of underprivileged children). It is perceived as beneficial and necessary for all the children and adults related to the school, and everyone contributes to it.

Through its work, CIE has learned that it is necessary to encompass the entire school organisation, assisting the school with structuring all the school processes, in order to help this small group of learners. As well as the school having ownership of this change, the whole school team needs to make their own choice of priorities for school development on which they will focus.

CIE developed the Model for this reason. The Model is focused on four main areas of school development associated with inclusion:

  • Shared and visionary leadership
  • Child safeguarding
  • Inclusive pedagogy
  • Partnership with parents.

The good practice was developed, piloted and refined in Bulgaria by CIE and a total of 15 schools with various backgrounds. The schools were carefully selected based on a specific set of criteria.

The first requirement is for the school principal and a core of school teachers and specialists to realise the need for a school-level change leading to developing an inclusive environment for all.

Once the school staff are motivated, they go through a process of work specifically designed by the Model. This helps them to develop a real picture of their school in terms of inclusive education and to structure their efforts through a proposed cycle of work. This cycle works as follows:

  • analysis of the school environment;
  • choice of priorities and establishment of specific goals;
  • formation of school teams;
  • elaboration of a plan, according to the priorities;
  • work for the implementation of the plan;
  • progress monitoring.

Each member of the school team self-evaluates the school according to the four areas of school development, using the Tool for Self-Assessment of School Processes, which is one of the instruments developed by the CIE. This tool comprises indicators in each of the four areas of school development, and a scale. Following the individual self-evaluation, a team discussion and a team self-evaluation take place. The aim of the tool is to facilitate the school teams to get a detailed picture of the school in terms of inclusive practices and policies. Based on the self-evaluation findings, the whole school team chooses up to four priorities in the four areas on which they will work for improvement during the next school year.

Motivated staff members form teams to work in each area and elaborate an action plan with specific goals and activities. During each stage of the process of applying the Model, school teams have the support of a CIE co-ordinator and CIE experts. Specific training is held to raise the capacity in the four areas and to establish working team practices such as time management, change management, tackling stereotypes, etc.

At school level, the overall process is co-ordinated and supported by a school leadership team, which consists of the school principal and a core of motivated teachers and specialists (a total of 6–7 members). Leadership members also co-ordinate the activities of the teams which are responsible for the specific areas of development.

At the end of the school year, the whole school team goes through the self-evaluation process again. This gives them the opportunity to reflect on the development achieved in the targeted areas, as well as on the strengths and holdbacks of the team and the process.

Who worked on and sustained the initiative/policy?

The Model was developed by the Centre for Inclusive Education in partnership with:

  • five partner schools from the first phase of the project;
  • ten partner schools from the second phase of the project.

It was consulted with Sofia University, Bulgaria, and University of Washington, Seattle, USA. The project is funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

When did the initiative/change/policy development take place? What was the timescale?

The Bulgarian Model for Building an Inclusive School Environment was developed by the CIE, together with:

  • 80 teachers from five schools and a total of 1,600 learners in 2014–2016;
  • 200 teachers from 13 schools (ten new schools and three from the first phase) and more than 3,000 learners in 2017–2019.
Key Outcomes & Impact
What where the key outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?

After two years of the Model’s application, the following results can be seen:

  • The training methodology is designed to develop analytical and reflective skills along with inclusive values and attitudes. It recognises that teachers need time after the training to experiment with how to apply what they have learned.
  • Teachers’ development of new knowledge and skills to support learning difficulties leads to increased confidence (30% change) in working with learners, who would otherwise be directed to additional support.
  • While working on the Model, teachers’ attitudes towards diversity in the classroom changes (30% increased support for inclusion).
  • Training in communication with parents increases teachers’ confidence in talking with parents (40% increase). Teachers become proactive in searching for ways to communicate and co-operate with parents.
  • One of the Model’s focus areas is school leadership, which becomes the driving force in promoting new relationships and sharing experience in the school team, teamwork for solving problems and new philosophies and a culture of acceptance of diversity.

As previously stated, the efforts of the schools and the facilitation of the process by inclusive education experts in four areas of school development is only one side of the good practice, which the CIE intends to scale up. This field-based process is closely monitored and evaluated by CIE experts and insights have been used to bring the inclusive education agenda, seen most broadly as benefiting all stakeholders, to the attention of decision-makers, university representatives, fellow NGOs, etc.

Another innovation developed within the Model that will be scaled up is an extended concept of inclusive education. Inclusive education is not only accommodating the needs of children with disabilities in mainstream settings, as it was perceived until recently. The Model adopts a wider vision of inclusion: besides teaching children with SEN, schools should be safe, inclusive and supportive of everyone in them. That is why special attention is paid to supporting teachers, not only in terms of professional development, but also in taking care of establishing and maintaining a positive atmosphere. Parents become active participants in school life; they are seen as partners and are welcomed at schools. In addition, special attention is paid to procedures – for child safeguarding, for early identification of learning difficulties. These procedures are beneficial for the children and for the school staff, as they give more structure and clarity of actions. This is only possible when the school principal and a core of devoted teachers and specialists who are willing to undertake and manage the process of establishing an inclusive environment embrace a holistic and participatory approach to the school. A lot of national and international forums hosted by universities and NGOs have been used as a platform for presenting this shift in the perception of inclusion and communication has been initiated with Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science representatives.

For raising awareness on inclusion and for reaching out to a vast number of stakeholders, the CIE team developed a free e-learning course to introduce the history of inclusion, its main principles and the core characteristics of the Model. By 10 May 2018, the course had been successfully taken by a total of 1,182 teachers, specialists, university students and parents and received very positive feedback (70% of improvement by the participants). This tool for broad and inexpensive yet effective reach-out will also be applied in the project to scale up the good practice connected with the Model and with the broader perception of inclusion. The course will be translated into English, contextually adapted and disseminated in partner countries and in other countries around Europe. It will serve to further scale up the systemic approach to building an inclusive school environment. 

The success story consists of 16 lessons which were learned and encompassed in the Bulgarian Model for Building an Inclusive School Environment developed by the Centre for Inclusive Education, together with five Bulgarian schools and piloted with another ten schools, with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation:

  1. Inclusive education is for everybody in the school – learners, teachers, parents. The definition of an inclusive school that CIE applied in its work reaches further than the definition provided by the Education Law in its understanding of inclusive education.
  2. Introducing inclusive education in school requires a systemic approach. While training teachers how to support learners with SEN in mainstream schools, the CIE learned it is necessary to encompass the entire school organisation, assisting the school with structuring processes at all levels – school culture, attitudes, policies, practices – and with all participants, not just with teachers, in order to help this small group of learners. Introducing inclusion in school is not a single effort of one teacher in one classroom, it is a collective work.
  3. The school must have ownership of the change. Instead of ready-made solutions, schools need support to understand how to help themselves, in terms of awareness of their needs, taking responsibilities, discovering their resources. The opportunity for the school team to self-assess their needs and to prioritise change objectives in school development is the key to a successful change; it empowers the school team to continue the change.
  4. Changes occur from inside-out. Building an inclusive school requires regulatory framework and institutional will at national level, but co-ordination at school system, policy and practice level plays an equally important role. Further to this, individual school participants should have genuine motivation to be part of the process of change, which depends on whether they feel they are really part of the process, whether they are urged to get involved in discussions and exchange of opinions prior to decision-making.
  5. The four areas of school development channel the efforts and help the school team to structure the work. We propose the school should focus on four areas of school development and apply a systemic approach to inclusive education. The four areas are:
  • School leadership
  • Teaching practices
  • Child protection and safety
  • Partnership with parents.
  1. We proposed concrete step-by-step instructions on how the schools should introduce inclusive policies and practices:
  • Analysis of the school setting using a self-assessment of key indicators in each of the four areas of the Model implementation and impact, involving all stakeholders
  • Selection of priorities and setting of specific and measurable objectives, along with indicators of success
  • Appointment of people in charge and creation of teams
  • Development of an action plan which specifies people in charge and deadlines
  • Implementation of the plan and co-ordination of activities
  • Progress monitoring and a new cycle.
  1. Indicators monitored by every school team in the four areas
  • School leadership
  • Teaching practice
  • Child safety
  • Partnership with parents.
  1. An efficient teacher training programme aims to form and develop teachers’ analytical and self-reflexive skills.
  2. Opportunities to improve teachers’ capacity, combined with opportunities to hold discussions and analyse existing and potential school practice with regard to embracing diversity, result in improved teachers’ attitudes to classroom diversity.
  3. New knowledge, in combination with the development of analytical and reflective skills, leads to increased confidence and self-effectiveness of teachers in supporting learners with learning difficulties who would otherwise be directed to resource support.
  4. Some career development, which is different from traditional training, could help educators teach and support children more efficiently – e.g. sharing classroom experience and observations with other teachers. Experience sharing is most beneficial if a topic and specific goals are set. If sharing occurs between teachers from different schools, then other school contexts may become familiar and more points of view may find common ground.
  5. Teacher training and discussions on partnership with parents, when based on the understanding that this partnership is a process rather than one-off attempt, increase teachers’ confidence in working with parents. Teachers become proactive in searching for ways to communicate and co-operate with parents.
  6. When creating inclusive schools, school management becomes the leading force that establishes the principles of inclusive education as part of the school vision, promotes a new model of relationships based on the sharing of experience in the school team, teamwork for solving problems and a new philosophy and culture of acceptance of diversity.
  7. Whenever the management communicates openly with teachers and shares responsibilities with them, teachers become more confident and take on initiatives. Whenever relationships between teachers and management are only formal, teamwork is not valued and teachers believe that nothing depends on them. As such, responsibility is shed and teachers lack initiative to trigger any type of change.
  8. A teacher is only supportive if they feel supported. Support includes any practice and conditions which have to do more with teachers’ emotional status and mental well-being than with teachers’ career development, the latter being only a part of teacher personality. The leadership team should offer the teaching staff opportunities to cope with professional burnout, not just a one-time team-building event, space for conversations where teachers can see themselves as humans and not just professionals, care for mental health, etc., to care for teachers’ well-being.
  9. The inclusive school develops its own tailor-made policy for child safeguarding, which establishes procedure, roles and responsibilities for all, according to the specific school context.
Has the initiative been evaluated or are there plans for this in the future?

The programme in which the Model was developed has a Monitoring and Evaluation plan and an expert engaged to track and gather useful information from the implementation.

Future Developments / Sustainability
Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?

The Centre for Inclusive Education is scaling up the good practice in three European countries – Romania, Greece and Portugal. The online course, which was developed two years ago, will be translated and adapted for the international European context and will be available for free use.

Contact information

Kamelia Ilieva,
Communications and Partnerships Expert
Centre for Inclusive Education, +359 2 870 20 63

How to make schools more inclusive in Bulgaria