Elementary adult education in Serbia is based on the model developed through the "Second Chance" project funded by the European Union in the period 2011-2013, in which the emphasis is put on the functionality of the acquired knowledge (which is why it is called Functional Elementary Education of Adults – FEEA, in Serbian - FOOO). The curriculum is organised in three cycles, each lasting one school year, and at the end of this program it is envisaged that adult students may choose one of the vocational training courses, through which they acquire professional competences and a certificate which confirmes that. This type of support (in the form of vocational training courses) is a great motive for uneducated adults to decide to enrol, as it improves their opportunities for finding a job.
In line with the thematic focus of EPALE platform in the period from August to September, which was on Social inclusion of marginalized groups through adult learning, we spoke with three teachers working in the FEEA system in Serbia - Kristijan Bagi, Assistant Director at School for FEEA in Sombor, Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš, a Serbian language teacher at the School for FEEA "Sveti Sava" in Novi Sad and Boris Hekel, Assistant Director at the "Petar Petrovic Njegos" Elementary School in Zrenjanin. They were so kind to answer our questions regarding their experience in working with adult learners.
Which marginalized groups are the most represented among your students?
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: The target groups of our school are:
- members of the Roma population, mostly from suburban settlements, who live in poor material conditions, with undeveloped hygiene and cultural habits, often returnees from European countries,
- students between ages of 15 and 18 who, for various reasons, have left the regular school system (often with behavioural problems or with problems of social and psychological adaptation),
- adults from the territory of the district and persons from the record of the National Employment Service who regularly attend afternoon classes.
Kristijan Bagi: The largest number of students are Roma people and beneficiaries of social assistance (90%). In addition, amongst our students there are hard-to-employ people, migrants, displaced persons, returnees (from asylum and the "gray zone"), single mothers, people with disabilities and other groups.
What are their typical problems when it comes to attending classes and learning?
Kristijan Bagi: For the Roma students, the typical problems are the language barrier and preoccupation with temporary and occasional jobs (which is why classes start in October, because in September everyone who are able to work are preoccupied with seasonal jobs). In the situation of having to choose between school and work, they choose to work, because for them on that it literally depends whether there will be resources for basic necessities of life. For single parents, the main problem for attending school is caring for their children during classes. In addition, in the settlements around City of Sombor the problem is also the transportation, which often make those in rural areas isolated in a way, especially during precipitation (rain, snow, etc.), since many of the roads there are still unpaved.
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: Among the biggest problems are poverty, lack of identity documents, social neglect, poor knowledge, poor knowledge of Serbian language (returnees or members of national minorities), being uninformed, imposed corrective measures etc.
In what ways are you trying to help them overcome these problems?
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: We try to motivate them with different types of help and support. First of all, our goal is to stimulate their creative and individual capacities through regular classes, supplementary classes, but also extracurricular activities (creative corner, one-day trainings on current topics, lectures, exhibitions, visits to museums, theatre, etc.). One of our goals is also to help the students to solve their specific problems (transportation, travel, food) through cooperation with the local community. Thus, individual work with students, assistance in providing learning and teaching materials, advisory work regarding selection of trainings, enriching the planned teaching material with various interesting contents, all of which ultimately results in the independence of the students, the acquisition of general knowledge and professional competences which significantly improves their possibilities for further education, social inclusion and employability.
Boris Hekel: We give our best to meet the needs of our students regarding the organisation and the schedule of classes. We also have a great help from a personal assistant who is Roma person and to which the students are more open.
Kristijan Bagi: The school organizes classes in minority languages - Hungarian and (soon) Roma. In cooperation with our andragogical assistant, we have developed didactic material for the students - we have prepared vocabulary and textbooks, while organization of teaching is in progress. Besides that, we regularly cooperate on projects with various institutions involved in the care of our students - such are the Home for abandoned children "Miroslav Mika Antic", the City of Sombor Correctional Institution and others.
Too often, the Roma population is not aware of all of their rights. They happen to be looking for one-time social help to buy textbooks for children that they are entitled to receive for free, as well as a number of similar examples. Therefore, we also regularly cooperate with the staff of the local Centres for Social Work, and try to make not only the students, but the entire community aware of the rights they have, and whose realization can make their difficult life in the margins easier.
We regularly cooperate with the Regional Chamber of Commerce of the West Bačka District and the General Association of Entrepreneurs, who supply us with the information on local labour demand, and thus the school sends students to these employers.
To what extent do you succeed in this? What percentage of your students who enrol in the school education cycle successfully complete it?
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: By analysing the number of students enrolled in each of the three cycles and the number of students who completed these cycles, we can conclude that we have a high success rate for this type of school, which is around 40-50%. In the previous school year, the total number of students enrolled was 324, of which 154 successfully completed the attended cycle. This percentage, as well as the upward trend in the number of enrolled students in recent years, speak about the success of our work to motivate and animate adult learners.
Boris Hekel: The percentage of students who graduate from school is around 50%. A large part of them use the opportunity to apply so they would not to lose other privileges they enjoy while being registered as unemployed.
Kristijan Bagi: In recent years, our school has seen a steady increase in the number of students enrolled, so in the last school year there were 550 of them, 50 of whom successfully completed the school year.
Can you give an example of good practice in your personal or your school's work regarding overcoming these student’s difficulties?
Kristijan Bagi: The school regularly organizes the program "Wow, school is great", motivational workshops before enrolling in education or continuing with interrupted education. In addition, we regularly cooperate with Centres for Social Work, the National Employment Service and other local services. The school regularly organizes and implements activities for the preservation of Roma and other cultural heritage. Students can take their children to classes, and we organize a day care. We would like to share one photo to illustrate this.
Photo: School staff with children of students
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: Many years of work of our school bring many examples of good practice. Among them, I would like to point out the organization of experimental classes and workshops with the correlation of several teaching subjects. On several occasions it was a correlation of the teaching content of biology-chemistry-geography-physics (parts of the plant, celebrating the Apple Day, Bread Day, etc.).
Another example is the numerous workshops on the subjects of Responsible living in civil society and Entrepreneurship. Experimental classes, workshops and education were organized in cooperation with youth centres (OPENS, Centre for Children and Youth at the City of Novi Sad Health Centre...) and other organizations from the local community, on current topics of today (peer violence, electronic violence, prevention of psychoactive substances abuse, gambling, alcohol, reproductive health, etc.), but also through activities of celebrating important international dates (December 1, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, International Day for Tolerance, etc.).
How does functional elementary education of adults affect the social inclusion of these people and their overall life perspective? How would you encourage future potential students to decide to start with education?
Kristina Jovičić-Grmaš: Creating a positive atmosphere in everyday teacher-student interaction, discussing the benefits of a general education and possible further education and employment are certainly in the function of encouraging all our potential and current students. Informing about successful examples from real life about those students who have become involved in society and became its useful members, and thus improved the quality of their own and their family’s life, should also encourage all those who wish to start with an education.
Boris Hekel: First of all, we think it is important that adult students have the opportunity to become literate, and also the opportunity to become digitally educated. It is very important also because for some of them this is the only opportunity to meet new people.
In your opinion, what needs to be systematically improved in order for functional elementary education of adults to give better results?
Kristijan Bagi: According to the original program, the Second Chance project envisaged the vocational training praxis for achieving certificates for, let’s say, bakers, locksmiths or other crafts’ assistants in the 3rd cycle. This gave the students hope that they would come out of the so-called "vicious circle of poverty". However, as there is often no funding for such training, the school's project team regularly struggles to secure funding from donors’ funds. By doing so, it provides the only real answer to the students’ daily question, "What for do I need school?" Most of our students are beneficiaries of social assistance, but they also earn money by working on a temporary, occasional and seasonal jobs. Therefore, the challenge is to motivate them to take the time to attend classes, rather than to work, rest or doing household chores. The key is in real job opportunities - I think adults would be much more responsive to school attending initiatives if they had some motivation in the form of employment upon graduation.
Another important element is the regular professional development of teaching staff. In FEEA, teachers rarely go beyond the basic level, and since the school year practically lasts for one semester, the units are repeated very often and burnout syndrome can occur. Therefore, it is very important that within the collective a unity exists, as well as team-building activities, regular formal and informal discussions regarding current events, examples of good practice in the form of recognition of distinguished teachers. The management of our school takes care to regularly recognize and evaluate the commitment of all, no matter if it is teaching, contribution in the form of motivating students to enrol, project activity or any other kind of enthusiasm at work.
Boris Hekel: I think that it is necessary to involve the business sector more so that students can see the chance that someone will notice them and that they will gain employment after completing the training.