The online VET4ALL Focus Group discussion led by EfVET took place on the 31st of January 2019. VET4ALL aims to promote inclusive education and lifelong learning for students and learners with disabilities and special needs. The focus group focused on understanding the practices among EfVET members regarding VET accessibility and inclusiveness of VET colleges. Four participants from VET institutions working with special needs students attended the discussion including Keskupuisto Vocational College and Luovi Vocational College (Finland), Cometa Formazione (Italy) and ISMEK (Turkey). The dialogue was moderated by Stela Stancheva (EfVET).
The discussion was focused on four main topics:
- The level of integration of students with disabilities and special needs into the WBL contexts: degree of difficulties and expectations
- Accommodations to be put in place to have adequate schooling and professional training: successful results and skills acquired
- Key factors leading to successful VET results and employment opportunities for students with disabilities and special needs, e.g. VET – business cooperation
- Competences and experiences needed from VET teachers to smoother the transition of students with disabilities and special needs from school to job market
Definition of study curricula
In the specific case of Finland, the participants acknowledged that special needs colleges care more for disabled students nowadays. In the Finnish Education System, the right to study of all the citizens is guaranteed. For those students who are not able to start in VET directly, there is a Preparatory Education programme that enables students for work and independent living. The National Agency for Education defines the national curricula but teachers are allowed to participate in the draft of the curricula given the fact that they know exactly what kind of difficulties the students are facing. In the case of Italy, schools have the responsibility of defining the curricula and finding the necessary resources. Differently from the Finnish schools specialized in working only with learners with disabilities, the special purpose of Cometa school is to have mixed groups of students in order to foster the integration of students with disabilities in mainstream education.
Cooperation between companies and schools and the accessibility of the learning and working environment
In Finland, there are preparatory classes for the Work Based Learning experience. Teachers work with businesses to ensure there are WBL opportunities for all students. Before the training begins, students visit the future working place with the school staff. The focus is directed towards the strengths of the student, rather than on the disability. In terms of ensuring financial resources for the school and thus a better learning environment, in Finland, all the VET schools are financed by the State. The process is structured, the colleges are independent, but at the same time, they are subject to monitoring and quality assurance. Finland has moved from a college-centred approach to a student-centred one. For all interviewed this represents a more and more important idea. Students are seen as customers who have to be satisfied.
In Italy, the organization of the cooperation between schools and companies is not as structured as in Finland. Traditionally, students with disabilities have always been employed in social cooperatives. The real challenge is to employ them in companies. There are two main obstacles: difficulties to find adapted working environments and finding companies willing to employ students with disabilities.
Difficulties that students with disabilities face when looking for a job and how can we get better knowledge about leadership
In Finland schools also face difficulties. Sometimes employers do not have extra staff to support them as much as they need. Nevertheless, there are benefits that employers can get if they hire people with disabilities. If they need extra special material the employer can obtain support from the state. The social responsibility is a very important factor; it has marketing value for the companies. Similar to Finland, in Italy companies also have incentives from the State to hire persons with disabilities, but the situation differs. Often, companies prefer to pay a fine instead of hiring persons with special needs. They believe that having a worker with disabilities means less production rhythm.
Evolution of the educational system in the participants’ countries
In Italy, there are still difficulties and limitations for persons with disabilities, even though nowadays there is greater need and demand. Overall, the system has not improved in spite of the fact that the legal framework states that appropriate support must be provided at all levels. Work needs to be understood not simply as an occupation or position for which one receives payment but as social relations between people, which has a great value in itself. Creating inclusive environments is about ensuring that all institutions have a budget to function effectively as they ensure that organization and assessment are made inclusive. In Finland, the educational system has always been very well structured, but 10-15 years ago the focus was on the schools. Now the system has enabled teachers to put learners’ abilities at the centre of the educational approach and see opportunities rather than challenges. Cooperation with other schools and companies is a key factor. They believe in lifelong learning and train themselves with personal development plans to be proactive and constant learners. People are very interested in learning.
- Need to educate employers about the benefits of hiring persons with disabilities to create better awareness, understanding and expertise on different areas of inclusivity.
- Importance of creating awareness and educate the society in order to understand and learn why is important to live and work in an inclusive way.
- Need to move from a college-centred approach to a student-centred one.
- The necessity of working together at European Union level.
- Significance of having a structured legal framework on inclusive education. The Finnish Disability Legislation represents a good example.