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‘Learning is not a process but a journey’: the example of a school in Orhei

Integrating young people with special educational needs (SEN) into society is a priority for the Orhei Vocational School, to ensure that they can find a job later.

Integrating young people with special educational needs (SEN) into society is a priority for the Orhei Vocational School, to ensure that they can find a job later. Over the past two years, the institution has adapted its curriculum in three professions – seamstress, forester and plasterer – to make it accessible, allowing more than 20 students with SEN to join the courses and learn a profession.

At this school, learning is not just a process, but a journey carefully transformed to be accessible to children with SEN, who want to discover their passion in the world of trades.

This is where I met Mădălina, a 17-year-old girl with special educational needs, who is passionate about the art of sewing. As she deftly sewed, she explained how this occupation was close to her heart.

Ecaterina, the teacher who teaches sewing to students

Mădălina explains the process of sewing a pocket

Mrs Ecaterina shows Mădălina the process of sewing the pocket on an apron

“I have been studying to become a seamstress for a year and a half and I want to finish my studies. I still have half a year to study. I don’t find anything difficult in what I do, on the contrary – sewing is very easy,” says Mădălina with a smile on her face. 

In the creative world of sewing, Mădălina has found not only a profession, but also a source of confidence in her own strengths. She believes all those who want to become a seamstress can easily do it at this school: “If there are other children who want to learn this profession, I encourage them to come here.”

Their teacher, Mrs Ecaterina, works side by side with the students. For the last three years, she has been helping students to embrace the profession they want to pursue. The greatest satisfaction is, of course, when the students are developing.

“They are doing very well. Mădălina was initially shy and found it difficult to learn certain processes, but now she can cope with all the requirements. She was even the first among other girls to sew an apron.”

A typical day for students starts with theory followed by its practical application.

“I have two groups of girls at the seamstress course – second year and first year. When they start with us, they do not have the necessary skills, because sewing is not practised in general schools. If they practise every day, they show visible progress,” she says.

We met another young woman with SEN in the same group. Ludmila is also 17 years old, and she is now into her second year studying sewing.

Works by the students at the Orhei Vocational School

Ludmila creating elements for a dress

Some of the garments made by students in the sewing course

She said she could now sew a dress in just four days, and her favourite part was making pockets.

“It’s not difficult to make them. It takes me one hour to make a pocket. I made other garments: aprons, side pockets and others. Most of all, I like sewing pockets, they are the easiest to make.” In the future, Ludmila plans to turn her studies into a real job.

The plasterer’s workshop is located not far from the sewing course in the school’s central block. Young people who want to study plastering practise three times a week with their teacher.

One of the students who studies this profession is Alexandru, a 17-year-old with SEN, who confessed that he liked what he was doing.

The young man is already in his second year on the course. This means that at the end of the academic year he will be able to get a job in this field of work, because he will be fully qualified.

“After I graduate, I want to continue to work in this field. We have practical classes three times a week, and we also have theoretical lessons. After we study the theory, we practise our knowledge in the workshop,” says the young man.

Alexandru practising his skills

Students practise in class how to apply plaster correctly

At the end of the academic year, students will take a qualification exam, in which they will have to perform a task certifying that they have acquired the necessary skills for the profession of plasterer.

Adapting the programme for children with SEN

Orhei Vocational School trains specialists in several fields: lather-operators, plasterers, auto mechanics, seamstresses, foresters, etc. To make some of these professions accessible to young people with special educational needs, the curriculum was adapted, and teachers were trained with the support of a project funded by the European Union.

As part of the project, the teachers were guided by a specialised consultant, and together they adapted the content of the curricula for three professions – seamstress, forester and plasterer – to teach students with SEN. Teachers also benefited from a training programme in the field of inclusive education, based on the individual rights and needs of young people. Today, young people receive support to develop their social and professional skills, get a job and integrate into the community.

“Adapting the curricula of these three subjects for children with SEN makes it possible to teach these subjects in an easier and more understandable way. For example, the plastering course uses pictures to teach them about the consistency of the plaster and how to plaster. However, students also have general subjects: mathematics, computer science, Romanian language, etc.,” says Tatiana Ciobanu, Deputy Head of Orhei Vocational School.

She says the school does not differentiate between children with special educational needs and other students.

Tatiana Ciobanu, Deputy Head of Orhei Vocational School

Tatiana Ciobanu explains the problems faced by students in getting a job

“Everyone is equal in our school. They do not learn separately; the teaching plan specifies only that children with SEN need more time to accomplish a task. For instance, if the assessment is 45 minutes, children with SEN are given 90 minutes to complete the tasks.”

Tatiana Ciobanu admits that it is still difficult for students with SEN to get a job after they finish their studies.

“We train the children, we help them learn new skills, but there is still a barrier to employment – empolyers. It will take longer for employers to understand that some tasks can also be done by our students. According to the law, they are obliged to employ them, but they find different reasons not to. Some turn us down because we are in dual and not in classical education. In dual education, students must be paid an average wage and be guided by an instructor delegated by the employer.”

The Deputy Head says the school has 20 students with special educational needs in all three courses in years 1 and 2. The course lasts two years.

Currently, the students of Orhei Vocational School are doing their internship with a company in Chisinau. The school has concluded a cooperation agreement, and young people with SEN are integrated into various simple processes that they can perform.

Tatiana Ciobanu also says that thanks to the project’s resources and mentoring, two classrooms, two dormitories, the kitchen, the tutoring room, the canteen and the library have been adapted for people with special needs. At the same time, an access ramp was built at the entrance to the school building and two bathrooms – one in the dormitory and one in the study block – were adapted accordingly.

Ion Digori, Administrator of the ‘Sustainable Social Services’ Public Association

Ion Digori outlines the Association’s future plans

The project, which started in January 2022 and ended in the summer of 2023, was implemented with the support of the Public Association ‘Sustainable Social Services’. Ion Digori, the Association Administrator says that with the project’s completion in June 2023, the Orhei Vocational School can now manage all the processes without their support.

“The collaboration between different structures and organisations provides effective solutions that meet the needs and aspirations of young people in their integration process. Before enrolling at Orhei Vocational School, students could not cope with their studies, their schedule was overloaded. They have an opportunity now to study according to the adapted curriculum. The teachers went through several trainings to be able to ensure effective teaching,” says Ion Digori.

Like the school’s Deputy Head, Ion Digori admits that employers can be reluctant to employ young people with special educational needs, and he now plans to start a future project to support people with SEN in finding a job.

The service for the social and professional integration of young people with special educational needs was created by the Public Association ‘Sustainable Social Services’ in partnership with the administration of the Orhei Vocational School, as part of the ‘Civil Society Organisations Acting for Better Social Services’ Project funded by the European Union and the Soros Foundation Moldova.

Author: Petru Beșleaga