European surveys show a substantial increase in multicultural populations in schools across all European countries. This multicultural influx is leaving its mark on teaching and learning across all levels. It is perhaps even more challenging in the early years (kindergarten and primary schools) where schools are facing great difficulties in reaching out to these children and their families due to the language barrier. In May 2023, three delegates from the Secretariat for Catholic Education (SfCE) participated in an Erasmus+KA220 project entitled INDI (INclusion and DIversity). The main aim of this project is to explore diversity in the classroom. Six organisations from Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta (SfCE and St Albert the Great College – Kinder) participated. All partners share a common vision – that of developing high quality pre-school and primary school education in view of the similar challenges in the area of inclusion of children who have diverse learning needs and cultural backgrounds.
The aim of this project is threefold: to identify, test and implement innovative methods and practices of participation, especially in the context of socio-economic and cultural diversity; to improve strategies and approaches for parental involvement learning from experiences in other European countries and to improve inclusion and interaction between local stakeholders i.e. children, professionals, families and communities.
The visit to Sweden was the third mobility from five. The project was kickstarted in Belgium in June 2022. Malta hosted the second mobility in November 2022. The next mobility planned to take place in Cyprus in October 2023. The project will conclude in Slovenia in May 2024. Each mobility provides learning, teaching and training activities. Moreover, by the end of the project each partner organization will have participated in producing a number of initiatives which include a logo, a mascot, a leaflet/newsletter, a fairytale, a digital book, dictionary cards and articles as well as maintaining E-twinning and Social Media pages.
The SfCE has just finalized its production of a digital book entitled ‘It’s ok to be me!’ Inclusion – Book Creator. The aim of this book is to raise awareness among young children about difference with the fundamental message being that it is alright to be different from one another. Indeed, we are all unique! This book can be a great resource for Peer Preparation Programmes where diversity and inclusion are promoted. Other projects organised by the Maltese team were a Peer Preparation Programme to raise awareness about Autism. This was held in one of our Gozitan schools and Down Syndrome Day which was celebrated in a number of schools. We are also involved in the illustration of dictionary cards using Widget Symbols as well as documenting the project on an E-twinning platform.
The Upplands Bro Municipality in Stockholm hosted this visit. The delegates met Ms Lena Ländin, Head of pre-school and primary education who outlined the Swedish Education System. Preschools cater for children from zero to age six. Primary schools cater for children between the ages of seven and nine while middle schools cater for children aged ten to twelve. Secondary schools cater for children aged thirteen to fifteen. There are fourteen municipal preschools and ten school together with ten independent preschools and three independent ones. There is one high school in this municipality from which students graduate at around the age of eighteen.
Visits to a number of preschools took place: Kristallen Preschool, Norrboda Preschool, Roslags Kulla Preschool, Ljusterö Preschool. The curriculum of these pre-schools is based on three key themes: play, learn and care. They focus on project based learning following the Reggio Emilia Approach. This is an educational philosophy where the child is seen as an individual who has a strong potential to develop, as an individual who has rights, who learns through the hundreds of languages pertaining to mankind and who grows in relation with others. All the schools visited were submersed in nature with the forest just outside the schoolyards.
Following the philosophy that “what can be done inside, can also take place outside”, the outdoors – be it the forest, the school garden or the play area – was used daily as a learning venue with the outdoor and indoor environment interacting with each other and with the children. Schools, both indoors and outdoors, were peppered with visual aids as these are considered to be the universal language used to communicate information with all students of diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. Instructions, timetables, important notices were all visual, made using widgets. These visuals provided a platform to immerse children in literacy as well as to introduce them to sign language.
The Härnevi School caters for migrant students who would have just moved to Sweden and have limited access to the Swedish language. Students are grouped according to language ability and not by age. At this school, students study their mother-tongue as well as Swedish and English.
A novel concept was that of the open preschools. Oppna Forskolan and Berga, both open preschools provide young children who are not enrolled in preschool with an educational group activity in close collaboration with the parents. The day’s program is designed according to the needs of those who are visiting on the day. For example, every morning there is a singing session, crafts, play and hang out time. Parents are taught how to bond with their child. They are taught parental skills, behaviour management skills etc. Children are exposed to language development activities such as storytelling and phonological awareness. These open preschools operate in conjunction with child health care professionals, maternity wellbeing professionals and the social services/parent advisory services where parents can seek advice and support regarding parenting.
Swedish primary schools are investing in technology for each student, a tool so necessary for teaching and learning. Digital literacy opens new doors in learning, creativity and exploration. Students get to write books, make films, create their own quizzes and much more on individual devices. Even in primary schools, students spend much time in nature, the philosophy being that children who are out in nature a lot are oftentimes healthier, less stressed and find it easier to learn. Moreover, there is plenty to discover and explore in the forest.
This mobility provided a great learning opportunity in seeing inclusion and diversity in practice in view of reflecting about and ameliorating local practices in education, inclusion and diversity.