In 2003 the Department for International Development (DfID) initiated a project supporting Bulgaria with EU accession preparation. Disabled children’s services were identified as needing significant improvement. In my role as Head of Early Years in Bolton I was asked by a representative from DfID if a delegation from three towns in Bulgaria could visit to see good provision and practice. We facilitated the visit, enabling the delegation to meet staff, local politicians, and parent partnership groups. We demonstrated examples of good quality provision, and shared learning about child-centred service development.
The project leader, Rob Williams, invited me to lead a return delegation to Bulgaria. The purpose of the visit was to:
Raise awareness in the locality about the needs of disabled children
Support with service planning and development
Support the development of parent advocacy
Help develop genuine partnership working between Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and the Municipality
We invited elected members (including the Exec Member for Children’s Services Cllr Linda Thomas), leaders in education, health and social care from Bolton and Cheshire, the Parent Partnership Group lead, and a young woman with Down’s Syndrome (Ailsa) who often facilitated our disability awareness training.
The challenges we encountered included entrenched beliefs and mindsets which excluded disabled children and people from local communities. Citizens had written to the local Mayor expressing disgust that disabled children were sometimes out in public. Children with disabilities were removed from families and placed in Institutions in the mountains.
Bulgaria was a poor country. Resources for disabled children’s services were limited, with many other pressing needs being prioritised.
Actual numbers of disabled children were unrecorded by municipality leaders, and officers felt pressured to under-report.
Parents going to work had few options; children were left unattended during the day or lived in an institution. Parents struggled to have their voices heard and to know how to work with the municipality.
Whilst in Bulgaria, challenging fixed mindsets and beliefs was at the core of our work. In particular, the presence of Ailsa was a constant source of curiosity, astonishment and challenge to our Bulgarian colleagues.
We engaged with community leaders and parents. We modelled our working partnerships and relationships which enabled the building of empathy, understanding, motivation and commitment. The collaborative nature of the work allowed us to challenge deeply held beliefs while providing support to leaders in making first steps to improving provision, as well as supporting parents in their confidence to work in partnership with other agencies.
We visited schools, an institution in the mountains, and a hospital. We attended Municipality and parent meetings, and met with the mayor and Minister for Social Care. We talked with parents who were wanting to form a NGO (Non-Government Organisation), teachers and children. Ailsa spoke powerfully of her experience growing up, what she’d needed and the contribution she now made. I was briefed for a radio interview to raise awareness of disabled children’s needs and engage positive interest with the public about changes ahead.
On the last night of our visit, we shared a meal with the visiting Mayors and Municipal leaders. It was -12°C in the day, even colder at night and we were tired. The Mayor from a local town stood up to speak,
‘I had thought these children could do nothing, that they had nothing to contribute, and there was nothing for us to do. But I have met Ailsa, and my heart has changed, we must do something for these young people.’
Eighteen years on, and these colleagues still talk about powerful recollections and learning:
Cllr Linda Thomas
“Bulgaria was a country with a poor record of supporting children and adults with disabilities. The inclusion agenda was virtually non-existent. This small town wanted to improve the situation and needed our expertise and humanitarian approach to help with ideas, funds and acknowledgement of their willingness to become much more inclusive. This was an exercise in changing hearts and minds, and people we met in authority were prepared and receptive to learn how they could deliver this.”
Maxine Roberts (then County Head of Early Years)
“I think the learning I took from the visit expanded over time. What I saw and experienced was a group of people struggling to support a national change process which required them to construct new ways of working with children and families. The politics of the change process were challenging and again, had me thinking about how significant change happens because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than a model to be followed and implemented.”
And the impact?
Nikolai Enchev (previously Deputy Mayor of Karlovo) reflects on the work:
“The goal of this project was to establish a good partnership between the NGO sector and local authorities. We learned how to establish and manage a successful day care centre.
The visit to Bolton was very useful, we saw very interesting practices of the local NGO. The knowledge helped us to improve the parents’ NGO activities. I think it was really a successful project, both the visit and discussions were very important for us.”
Cllr Linda Thomas:
“[It] Made me more certain than ever that inclusion needed to be driven even further in our country too. That inclusion and acceptance of the need for more proactive approaches had to always be high on the agenda…
“The need for passion and objectivity to achieve significant change – and it needs to be in equal measure! The passion of belief that things can be better but the objectivity to realise that change is tough for those going through it and the need for a compassionate response to individual concerns and worries.”
Outcome so far:
Following the visit, I supported Nikolay with bid writing to match fund finances the Minister for Social Care ring fenced for a children’s day-care centre in Sopot. Ongoing municipality funding is now in place. On my last visit, fifty children were using the centre supported by sixteen staff from a range of professional roles. Market gardening by the young people on the site helps with sustainability following a project funded by the Netherlands. The young disabled people help with food preparation for the children. Parents go to work knowing their children are in good care. The staff are diligent and mindful that children will always need advocates committed to their needs. The centre is managed by staff and parent representatives from the NGO.
Outcomes are not always easily or swiftly measurable. Eighteen years on my colleagues reflect on the significance of the work. Professional development and work overseas shapes your questions, curiosity, relationships, career journey and professional networks. It brings deep personal challenges as you encounter beliefs, values and cultures different to your own. Empathy and understanding are stretched, often to places of discomfort. And challenge has to be accompanied by deep empathy, personal humility and the professional will for collaborative engagement and improvement to follow. It really is all about relationships, heart and minds.
In June 2017 I watched quietly in the square in Karlovo, as a young man with Down’s Syndrome swayed to music being played by a band. He moved confidently amongst the crowd. I thought of Ailsa, the profound difference she made and the ripples years later following her visit.
Rob WiIliams shares similarly about his visit in 2019
“I noticed two couples chatting in the town square. Each had a daughter and it was particularly gratifying to see the two little girls, one of whom had Down’s Syndrome, playing happily together. It was clear that this was not at all unusual.”
If you decide you’ll be brave enough to join a study visit or work overseas, be prepared to be forever changed and expect some of your heart to be left behind.
The ‘sea’ we swim in consists of our experiences, socialisation and narratives – cultural, familial, professional and political. They all subtly shape our values and assumptions often in ways hard to ‘see’. Our colleagues in Bulgaria of course have their own ‘sea’, which was for the Mayor who spoke out, ‘unconcealed’ through his experience of meeting Ailsa.
So, how do we continue with our own ‘unconcealing’? What experiences and relationships will help? What will help cultivate our curiosity?
Sometimes I think this is one of the endeavours I’m most proud of. Knowing that families in Sopot can be with their children, take them out for a meal or shopping and be accepted. We (and Ailsa in particular) made a real difference. I don’t have a graph or a gantt chart, but in a town in Bulgaria, children with disabilities are living with their parents. They can play, learn and socialise, and are integrated in the community.
My commitment to cross cultural and overseas professional development for teachers and education leaders remains high. Without a new ‘lens’ through which to view education and children’s services we run the risk of having a profession hardwired to the latest government policy, and our assumptions remaining unknown to us and unchallenged, because in the words of the Chinese proverb,
’The fish are the last ones to know about the sea.’