Mariam Mazmanyan and Emanuela Chiapparini

Foto: sturti

How do school social workers see their roles and responsibilities in inclusive education in the Canton of Bern? A qualitative study offers insight on the challenges and opportunities for social workers in the context of inclusive education.

German Version

In the Canton of Bern, there is a consensus that the term school social work represents a voluntary, low-threshold and permanent resource in the areas of prevention, counselling and intervention in the context of school. The clients of school social workers are primarily all school-age children and adolescents, including those with special educational needs. However, the evaluations in the field of inclusive education initiated by the Cantonal authorities mainly shed light on the particularities of inter-professional cooperation from a pedagogical perspective, whereas the perspective of school social workers has not yet been investigated in this context. Meanwhile, the global vision to create «a school for everyone» presents challenges, not only for pedagogical professionals, but also for school social workers, by highlighting the need to identify the new areas of professional practice, as well as to adapt their «original» functions to the needs of all children and adolescents, without exception.

The role and view of social workers in the school context

According to professional literature, social workers play a vital complementary role, by linking the school with other services at the community level, or with a broader educational landscape, informing the clients of the resources available inside and outside the school, making them more accessible, as well as facilitating inter-professional cooperation between specialists with different professional backgrounds at the school. In contrast to the relatively broad roles und functions of school social workers described in the literature, in practice, at Canton of Bern school, social workers describe themselves predominantly as a counselling service.

«…we are an independent counselling institute that works within the school, but we are not employed by the school, which means we are independent in our professional duties. For us it is important that clients can easily and independently access us.» (School social worker, City Bern, 56 y.)

A common understanding of inclusive education is necessary

Social workers suggest that discussions on their engagement in the implementation of inclusive education should be held in parallel with reforms at the school level. In other words, inclusive education is not a process run by a single specialist, but rather it’s a process involving all specialists at school, children and young persons, as well as their parents. Social workers observe a lack of willingness on the part of the school and school-based specialists to be open to change and innovation. Schools often have their own well-established, rigid structures. Discussions about shifting or advancing these structures raise fear and uncertainty among the members of inter-professional teams. Hence, school social workers are often expected to adapt their professional approaches and visions of their professional practice to the framework proposed by the school. In practice, this situation drastically narrows the professional engagement and participation of school social workers in various fields.

«… I think it is important to break down the structures of schools a bit, open the school a bit, so that I can also show myself, my capacities.» (School social workers, City Bern, 32 y.)

Currently, in the Canton of Bern, social workers often provide direct services to children with special educational needs by counselling the therapeutic pedagogy professionals who are directly responsible for their well-being and education at the school.

«…if there is difficulty in the class, then it is the therapeutic pedagogue and not necessarily myself who is the first reference person for the child in question. However, if the therapeutic pedagogue needs me, she can of course also approach me for support.» (School social worker, City Bern, 56 y.)

Cooperation between the specialists and more resources

In addition, school social workers are implementing individual counselling for parents and emphasise the importance of regular dialogue with them. Parents are considered to be an important source of information by school social workers, especially in the context of early identification of the factors negatively influencing the child. In the case of children and adolescents with special educational needs, the work with parents is mainly implemented by therapeutic pedagogues. However, the question may be raised here of whether a therapeutic pedagogue is professionally equipped to carry out therapeutic work with a parent who may be facing various socio-economic, as well as psychological issues. In this context, cooperation between the social worker and the therapeutic pedagogue and bringing together their respective skills could create a synergy, allowing a more comprehensive response to parental needs.

Included among the functions of social workers at school are group intervention and thematic projects in cooperation with teachers, aimed at raising the awareness of children and young persons of their rights, existing services, and the authorities to whom they may apply in the event that their wellbeing is at risk. In these cases, social workers do not usually make the distinction between children and adolescents with or without special educational needs, instead giving everyone the opportunity to participate in group work. The implementation of such projects is challenging for school social workers, given the financial and time restrictions they are subject to.

School social workers’ «Gate keeper» role

Currently children and adolescents with special educational needs very quickly find themselves at special schools, because mainstream schools often lack the capacity to address their needs. Does social work have the potential to act, on the one hand, as a resource, by working with these children and, on the other hand, as a «gate keeper» by preventing their placement at special schools, wherever possible? These are questions which require evidence-based answers through further research. What is currently possible to conclude, is that professional discussion about the broader involvement of social workers and their new areas of responsibilities in the context of inclusive education should be implemented in parallel with reforms and changes at the school level, as well as with the provision of more resources and methodological guidance for school social workers.



Partners and Projects:

Literature and Reference Links: