A person standing in front of a wall.

Professional growth and building self-confidence through Erasmus+

Mladen Tota from Čakovec High School shares his Erasmus+ experience and ways in which his organisation provides support to pupils from disadvantaged groups.

Organisation Srednja škola Čakovec
Country Croatia
Project title Skills up
Project number 2019-1-HR01-KA102-060448
Format VET learner and staff mobility
Sector School education
Target group Pupils in vocational education and training (minorities, transgender and fostered pupils, pupils with disabilities, pupils living with single parents…)
Erasmus+ project results https://erasmus-plus.ec.europa.eu/projects/search/details/2019-1-HR01-KA102-060448

Hi, Mladen, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Mladen Tota and I work at the Čakovec High School, where I have been the Erasmus+ coordinator for the past nine years. We have so far successfully implemented a total of six Erasmus+ projects and provided over 260 pupils and 30 teachers with the opportunity to acquire new skills and competences abroad. We have been awarded the Erasmus+ accreditation in the field of vocational education and training and regularly involve participants with fewer opportunities in our project activities. Our efforts have also been recognised by the Croatian Erasmus+ agency (Agency for Mobility and EU Programmes) and our school was added to the national network of Inclusion and Diversity Ambassador in 2021 in the field of vocational education and training.

Inclusion and diversity are one of the main priorities of the new Erasmus+ programme. In what ways does your institution try to promote inclusive ideas and ensure equal opportunities for all?

I am glad that we are recognised as a school that started with inclusion even before it became a horizontal priority of the programme. Inclusion is in accordance with the policy and goals of our school, which are inclusion, tolerance and diversity, so Erasmus is a great upgrade to everything we have done before and are already doing through various projects, through cooperation with the local community, with local self-government units and associations. Then Erasmus came as the icing on the cake, where we enable pupils to go on mobility so that they can show their skills and knowledge abroad.

The Erasmus+ programme identifies a whole range of different vulnerable groups as persons with fewer opportunities. What obstacles do pupils face at your institution?

Most of the pupils who do not come from the biggest cities are pupils who have both geographical and, very often, economic difficulties. We try to involve pupils with disabilities who belong to a separate scoring category. We also try to enable pupils who are members of national minorities to participate in mobilities by securing them additional points so that they can enter the mobility programme more easily. This has proven to be a good practice so far because the pupils experience various opportunities that they would not otherwise have. I can proudly say that in the meantime we have had as participants in our mobilities pupils who came to our school from other parts of Croatia because of their sexual orientation. There are, of course, social obstacles, as well as pupils living with a single parent. It very often happened that these pupils turned out to be the best, despite some of their shortcomings for which they are not responsible.

What do the project activities in your case look like in practice? How do you structure calls and how do you motivate pupils with fewer opportunities to get involved? What form of support do they most often need during all phases of the process (before, during and after mobility)?

Communication with pupils, presentation of the project itself and the goals to be achieved are very important. We have excellent cooperation with our partners from Slovenia, so we first explain to them the profile of the pupils coming, what their difficulties are and what they can expect from them. After that, in the homeroom class, we explain to the pupils where they are going, how to apply, what their obligations and rights are. I think it is very important to encourage pupils with difficulties who often lack self-confidence and are thinking about applying. After returning from mobility, not only did they improve professionally and acquire new skills, but they themselves said that they are much more confident, that they are doing their job well, that their self-confidence has grown, which I think is very important for their further education and for finding their way in the labour market.

How do pupils, parents and teachers view your efforts to promote inclusion and diversity? Are the reactions mostly positive or are there also negative ones?

So far I can say that we have not encountered any negative comments or reactions. I think that good preparation and a good explanation of the call itself, the procedure and the method of scoring play a big role here. It needs to be clear to all pupils who apply, regardless of whether they are pupils with fewer opportunities or not, according to which criteria pupils are selected. If I have to point out the negative, there were several objections from class teachers and vocational teachers regarding filling out the documentation, but I think they were also very satisfied later. I must also point out the period of the pandemic, when pupils could not do their traineeship in Croatia, but did it abroad. So far, the comments and support of colleagues, the principal and the entire school have been very positive, and I hope that we will continue like this.

Do you think that individual experience from the Erasmus+ programme can help people with fewer opportunities in a way that facilitates their inclusion in other social processes and activities, from which they are otherwise excluded? Is it even possible to bring about such a change by acting from the bottom up, that is, without the involvement of decision-makers and without some changes at the system level?

It is essential to include such pupils in mobility, that is, in all aspects of social life, because this is one indicator of the development of the entire society, not only the educational system. The participation of pupils with fewer opportunities in mobility somehow removes a label from them, because they are all marked in some way due to certain characteristics that make us consider them pupils with fewer opportunities. Acting from the bottom up is of course important, sometimes the system from the top is less ready for changes or may not see the problems we face in smaller communities. It is important that schools start from their local community and in this way enable such pupils to integrate into all social activities as much as possible.

You have many years of experience not only in participating in international mobilities, but also in involving people with fewer opportunities in such activities. Can you single out an example that you particularly remember?

When we first included pupils who were being educated for the profession of assistant caregiver, i.e. under a special educational programme, I must admit that we were afraid of how they would function for the first time in a foreign country, for the first time without their parents. However, we got great feedback, everyone was offered a job. The director of the company wrote a letter of recommendation to a pupil who was on mobility there, a pupil who was actually of Roma nationality, a foster child who is educated under a special programme, and then he received a letter of recommendation. I think it’s something that is definitely memorable. I can proudly say that participation in Erasmus, not only for him, but also for pupils with fewer opportunities who were still there on mobility, enabled later employment. One pupil was employed in a social cooperative, one pupil was employed in a hospital, so it was certainly a very positive story that I hope will continue through a future Erasmus project.

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