THE START of the new school year on September 2 left the gates of 700 schools and educational facilities closed. Of that number, 496 were scheduled to merge and 207 to be completely shut. The majority of the mergers, 454, were between elementary schools and kindergartens.
"In the first place this is a consequence of the continuously decreasing number of children in schools. Because we introduced financing per pupil, not per number of buildings, as it had been until now, administrators had to carefully consider whether they had enough money to finance, in some cases, half-empty schools. If they consolidate, they will have more money for salaries or for the operation of the remaining schools," Slovak Education Minister Martin Fronc told The Slovak Spectator in the days leading up the start of the school year.
Despite the fact that the Slovak Statistics Office recently released data showing that Slovakia's birth rate grew moderately in 2003, last year's increase was preceded by 23 years of continuous decline.
"The municipalities administer the schools. Alternatively there are private or church schools. It is not the central government but the administrators who decide how many and what kind of schools they need. Although I expect that the consolidation of the school system will continue in the next year or two, I do not anticipate as many requests for closings or mergers as this year," said Fronc.
The exact number of pupils and teachers in the new school year are not known yet, as the survey will be ready September 15.
However, Fronc expects that there will be 6,000 fewer pupils in elementary schools than last year and that the number of teachers should drop by 3 percent. Almost 57,000 children should be attending their first classes this year, the SITA news wire reported.
The government will reimburse transport fees for children who have to travel outside of their village due to a school closing. However, the children have to attend the school to which the village agreed to transfer the majority of its pupils.
According to experts it is preferred if a whole class transfers to a new environment, perhaps along with its teachers.
"The majority of children prefer to continue with the same group," psychologist Mária Šimčáková-Tóthová told the Pravda daily.
However, she criticised the fact that just several days before the start of the new school year, dozens of schools and school facilities did not know their fate and were waiting for the final word from the ministry.
"It is absolutely inappropriate for children to learn that they will be attending another school at the last moment. This uncertainty will worry parents and the pupils greatly, and it will be much more difficult for them to cope with the change," said Šimčáková.
The Ministry said that the large number of applications for changes in the school network, 1,516 in total, were behind the delay. It also blamed the large number of municipalities that applied for a closedown or a merger after the deadline of June 30.
"The municipalities were under pressure," explained Jozef Turčány, deputy chairman of the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages.
Only at the end of May did they learn whether the ministry would give them additional money for education. Until then they could not decide how many schools they would keep.
Reforms of the education system for the 2004-2005 school year could have a beneficial impact on teachers' salaries compared to last year, said Fronc. The new system of teacher remuneration that the ministry plans to introduce from January 1, 2005 should, according to the minister, especially support new young teachers.
"Above all it would mean an increase of teachers' starting salaries in comparison with their present state. This would have an effect mainly on the young generation of teachers up to 35 years old. We want to attract the young in this manner and create a new generation of teachers, which is something that is currently lacking. However the new system will benefit every teacher."
At present the salary for a teacher at the 11th pay grade is Sk11,380 (€283). After the change it should be Sk12,770 (€317), which represents a growth of 12.2 percent. More than 40,000 of the 97,000 Slovak teachers are set at that pay level reads the ministry's web page.
A teacher's experience will continue to be taken into account in salary calculations, but in a manner more advantageous for them. At present, teachers' salaries increase after two, three, or four years. According to the new rules, teachers would get an automatic raise each year. The growth would amount to a fixed percentage of their starting salary, proposed at 0.92 percent by the ministry.
The ministry also wants to reform the style of public education. "We would like to introduce less memorising and rote learning and more creativity," said Fronc.