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EDITORIAL

Pay attention at the back!

CAN YOU name the capital cities of the countries neighbouring Burkina Faso, then list the members of the first and second Roman triumvirates, followed by the date of Gaius Julius Caesar's death? Why not recite a couple of lines from Virgil's Epitomae or, at the very least, Shakespeare's 23rd sonnet? Now write down the chemical formula of caffeine, then explain the difference between an elliptical curve and an ellipse. Students will no longer have reason to dread such questions in school exams, just as teachers might no longer be required to impart any of this knowledge, if the most recent school reform comes to fruition. Education Minister Ján Mikolaj has heralded his new law as a way to bring the school's curriculum closer to real life.

CAN YOU name the capital cities of the countries neighbouring Burkina Faso, then list the members of the first and second Roman triumvirates, followed by the date of Gaius Julius Caesar's death? Why not recite a couple of lines from Virgil's Epitomae or, at the very least, Shakespeare's 23rd sonnet? Now write down the chemical formula of caffeine, then explain the difference between an elliptical curve and an ellipse. Students will no longer have reason to dread such questions in school exams, just as teachers might no longer be required to impart any of this knowledge, if the most recent school reform comes to fruition. Education Minister Ján Mikolaj has heralded his new law as a way to bring the school's curriculum closer to real life.

Yet there is much scepticism about whether Mikolaj, his team, or his new law are up to the herculean task of modifying the education system so that students leave school able to apply the skills they have acquired there, or that schools actually teach skills which are worth acquiring in the first place.

A lot of Slovaks labour under the misapprehension that the country's post-communist education system is working fine and has the potential to maintain Slovakia's status as a well-educated nation. But a 2007 survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measured the skills of 15-year-olds, clearly showed that the Slovak education system is in urgent need of reform. Slovak students consistently ranked below the average of their peers from OECD countries when it came to their ability to apply the knowledge they had learnt at school.
The survey tested more than 400,000 students in 57 countries that account for almost 90 percent of the world economy. Slovakia placed 34th in science, 35th in reading and 30th in maths. It scored below the OECD average in all three tested areas: mathematical aptitude, reading performance and students' attitude towards science, according to the survey.

Various - and frequently contradictory - political statements about making the school curriculum more patriotic, attempts to make religion obligatory in schools, confusing declarations about tuition fees, and a habit of blaming previous ministers for the state of education in Slovakia have made the education community understandably cautious.

None of the post-communist education reformers has had much success in closing the gap between the school curriculum and the rapidly changing needs of life in general, or the labour market in particular.

When it came to dishing out ministries after the 2006 election, education went to the Slovak National Party. Since its leader, Ján Slota, is well-known for his critical attitude towards Hungarians and other national minorities, some feared that the SNS agenda would affect the direction of reform.

Only recently, Slota made a disparaging statement about a history textbook intended for use by Hungarian-speaking children in Slovakia, and suggested that they are simply learning from the wrong textbook.

"Hungarian flags on the front, and here is some Hungarian clown on a horse in Budapest," was how Slota described the cover of the textbook, featuring a picture of St Stephen, on May 9.

Apart from the inappropriateness of the comments and the further damage they did to Slovak-Hungarian relations, the incident served to raise suspicions about the ministry's plan to ban the use of any textbook which it has not approved.

Educators have already warned that the reform is just a nice cover to hide the lack of substantial changes. They point to slogans like "school education programmes," bandied about by the ministry without any real explanation of what these might look like or what they will contain.

Ctibor Košťál, an analyst with the Slovak Governance Institute told the Sme daily that the proposed changes simply show that the education minister does not know what to do.

"It is obvious that he lacks a concept and is making superficial changes," Košťál said.

Understandably, healthcare and education have been the two departments most vulnerable to change but at the same time most resistant to reform, and ministers have exercised the most caution in handling them. But just applying a little make-up to the sector in order to update its appearance will hardly change the way pupils are taught and might in fact do more harm than good.

These reforms are occurring at a time when the social status of teachers has declined considerably worldwide, and the changing social fabric of the post-communist countries has in many cases turned the teacher-student relationship into something that more akin to the arrangement between employee and employer.

Also, international organisations have been warning about the trend for hiring unqualified teachers, blaming the low salaries on offer as part of the problem. Given the sector's state of flux, reform will decide much more than just how many hours of maths each child recieves.

The problem is certainly more pressing than most of us realises. Slovakia is caught in the paradoxical situation of having an unemployment rate among the highest in the European Union, but at the same time suffering from a lack of qualified labour. Cosmetic changes are unlikely to help.

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