THE IDEA of compulsory English in Slovakia’s schools has opened the gates for arguments, both for and against the concept from its very inception. Nevertheless, the Slovak Parliament overrode a presidential veto of the amendment to the Education Act on March 1. Starting in September this year, English will be mandatory for all incoming third-grade pupils.
Education Minister Eugen Jurzyca has said that his ministry hopes students will master at least one foreign language by the age of 15. In an interview with the weekly .týždeň he argued that “English is the language of experts and to a great extent also of diplomats,” noting that more than half of EU member states have compulsory English in their educational systems. Slovakia is the 14th to take that step.
Opponents of the new legislation do not necessarily disapprove of mandatory English classes. Apart from those who object to what they call the unreasonable preference for English over other foreign languages in the curricula, the most common concern is a lack of qualified educators to teach those classes.
“We do not have enough English teachers, either qualified or unqualified,” says Eva Tandlichová, Professor Emeritus of the Department of British and American Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and a recognized expert in the field of teacher training.
Tandlichová believes this is the critical issue, suggesting that the task of training the large number of primary school English teachers required by the new legislation is daunting and something that the ministry should have considered before taking the step.
According to a recent study by the National Institute of Education, Slovakia lacks 3,183 foreign language teachers. Some professional training programs have been launched but Tandlichová wonders if retraining physical education or history teachers, for example, or hiring those who have not yet completed training, will provide the number of teachers with the needed skills to accomplish the language goals.
“The teacher should not only be very good at English but should also understand the age level, the needs, the psychology, the developmental problems and the characteristic features of the child,” Tandlichová said in a recent interview.
Minister Jurzyca, however, does not consider the lack of qualified teachers to be a serious problem. In an interview with the Sme daily, he cited studies which found the difference in the results of students taught by qualified and unqualified teachers as “insignificant”.
Data from The National Institute of Education Report on the Qualification of Teachers and its Impact on Foreign Language Education released in 2010 support his claim.
Critics, however, argue that Jurzyca has not specified who falls within his definition of a qualified teacher. According to the same report, a “qualified language teacher” can range from anyone who holds a university degree in teaching and has passed an exam in the English language to anyone who has some “practical knowledge” of the subject, even though they have never studied English or teaching methodology as such.
The discussion about compulsory English uncovers other issues facing the Slovak educational system. Many university students studying for degrees in teaching English do not intend to teach after graduating. In one survey, carried out earlier this year by Lynda Steyne of the Department of British and American Studies at Comenius University and sent to all tertiary English teaching programs in the country, only 24.3 percent of student respondents said they strongly agree that they will end up in the classroom.
The primary deterrent cited by those respondents was money. The gross salary of a first-year primary or secondary school teacher in Slovakia is €499 a month, €250 less than the national average. The second most cited reason for not teaching in public education was the low status of teachers in society. A study by Eva Homolová, Associate Professor at the Department of British and American Studies at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, supports this opinion, suggesting that the replacement of teaching professionals by a lesser-skilled workforce in recent years has led to a certain debasement of the profession.
Oliver Mereš and the editorial staff of the student magazine Perspectives contributed to the report
1. Aug 2011 at 9:00 | By Katarína Koreňová