A LACK of quality labour to work in some industrial areas, an overly complicated system of financing public schools and too many young people studying humanities: these are three main problems that Slovakia’s new education minister has identified in the country’s education system. The government’s programme document and the minister's public statements provide some ideas about the direction of the new government. There have been critical comments from some education experts, as well as some praise.
The section of the programme statement called ‘Knowledge-based society, education and culture’ pledges the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico to develop a comprehensive education system for the country stretching from pre-school programmes up to life-long learning.
“[The government] will support the development of education with direct ties to business, focusing on social and technological modernisation of society,” states the programme, saying it will create conditions for better technical and scientific schools. But the specific proposals to be laid out by the Education Ministry headed by Dušan Čaplovič are not yet clear.
“At the moment we don’t know the details of the solutions either,” Michal Kaliňák, the ministry’s spokesperson, told The Slovak Spectator, explaining that more specific plans will be discussed and agreed upon by social partners – employers, trade unions and school administrators.
The Slovak Governance Institute (SGI), a non-governmental think tank, criticised what it called short-sightedness in the direction proposed in the programme statement, specifically a too-narrow specialisation of students at vocational schools, gymnasiums and universities.
“Economics, technology and employers change very fast in a knowledge economy so we need to prepare every graduate for the labour market also in terms of universal skills – the skill to learn and adjust to changes, to communicate, analyse, and work with information and data,” education experts from the SGI commented in a news release discussing the cabinet’s programme statement.
A new system of financing?
Another widely discussed issue which covers a large part of the government’s programme statement is financing of regional schools at the primary and secondary levels. The cabinet states that it want to clearly define the competencies of regional governments and the state government in the education sector and gradually introduce a model basing financing on the quality of classes rather than on the number of students enrolled. It also wants to motivate the business sector to participate in financing schools, particularly those that prepare students for future vocations.
Čaplovič provoked a strong reaction when he stated that public finances flowing to vocational schools and gymnasiums should depend on the ability of their graduates to find jobs, advancing the logic that if graduates of a certain gymnasium fail to find jobs after graduating it proves that “the gymnasium prepared its students very poorly”, as quoted by the Sme daily. A vocational school or gymnasium in Slovakia provides three to four years of education beginning at age 15.
These schools would get less government funding if some proportion of their graduates were to remain unemployed or were to find employment in a specialisation other than what they studied, the Sme daily wrote, such as when a trained hairdresser works as a sales clerk.
Sme reported that administrators of gymnasiums rejected this logic and claimed it is not their fault if graduates fail to find what the minister had called “an adequate job” after finishing school. The SGI commented that it is a useless and harmful approach to follow this logic, writing that it is more important to be able to get any kind of job right now and that will apply as well in the more distant future.
“The minister [as a historian] doesn’t have a background in the policies of education and science,” states the SGI news release.
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) MP Miroslav Beblavý told The Slovak Spectator that school financing could be tied in some way to the ability of graduates to find jobs comparable to their levels of education but said he did not agree that a graduate must find the exact job they studied for.
“If a university graduate serves coffee it is a problem; but I don’t mind at all if a sociologist works in an advertising agency,” Beblavý told The Slovak Spectator.
Little mention of Roma education
Better education for children from socially-excluded communities, primarily Roma settlements in parts of eastern Slovakia, is one of the most difficult challenges facing the education system but the government programme statement devotes little attention to the problem, according to the SGI.
“Ignoring this topic means wasting the human potential of a significant part of Slovakia’s population and it could put pressure on the social system in the future,” SGI wrote.
The only mention of education of Roma or young people from other socially-excluded communities is a pledge “to reconsider the possibility of establishing boarding schools on a voluntary basis for children from a marginalised environment”. When asked for more specific information in this area, the Education Ministry’s spokesman said the ministry was not willing to provide partial details at this point.
Spotlight on technical studies
The new minister made it very clear that vocational schools and schools specialising in technical subjects will have priority during his term because companies, including those of foreign investors in Slovakia, might soon lack qualified labour, a point made by many companies. This emphasis is reflected in the minister’s plan to re-introduce mathematics as a compulsory subject that is tested as part of the school-leaving exam at the secondary level for all students. The minister has also said he wants to limit the number of students at general gymnasiums and grammar schools, saying they too often produce graduates in humanities and social sciences who have more difficulty finding employment.
Čaplovič told the TASR newswire that he wants to permit students to enter a gymnasium only if they have an average grade of 1.5 or higher at primary school; others will have to choose from among specialised schools, adding that many countries such as Germany follow a similar approach. The minister also announced that he wants to limit the number of students entering grammar schools (which offer eight years of non-vocational education beginning at age 11) to five percent of the population in any particular year. The programme statement promises to “get realistic” in the number of students accepted at gymnasiums by using “financial tools and qualitative criteria in the admission process”.
Beblavý spoke against the idea, stating that Slovakia has one of the lowest numbers of gymnasium graduates in Europe.
“Specialised schooling needs a change since it is much more expensive than gymnasiums and yet it produces many unemployed,” the MP said. “The reform of specialised schooling should be a priority.”
Beata Briestenská, the leader of a project sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia called 2012: Year of Education, told The Slovak Spectator that applying the 1.5 grade point average and the “five percent of the population” criteria for admission to grammar schools would be improper because both are based solely on quantitative measures.
“We definitely need to reintroduce entrance exams in maths, [the Slovak] language and foreign language for high schools,” she stated.
The minister’s plan to re-introduce mathematics in the school-leaving exam is a good idea, Briestenská said, while adding “it should be graded on two levels: on a higher level for those who go on to study science and engineering and at a lower level for those who go on to study other subjects at universities”.
More information about the government’s plans for the education sector will be covered in next week’s Business Focus section on human resources.