A BUNCH of adolescent boys were sitting on Bratislava trolleybus number 202, chuckling as they checked out a female celebrity the age of their mothers on their smartphone, while several elderly people were forced to stand for want of seats. After a younger woman offered her seat to one of the old ladies she turned to the physically fit boys, asking them to do the same. At that point their schoolteacher stepped in and told her confused co-travellers that she had ordered the boys to remain seated because the kids, whom she was escorting, were easily distracted and she could hardly fit 11 boys into an ambulance if something were to happen to one of them. Her response instantly generated an impromptu debate over what some participants called the decay of education and elementary schools’ loss of power to guide and educate.
Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič would certainly agree with the bus-born school experts about one thing: the education system has its ills, which are far more serious than adolescents being instructed contrary to the standards of polite behaviour. In fact, Čaplovič has now begun administering his remedy for the school system, among other things trying to discourage weaker performers from enrolling in secondary grammar schools, known to Slovaks as gymnasiums, and instead redirecting them towards vocational education.
Gymnasiums are viewed as natural feeders into the university system, but if their pupils fail to make it into university they end up with a so-called maturita (maturity certificate) and no other qualification – and very little prospect of employment. In fact, the Education Ministry says that while revising the laws on professional education they listened to the complaints of businesses, which have been calling for well-trained people in fields where there is a shortage of such graduates. Trying to tune the education system to the needs of the labour market is the right instinct, but some of the tools Čaplovič’s department has chosen to achieve leave some doubts.
The provision which now stipulates that only pupils with a grade-point average of 2.0 can be admitted to gymnasiums, is one of these less-convincing proposals. As the critics instantly pointed out, grade 2 at a school with stricter grading criteria might easily match a grade 1 at a school with looser standards. The ministry responded that there will be a combination of criteria, which will help schools to acquire the best possible picture about every applicant.
How will schools avoid enforcing a system where some genuinely talented kids end up dropping out simply because they reject the idea of grade hunt? How will this system work in an environment where the student numbers seem to be more of a motivation than the quality of education or competitiveness of a school?
Also, Čaplovič is trying to motivate people to study a profession or even to go to vocational schools in an environment where there remains a ridiculous passion for collecting academic titles, even if they represent little in the way of academic achievement. This passion is certainly proved by recent reports about well-known people earning their doctoral degrees in fields they have never actually studied, or to which they have made no real contribution.
In Slovakia, it is not unusual for someone to use the title PhDr, which means doctor of philosophy and can be obtained in about one or two year’s time in the field of humanities after completion of a masters degree, then call themselves doctors and put their title on their doors and business cards, and enjoy saying “this is doctor so and so” when picking up the phone.
Doubtlessly, the country should have an effectively functioning system of vocational training schools, to provide a safety net for children who are not clear about their future choices and are not top academic performers, but for the sake of their future in the labour market it is desirable that they learn a profession that will earn them a living. This system works effectively in other countries.
Čaplovič, who received a lukewarm welcome upon his appointment as education minister, faces a gigantic task: reversing the decay of a system which produces graduates in fields which they commonly pick because they are perceived to be easy or because they were not good enough to study in other, more demanding fields.
For this change to work, the mentality of a huge part of society also needs to change. People must understand that the era when people could be decorated with artificial titles, wearing them just as communist functionaries wore their medals, is long gone and that this bizarre passion in fact debases the titles which are granted for real achievement.