Education - a subject to discuss

THE GRAVE problems currently faced by Slovakia’s education system have recently been described in more than one report, and the number of such reports is set to grow in the next few months. Any big change, however, will require turning the thin stream of money flowing into schools into a river, say teachers and experts. The government is keeping its coffers closed tight, saying that changes first need to be discussed and agreed upon in a wide consensus across society.

THE GRAVE problems currently faced by Slovakia’s education system have recently been described in more than one report, and the number of such reports is set to grow in the next few months. Any big change, however, will require turning the thin stream of money flowing into schools into a river, say teachers and experts. The government is keeping its coffers closed tight, saying that changes first need to be discussed and agreed upon in a wide consensus across society.

On April 29 the Education Ministry initiated that discussion by holding a round table under the auspices of the Slovak government for about 50 people, including experts, teachers, representatives of local governments and the central government. Meanwhile, the opposition organised a separate discussion in parliament with experts, teachers and the general public.

When Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič submitted a report on the state of education in Slovakia to the cabinet of Prime Minister Robert Fico on April 10, rather than approve it, the cabinet merely acknowledged the report, and by doing so prompted a wave of criticism towards the minister.

The opposition then criticised the minister, given that his report, which called for far-reaching changes, appeared to lack the political support of his party and fellow cabinet members. The minister defended himself, saying that the report was first meant to be submitted for public discussion and thus needed only to be acknowledged by the cabinet.

Prime Minister Robert Fico later expressed “the cabinet’s and his personal” full support for Čaplovič and his plans in a debate on Slovak Radio on April 27.

“For the first time there is an education minister who is not afraid to lay his head on the block, who for the first time named the things as they have never been named in education, and who is for the first time ready to lead a very wide dialogue with the people involved,” Fico said.

Report goes to parliament

The parliamentary committee for education is scheduled to discuss the report on May 7. On the same day, the teachers’ unions, together with another teachers’ organisation, will organise a protest in front of the parliament building.

The unions’ main request is for the report to contain some actual figures for annual funding of education, the SITA newswire reported. While the unions agree with most of the minister’s proposed changes in the report (22 changes for regional schools and 22 changes for universities), they claim that if the plans are not covered financially, it is doubtful that they will be fulfilled.

The final version of the report approved by the cabinet mentions the goal of increasing public funding for education to 6 percent of GDP by 2020 (as recommended by the OECD), but the working version, which was leaked to the media and published first by the Hospodárske Noviny daily on April 4, was more specific. In it, the ministry proposed an annual increase of €200 million for education altogether.

The ministry’s spokesperson announced to the Slovak media on April 29 the creation of a special e-mail address through which the public could submit comments to the ministry about the report. Some teachers, however, said they were unaware of this.

“Unfortunately only now I learn that there is such a possibility,” Branislav Kočan, one of the teachers who organised the relay strike in December 2012, told the Slovak Radio on April 30.

At the same time, however, he admitted that the problem on the part of the teachers is that they are not united, and they do not have a chamber or a unified organisation where they can reach an agreement and present a unanimous statement.

Some teachers criticised the teachers’ unions when the official strike in late 2012 ended in a stalemate and was suspended indefinitely. The New School Union, another organisation representing the teachers, established in June 2012, also criticised the move. Others, including Kočan, went their own way and organised further protests independently.

Alternative plans

The opposition continues to shower Čaplovič with criticism, calling him incompetent, and describing his management of the department as a failure mired in scandals. Despite this, they say that at this point it is premature to attempt to recall him from his post, despite having already hinted at doing so.

“Perhaps in a few months the situation will change, we will have more information, we will know how long this discussion will be open and what it, and other people, will bring,“ MP Arpád Érsek from the Most-Híd caucus said as quoted by SITA.

Instead opposition MPs have pledged to prepare an alternative plan for reforming the Slovak education system over the summer to compete with the official report.

The opposition parties gathered within the People’ s Platform announced on April 29 that they will submit their proposals for expert evaluation and subsequently to parliament.

“After having heard the opinions of teachers’ organisations and independent experts we can state that the report of Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič contains a lot of valuable information, but few real solutions,” SDKÚ MP Miroslav Beblavý said after the opposition’ s meeting over the issues surrounding education on April 29, as quoted by SITA.

The opposition promises “a very concrete concept” that should contain specific measures, Beblavý said, adding that Čaplovič keeps refusing to talk to the opposition about this issue, SITA wrote.

There is already one alternative report on the state of education, however. It was written by a group of teachers who are upset with the way the education department is managed and the way the system currently functions. For the nine-page report they accumulated facts and figures from various sources, including international organisations such as the UN and the OECD, starting with the results of a survey that revealed that almost 40 percent of pupils are not happy about going to school.

“The text doesn’t contain proposals for systemic steps for a change of the situation in education,” the report reads. “That way we want to point out the fact that the education minister didn’t invite one single teacher into the Council for Systemic Changes in Education.”

The teachers are calling for a systematic and immediate increase in funding for schools as the necessary condition for making any systemic changes.

Constitutionality of Čaplovič’s measure questioned

In another recent development in the education sector, 31 opposition MPs filed a motion to the Constitutional Court against a measure introduced by the Education Ministry's amendment to the law on professional education, passed by parliament in 2012 and scheduled to become effective as of September 2014.

The opposition believes that the new rules for admission to secondary schools introduced by the amendment might be unconstitutional, particularly the requirement that pupils must earn an average grade of 2 or better for the last three semesters of primary school in order to be eligible to enrol at gymnasiums. Students planning to enrol in professional secondary schools with final state exams will need to earn an average of at least 2.75, on a Slovak scale where 1 is excellent and 5 is a failing grade.

“This law made Slovakia the world's only country where the average grade on the one and only semester certificate might mean a lifelong ban from being admitted to a secondary education with a final state exam, and thus also a ban from university education or a job in the state service,” Beblavý wrote in his statement on behalf of the 31 MPs. He also remarked that the Monitor 9 comparison testing of primary school graduates has shown grades from different primary schools to be incomparable with each other.

The opposition MPs thus believe the law violates both the right to education and the ban on discrimination as guaranteed by the Slovak Constitution and international documents ratified by Slovakia.

The Education Ministry admitted the MPs have a legitimate right to file motions at the Constitutional Court.

“Based on this [motion], however, Minister Dušan Čaplovič can see how little a certain group of MPs care about the quality of education,! Education Ministry spokesperson Michal Kaliňák said as quoted by SITA.

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