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Obligatory English education may end

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

A glossary of words as well as an exercise related to this article are also published online.

ENGLISH language classes may no longer be compulsory for third grade primary school pupils, who instead would choose from six foreign languages, if the Education Ministry’s new national curriculum scheme goes through.

Compulsory English was introduced by previous education minister Eugen Jurzyca, who calls the move planned by his successor Dušan Čaplovič a “step back”. According to the draft curriculum scheme by the ministry’s National Institute for Education (ŠPÚ), students will no longer be obliged to learn two foreign languages by the time they reach the fifth grade. The plan is now under inter-departmental review.

At present, all students begin learning English in the third grade and another foreign language is added in the fifth grade. Under the new plan, a second foreign language will be optional. If a pupil willing to study a second foreign language takes English as his first language, he may choose from other languages. In cases when the pupil does not, English as a second foreign language is compulsory from the fifth grade. Schools can teach English, German, French, Russian, Spanish and Italian as the first, obligatory foreign language.

The ministry reasons that Slovakia lacks good quality English language teachers and argues that some children are not able to properly learn two foreign languages simultaneously from the fifth grade. The ŠPÚ is also trying to follow European Commission and Council of Europe recommendations to offer a variety of languages to pupils, while preserving the quality of education, according to ŠPÚ director Viliam Kratochvíl.

“At the same time, we were motivated to eliminate discrimination of other globally spread languages and satisfy both parents and children who demanded some other language instead of English as the first compulsory language,” Kratochvíl told the Slovak Spectator.
Kratochvíl added that he expects just a small number of students will opt for languages other than English and that it will not be possible for every primary school to offer all six foreign languages.

Debate over proposed changes

Repealing students’ obligation to learn a second foreign language is a positive step since many teachers point to an excessive education burden on children, the head of the Slovak Chamber of Teachers (SKU), Mária Barancová, told The Slovak Spectator. However, schools should leave the possibility to teach a second foreign language to children willing to learn one. On the other hand, the SKU sees the proposed possibility to learn a different language instead of English from the third grade as inconsistent with the huge demand by parents for English language, Barancová said.

As compulsory English at primary schools was introduced in 2011, this proposal is a “step back”, Jurzyca of the opposition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) told The Slovak Spectator. He pointed out that Slovakia does not reach the average number of hours related to foreign language education in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

But there are others who support elements of the new proposal, including the increased flexibility. It would be a good step to leave the decision over which languages are taught to the schools and the parents, Michael Huprich, the head of the Österreich Institut, an Austrian-state-sponsored educational organisation, told The Slovak Spectator.

“It is not a matter of fair or unfair. It is a question of capability,” Huprich said. “If a school is capable of securing good German teaching, it should be possible to offer German, if they are better in French or English, so let them teach French or English.”

The British Council declined to comment on the proposed changes and has never said whether or not teaching English should be compulsory in Slovakia, Alena Rebrová, the head of the British Council in Slovakia, a UK-government-sponsored educational organisation, told The Slovak Spectator.

Finding quality teachers

The new curriculum will improve foreign language education, which will be provided by teachers with sufficient professional qualification, Kratochvíl said. Currently, approximately 6,300 of around 9,000 English language teachers are unqualified for this work, since they have just secondary-school leaving exam certification, known in Slovak as “maturita”, in the English language, Education Ministry spokesman Michal Kaliňák told the SITA newswire.

“Ex-minister Jurzyca introduced compulsory English but he did not provide qualified teachers to pupils,” Kaliňák said, as quoted by SITA.

The SPU runs a project providing qualification for foreign language teaching to 3,287 teachers, Kratochvíl said.

However, there is no such study in Slovakia confirming the claim that we need more qualified teachers to reach better results in English language teaching, Jurzyca opposed.

“If humankind had taught in past just [those subjects] for which it had sufficient amount of officially fully qualified teachers, now, we would not have communicated together,” Jurzyca said.

The new curriculum will not solve the problem with unqualified teachers, according to Barancová. There is a long-term problem with lack of finances for English-language teachers in the education system, particularly in elementary schools.

“Even if English language teacher starts to teach they leave the education system very soon for a better paid job,” Barancová said. “If we want to have high quality teachers of foreign languages we have to provide high quality conditions for them including financial ones.”

Barancová pointed out that many times the problem is not the quality of teachers but their qualification. Moreover, even teachers without pedagogical qualifications, but graduates of foreign language schools or possessing foreign language certificates who enjoy teaching are significant contribution to Slovak foreign language education system.

The new curriculum, by cancelling two obligatory foreign languages from fifth grade, should also help less gifted children or children who attend elementary schools for minority students using a mother tongue other than Slovak. They learn Slovak as foreign language, they have to learn English as another foreign language from third grade and then they have to learn third foreign language from the fifth grade, according to Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič, TASR newswire reported.

“Praxis has shown and more than 300 elementary schools headmasters agreed that children have problems to learn two foreign languages in the demanded quality,” Kaliňák said, as quoted by the daily Sme.

But Jurzyca insists Slovak schools focus less on foreign language education than is the case in other countries.

Slovak Education System

Pre-schools are comprised of nursery schools and kindergartens. Nursery schools provide care for children up to three years of age while kindergartens are assigned for children from three to six years of age. Their main function is to care for children and prepare them for primary school.

Primary Schools provide general, health and physical education as well as religious studies. Primary school lasts for nine years and the curriculum varies, mainly in the higher grades. Primary schools are comprised of nine grades, with compulsory education lasting 10 years. After graduating from primary schools, students must apply to secondary schools.

Secondary School education is comprised of three types of schools: gymnasiums, secondary specialised schools and secondary vocational schools. Applicants must pass selective exams for all types of secondary schools.

Secondary Grammar Schools, called gymnasiums, provide general secondary education and prepare students for studying at higher education institutions. The studying lasts four years and ends with the “maturita” examination. A new form of secondary school is the “longyear” gymnasium, with eight years of studies.

Secondary Specialised Schools prepare students mainly for occupations in the technical and economic sectors, pre-school education, medical nursery care, and fine arts and design. Students in specialised schools must pass the maturita exam in both general and specialised subjects.

Conservatories provide education in fields like music, dancing and the dramatic arts. It generally takes four years to complete one’s education at a conservatory.

Secondary Vocational Schools prepare students for various occupations and work activities, which may or may not require training and the maturita exam. The general and vocational sections involve education and training. Studying at those schools takes two to four years to complete.

Special Schools use special educational and training methods and tools to teach students with mental, sensory or physical handicaps.

Post-Secondary Education: Many secondary vocational schools offer graduates the option to continue their education for two or three more years. This form of education results in an upgrade of an already received qualification. After completion, graduates obtain a certificate which entitles them to become a certified specialist in the respective field.

Institutions of Higher Education can be divided into universities and colleges, depending on the nature of the programme and amount of work involved. Universities and colleges are divided into public, state, private and international institutions.

Source: The J. W. Fulbright Commission webpage

This article is published as part of Spectator College, a programme created by The Slovak Spectator with the support of Union poisťovňa.

Topic: Spectator College


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