State should listen to pupils and their parents

Education system cannot be imported from abroad; Slovakia needs to find its own way

(Source: Peter Ertl)

Without higher salaries for teachers, no other measures can help the Slovak education system, says Vladimír Burjan, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the magazine for teachers Dobrá škola (Good School) and one of Slovakia’s most cited experts on education. In an e-mail interview with The Slovak Spectator, Burjan talks about the quality of schools in Slovakia, but also explains why most teachers at Slovak schools are women and why the celebrated Finnish school system cannot simply be imported to Slovakia.

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The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia is preparing for elections. Soon there will most likely be a new education minister. If it was you, what is the first thing you would do?

Vladimír Burjan (VB): I wouldn’t accept such a post, but let’s think hypothetically. As for the inside of the department, I would start by putting in order the management of education. Nowadays it’s just one non-transparent, clumsy, and almost uncontrollable bureaucratic colossus that many people interfere with but none of them have sufficient executive powers, not even the minister. One of the first things would thus be some sort of internal audit of competencies, information flows, and control structures within the ministry, and between the ministry and the organisations that it directly controls. I would also start working as soon as possible on changing the spirit and the culture of the department. We need to put an end to micromanagement, dirigisme, mistrust in teachers and headmasters, etc. On the outside, I would start intensively communicating my vision of a modern education system and win allies for it. And I would find some good experts on management of change.

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TSS: Slovak teachers are on strike. The public’s simplified understanding is that they want higher salaries. Would the government solve the problems of Slovak education systems by simply pouring a large amount of money in it?

VB: It’s not only about the salaries of teachers, although those are most discussed right now. Our education system has been underfinanced for many years. Every year we invest hundreds of millions of euros less into the system than our possibilities and mainly our needs are. And the EU funds changed nothing about it too, because most of them have been wasted on overpriced, formal and little effective projects whose real aim was probably different than helping education. It is necessary that salaries are significantly raised, although that alone will not bring an immediate effect on increasing the quality of education. Other steps will have to follow. But without higher expenditure on education and higher salaries no other measures can help us.

TSS: Slovaks like to say that there used to be a good schooling system in Slovakia. Is that true?

VB: I don’t know what the grounds for such a claim are, since before 1989 we never participated in any international comparative study and we had very little non-deformed information about how the schooling in western Europe looked like. The socialist education was full of collective hypocrisy and ideologically motivated absurdities. We were cut off from modern pedagogical and psychological trends; we uncritically implemented Soviet methods, some of which were twisted. Traditional, frontal teaching and memorising prevailed. The truth is, however, that some things worked much better before 1989 than they do today. I myself taught back then at a grammar school in classes for mathematically gifted students and it is a fact that nowadays we can only dream about a system of care for talented pupils like the one we had back then. As a whole, the education system wasn’t any better, however. Also, even if we admitted that it was better, it would be of no help, because we cannot go back. We live in a different world now.

TSS: Finland is often mentioned as a positive example of how schools should function. Would Slovakia solve its problems simply by importing the Finnish system into our conditions?

VB: Nuclear power plants can be imported, education systems definitely cannot. We would also need Finnish teachers, parents, and politicians as part of the imported package. It’s definitely useful to study and compare schooling systems abroad. But we need to find an optimal way to set up education in Slovak circumstances, with our financial possibilities, cultural habits, character traits, values and historical experiences. And besides, the Finnish fairy tale seems to be over. Their most important company failed in global competition, their economy is currently the worst in the EU, and their pupils have been pushed down from the top ranks in PISA by the Asian dragons.

TSS: Slovak schools are often called over-feminised. Is the balance between men and women really so poor?

VB: In primary schools, women make up 86 percent of the faculty and men 14 percent, at grammar schools there are slightly more men. The fact is that everywhere in the world women are more inclined to choose working with children, mainly in the early grades of primary school. In our circumstances, however, two more significant reasons should be added. Men are still perceived as the breadwinners in families and therefore they need to look for better paid jobs.

Another reason is the culture and climate that prevails in our schools. Most men want to have more autonomy and space for self-realisation. At school they feel too limited, burdened by bureaucracy and various fiddle-faddles and that is why they often opt to leave.

TSS: Some parents nowadays look for a good school for their children even dozens of kilometres from home in order to secure quality education. Is this a problem or rather a standard in other countries too?

VB: This depends on the age of the child. For the first four grades of primary school, the school should ideally be close to the child’s home. Not just to make sure parents don’t need to drive their kids to and fro, but also to make sure classmates live close to each other and are able to meet also outside school. Also, at that point of education one single person decides about the quality of education – the teacher that the children spend most of their time with. So for a first-grader parents should pick a good teacher rather than a good school. The older and more independent a child is, the wider space opens for the selection of a school. Parents should pay more attention to this issue, to know the various possibilities the system provides, to have clear personal preferences and be able to choose a school for their child that best fulfils their idea of a sensible preparation for life. Unfortunately, our education system is still too uniform and doesn’t offer a wide enough selection to parents. They are ever more dissatisfied, but the management of the department somehow refuses to see that.

TSS: If we look at pupils as clients of the schooling system, how do the schools manage to fulfil their needs and requirements? Does the Slovak education system even reflect the needs of pupils and their parents?

VB: Good schools do take that into consideration, many others however don’t. The state doesn’t see parents and pupils as clients of education services. It doesn’t show interest in their preferences, doesn’t request their feedback, and doesn’t react to their calls for a more varied offer and the right of free choice of the education path for their children. Children are only numbers, items, carriers of the normative for the state, and for some schools just passive bystanders, objects rather than subjects. Parents are often perceived as biased and permanently dissatisfied amateurs who only make teachers’ lives more complicated. Even some experts on education sometimes say things like “where would we end up if pupils and parents were to say what they should learn”. Personally I’m convinced that in many respects we would make it further than where we stand now. Unfortunately, the state does not think that too, and that is why it does not allow such experiments (not even on a small scale).

TSS: One specific problem that doesn’t concern only education is the integration of Roma from excluded communities. How should education respond to this problem?

VB: Education alone cannot solve this problem. I think the state approaches the problem wrongly at all fronts, not just in education. I’m afraid our education system is completely inappropriate for Roma children; inappropriate in principle, not when it comes to details. As long as we keep trying to force Roma children into the same pattern as the others, we cannot succeed. They would need to learn different things, in a different time, different place, and different way. The problem is that if it is put like this, some see it as an attempt for segregation or making differences between the majority and some ethnic group. We’ve got historical experience that differentiating can lead to evil. Probably as a society we still need to learn that accepting certain differences might also be for the benefit of those concerned, that it might be an expression of respect towards their otherness, that it might open the way for them to achieve the same as the others, just with different methods. The aim should be the same result, not the same way.

TSS: Slovakia is still facing brain drain, some of the best people remain abroad. How is this connected with the quality of education in our country?

VB: The fact that our secondary-school graduates leave en masse to study in the Czech Republic and other countries is definitely connected with the low quality and bad reputation of our universities. Primary and secondary schools have little to do with that. But the fact that many clever people go abroad and stay there after finishing their studies is a wider problem, not connected only with education. They feel they would have low pay here, be limited and burdened with nonsense bureaucracy. Many argue with the low quality of life in our cities, poor health care, the overall lack of culture in our society, or the unacceptable public administration.

TSS: How do Slovak schools use modern technologies? Is education able to keep up with the development in IT, and the way it changes the world?

VB: It’s not that bad with the equipment of our schools regarding technology. Our governments have in the long run preferred investment into technology to investment into people, which, by the way, is a serious mistake. Technology is neither a remedy for all the problems of education, nor a guarantee of higher quality. American psychologist Alan Lesgold wisely calls the computer an amplifier that encourages both the best teaching practices as well as the worst ones. And that’s exactly it. A boring text full of useless facts will remain such even if pupils read it on a tablet. Many teachers (mainly in social sciences) themselves haven’t yet discovered the potential of technology. Only a few years ago you could hear teachers say “We do not need computers in history [classes], we don’t compute anything”. To some extent it is also because many teachers don’t have money to buy their own laptop or tablet, so they do not use it outside school either. 


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