The challenge of the national education reform: improvement or deterioration?

The Slovak education system has been tormented for the past few years. A decisive political break was announced by the new government, notably including limited admissions to lycées, grammar schools.

A new strategy for the renaissance of the National Education

02/12/2013 - 12:03
There is no doubt in the deplorable state of education. The new government should undertake courageous steps to try and cure it, starting with limited admission to grammar schools. Though controversial, this policy is necessary to upgrade the education, and break from the vicious circle.

After the social-democrat party’s (SMER-SD of Robert Fico) rise to power, this reform should meet the expectations of a leading and major reform. The domain of the National Education, a subject usually neglected, now resurrected to the surface. The paradox lies in the fact that to finally revive the education, the left wing employs the right wings’ methods to do so, in limiting the admission numbers. The chosen path is difficult, but necessary.

An untenable situation

Right now, the Slovak national education is in a desolate state, as it hadn’t been treated the past twenty years. Regarding the international classifications, Slovak higher education does not dream (it is absent from the Shanghai ranking, while the latter includes a Czech institution and two from Poland and Hungary). What are the obstacles hindering the future of education in Slovakia? The first problem seems to be the widespread under-funding of education (3.69% of GDP in comparison to the 4.98% as the EU average), and in the long run, the inefficient allocation of resources.

The question raised is the question of the quality and coherence of the school curricula. Starting from elementary school, which is attended until 14-15 years of age, the pupils take the national exam, the Monitor, which allows them to proceed to secondary education (high school). It is only the results of this single examination that are taken in mind, carefully prepared in class where the students’ abilities are evaluated. This now leaves vocational schools and apprenticeships empty with their truthful students going to grammar schools, even though lacking the necessary capacity.

High schools welcome these masses of students with kindness, even though their vocation should normally be completely different. Also, teachers are obliged to adapt their requirements to the ever-lower capabilities of the new students, which decline from year to year. As public schools are still funded by the criterion of number of students enrolled, their interest is to keep quiet and welcome masses. But what is the problem if more students want to access better, higher education? The sticking point is the obsession with higher education, and the same pattern is repeated on university level. Plus, with the proliferation of universities and the strikingly low level of faculty research, almost everyone can get their diploma. This explains the devaluation of higher education, particularly in the field of humanities, thus the growing number of youth unemployment. On the other hand, the natural sciences and technology, deemed too demanding, suffer from insufficiency of students.

Difficult steps, but justified

With the coming to power of the new socialist government, the government of the majority party SMER-SD, once more, remedies are proposed. It is in this context that Dušan Čaplovič, the newly-elected Minister of Education, Sciences, Research and Sport, comes with a radical proposal: limit access to schools with an average of less than or equal to 2.00 (rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being excellent and 5 insufficient). Those with a lower average (2.75), should follow a vocational baccalaureate or, where appropriate, apprenticeship. Meanwhile, the high school entrance examination will now become mandatory, unless the applicants have obtained at least 90% in their Monitor exams. Adieu to the lowered criteria determined individually by each school! Taking into account both the average and the obligatory Monitor entrance exams, they guarantee maximum objectivity during the high school admission process.

This measure is a more equitable distribution of students, as well as the revival of interest of training in vocational schools and apprenticeships. Ironically, these are often schools scorned, even though they offer the best opportunities on the labor market compared both to high school and university graduates. Thus Čaplovič is trying to deal with youth unemployment at the end of their training. The latter is often overlooked in the Slovak market demand, including the foreign investors in automotive industry. Financial support of these schools with classes geared towards the natural sciences, or the proposed restrained seats for law and medical schools also fits in this logic.

A necessary effort to break the vicious circle

Overall, these measures are quite rational and justified, applied to the general interest. Nevertheless, parents expose this elitism, the elitism of the Socialist Party. Obviously, it is always better for the child to follow his training in high school, and then choose one of the hundreds of universities available. The aftermath includes ideally opting for the right or the economy, or both, to obtain one or more worthless degrees and in the end, directly join the queue in at the Unemployment Office with no prospect of escape, no useful or useable qualification or specialized practice. Currently, this is the fate of a third of Slovak graduates.

It is because of this paradox that the socialist government is obliged to defend principles attributed to the liberal view of education, as expressed by Thatcher. ‘Education is the question of future and perspectives, it is précised to be unequal’, she said. Not the question of unemployment. The fact that the Socialist Party is willing to take this step serves to underline the urgency of the situation, and to the misunderstanding of this principle by the parents and their children. If everyone became a lawyer, who else would provide other, essential services to society? In addition, the perception of wealth is completely relative; if all earned more, nobody would be more pleased. Fortunately, a measure of courageous actions is taken after infinite years of laxity.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

A new reform passionately discussed, but mostly ineffective

02/12/2013 - 12:03
Education is one of the most reformed domains in Slovakia. Unfortunately, the majority of the reforms serves to nothing, or merely leads to deterioration of precedent reforms or to the creation of complete chaos - hence also the origins of distrust of the new education reform prepared by the new minister.

The Slovak education system is anything but admirable – as it has always been. A change is more than necessary. However, although they do say anything is possible in Slovakia, in this case, we should prepare not to expect miracles.

A “stable” situation

The problem with the Slovak education system is present in many aspects. The most obvious and the most important is that of funding. Lack of money translates into schools with crumbling building, a common sight throughout Slovakia. This, however, excludes those few who had the chance to get grants from the European Union, usually ending up in equipment technically and digitally insufficient, and with the salaries extremely low for people who teach future generations. How otherwise then have quality teachers; happy, satisfied and well-educated students?

Saving in Slovakia means cutting down in the Education (and Health) sector, as if it were something secondary. This is not an exception in times of crisis. Teachers, however, do not give up just yet and let themselves be heard by organizing strikes. As the Slovak Education seems to be under constant reformation, it has to be linked with problems and student dissatisfaction. For the last decade the students have barely received any new textbooks or other equipment – promised by law.

And a (yet another) new reform..

With the formation of the new government (the government of the political party SMER-SD, left wing, and Prime Minister Róbert Fico), it was Dušan Čaplovič who got the portfolio and privilege of Education. His beginnings at the Ministry of Education launched reforms, radical enough to still be debated and disputed over.

The project was meant only to establish stricter rules for elementary school students with an average of less or equal to 1.5 (in a grading system where 1 means excellent and 5 insufficient), meaning only those pupils could continue their studies in higher grammar schools. After much criticism, however, he had to lower the threshold to an average of 2 or less. His main argument is that in Slovakia, the system is set so that the number of graduates in humanities (including law) is much higher than that of the student who completed an apprenticeship. Reversely, there is much more demand for them on the Slovak labor market, facing the evolution of today’s industry.

The minister also plans to reform higher education by ceasing to support the creation of new, private universities. In addition, it would extend part-time studying.

These ideas, deemed radical, may sound interesting but in fact, may not be so effective at all.

Limits (and more) of the reform

It is more than clear the National Education is in crucial need of reforms, but of structural reforms. Although it is true the current situation is particularly serious, it is also difficult to change.

The idea of a student selection who is allowed to enter high schools makes sense, but it comes too late. Indeed, it must be kept in mind that even in elementary schools; one cannot speak of an equivalent to another, a task rated 1/excellent in one school may be rated 2/very good in another school across the country. Moreover, even the elementary school level is not quite the same everywhere. With this comes the first restriction.

On the other hand, how do you set the most important subjects four years ahead? In these cases it is extremely difficult to choose them, as well as favorising certain types of formation is not considered legitimate.

Regarding the apprenticeship issue, another problem arises due to lack of resources. As a result of this, the schools deliver poor quality of teaching; besides the fact these sectors remain with a negative air around them (some consider these schools as a shame). The situation is no better in the case of universities: the offered courses are not what they could be, and many students fall into extreme movements anyway. The ultimate result is unemployment with a university diploma in hand.

The government should not be discouraged from making reforms. A structural reform is necessary, if not vital. And despite all the difficulties, it is not impossible.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

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