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Slovak education: A skeleton in the closet “exposed” by pandemic

An empty classroom with a blackboard

Bratislava, Slovakia – With Slovak schools under a nationwide lockdown since March 16, the internet has become the nation’s headmaster. While keeping the wheels of teaching turning, the abrupt digitization of schooling has also blown the lid off the derelict state of Slovak education, experts say.

From blackboards to tablets

As the virus slowly tears across the country, teachers from all corners and regions are rejigging the comfort of their homes for the sake of digitally transmitted classrooms. Sofas and remote lecturing, through any device and means available, have replaced teachers’ desks beside dusty blackboards.

At the time of writing, Slovakia’s Covid-19 death toll stood at two, with 534 confirmed cases. The country was quick to draw on draconian measures in an effort to limit the spread of the disease. Authorities declared an emergency on March 12 – with only ten known cases of infection by the novel coronavirus at the time.

Most shops closed on March 15. A day later, all schools were shut. In the Bratislava region, classrooms were locked already one week before.

At first, students were expected to return to their desks by June. But new education minister Branislav Grohling, who took office on March 22, now says school gates could remain barred until as late as September this year.

“The situation is developing. It could turn out very good, or bad. We will act accordingly,” he recently said in a televised debate. The Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) politician reassured pupils and parents that nobody is going to fail class this year.

The summer holiday season will not be cut, extending the possibility of a recess all the way through early autumn, as hinted at by Grohling.

Slovakia only meets one of the six EU education targets 2020, according to the European Commission.

Busier than usual

As a result, the ingenuity of pedagogues had been called on by the state in a hassle to master the principles of home-schooling. The new government led by Prime Minister Igor Matovic from the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) movement wants to keep the education engine running.

Ardently gesturing in front of glaring screens they share with pupils connected from their living rooms, educators are bending over backwards to find new ways to adapt to the unsolicited situation, teacher Peter Pallo told the Slovak Spectator daily.

“We are even busier than usual,” Pallo said. Classes are shorter, and in families with more children than tablets, phones or computers, students need to take turns in front of the screen.

According to Education Ministry data, roughly 96.6% of pupils can access the internet at home, while close to 93.3% have a phone with internet connection.

But education officials did not issue specific guidelines on remote teaching. Instead, it said online was an option, not an obligation, leaving it up to the schools to decide how, when and what to teach.

The leniency threw a multitude of teachers – and parents – into chaos, scrambling at full tilt to come up with effective teaching methods without the guidance of authorities, analyst Zuzana Zimenova from civic initiative New Schooling said in an interview with the MY daily.

“Most teachers are active and can be inventive, but they are doing it all on their own. Generally, there are no set common priorities”, Zimenova claimed, adding that parents were not sure what – and if – to teach on top of online classes.


Exposed from under the rug

Slovak schooling, with its view of the pupil as an object rather than a subject of teaching, was caught completely off guard by the emergency situation, Gabriel Kovacs, teacher and deputy headmaster of a gymnasium in the southern town of Nove Zamky, told Kafkadesk.

Gymnasia are classical institutions specifically designed to prepare pupils for university education. Now, facing unprecedented challenges, it feels like the teachers at these well-established alma maters have been left alone, Kovacs said.

“In the long-term, you can’t just rely on the inner motivation and enthusiasm of dedicated teachers. Though we did eventually get some generic guidelines prompting us to grade verbally and avoid sanctioning for missing deadlines.”

“But we are still lacking a specific definition of common denominators – where are we headed, how much should we teach, what grades are we to give out? Yes, we want a free hand, but in pursuit of a shared goal,” he added.

For analyst Zimenova, the incremental shots in the arm of Slovak education are too little, and too late. “The impact of the pandemic exposed the formalism and rigidity in our schooling system,” she said.

“This chaos could have been averted had previous governments not swept systemic problems that were long recognised under the rug and not lost money in dubious investments that only pretended to be solutions.”

“Millions of euros were invested in computerisation that was supposed to ease teaching, but when schools closed, it became evident that the education sector did not have functioning platforms to communicate with teachers, pupils and parents, and now it has to hastily devise new ones. We don’t have an electronic database of assignments, and no teaching books and materials are available,” Zimenova added.

A few days after Zimenova’s comments, the Ministry of Education brandished 558 digital schoolbooks from 14 publishers that both parents and teachers could freely download.

“We made a deal with publishers to free up licences and make teaching books available to students, parents and teachers in order to facilitate online learning in this emergency situation (and future ones),” a post from minister Grohling’s Facebook profile read on 8 April.

According to the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, Slovakia remains below the OECD average in all three categories (math, science and reading).

Sticking to traditions

Some schools continue to rely on paperback assignments that are posted to pupils’ mailboxes. Public broadcaster RTVS runs a daily teaching programme while several NGOs lent a helping hand to the Ministry of Education with launching a website with tips and tools for remote teaching. Government books include plans to introduce “YouTube classes”.

And yet, as a poll by education NGO Zivica reveals, almost 22% of the more than 2,800 teachers surveyed had no previous experience with online teaching or digital technologies in tutoring.

“Teachers must revamp their methods. They are all doing it based on their own best judgement. Some try to involve parents more, others require the immediate completion of assignments. I test my students via video chat. It takes longer, but I think it’s the best simulation of real life,” deputy headmaster Kovacs said.

Despite the hardships, many educators see the unique challenge as an opportunity to learn and spark reform, the Slovak Spectator reports.

But gymnasium teacher Kovacs is not convinced. “I don’t think this situation will be a trigger of radical shifts in our education. Some younger teachers see this as a new opportunity to prepare their materials differently, to explore new options. But what about older teachers? How is their generation going to cope with the technical challenges ahead?”

In 2017, close to a third of elementary school teachers and nearly 40% of their fellow educators at high schools were over 50, according to a European Commission report. In Kovacs’ gymnasium, the average teacher’s age is around 56.


Overworked and unappreciated

Young people are not motivated to take up teaching careers, their more seasoned colleagues say, because they fear being overworked and underpaid.

Last year, the starting monthly salary for Slovak teachers increased by €75 to almost €882. And despite a further 10% wage rise in early 2020, average salaries remain far off the wages of similarly educated employees in other areas, who on average make 32% more than teachers, according to the Ministry of Finance.

The European Commission says only 4.5% of all Slovak teachers feel appreciated by society – the least in the whole of EU.

“That’s the way the system is set up,” teacher Kovacs said with a sigh.

The European Union has repeatedly admonished Slovakia’s disreputable track record of neglecting public expenditure in education. In proportion to its GDP, the country streams only 3.8% of its public investments into teaching, a figure well below the 4.6% EU average, according to the European Commission’s estimates from last year.

Education takes up less than a tenth of the state budget, while in most EU countries over 10% of the public coffer is reserved for schooling. On average, the Slovak state spends €2,000 less on a student than the EU standard, the same report said.

Slovakia spends less than 4% of its gross national product on education, compared to nearly 5% on average in EU member states.

Looming catastrophe

And yet, analysts within the teaching sector seem to be sounding the same note – that a reckless injection of money into the veins of schooling will not be its saving grace.

Instead of flat-rate salary increases and superficial, cosmetic tweaks, Slovak education needs to enter a systemic and permanent process of complex change to its education starting from pre-schooling and kindergartens, and extending all the way to academic science , Renata Hall, head of education-reform initiative It Gives Reason, wrote in a recently published policy paper.

Employers have long complained about the inefficient churn-out of Slovak graduates clutching diplomas unfit for the labour market. Businesses continue to lament the premium number of high schools – roughly 800, and only filled to 40% capacity, according to most estimates. A swathe of these institutions are humanities or science-oriented, pushing training in technical skills to the brink.

Western countries with a comparable population run a hundred to 300 high schools, employers say.

At the same time, industry representatives speak of a “catastrophic situation”, when the country, crippled by a lack of skilled workforce, is losing its competitive prowess.

“We can’t have 90 archaeologists studying in our country. What are we – Egypt or Mesopotamia?” Alexej Beljajev from the Association of Industrial Union rhetorically asked at a discussion on education policy in January this year.

Freshly sworn in education minister Grohling appears to have put efficiency in his reformist crosshair. He wants to start by cleaning up his own backyard, he told the Dennik N daily.

Pointing his finger at 17 subordinate organisations aiding the work of his ministry, he said the assisting entourage was too passive, and too large. “I have thought for long that there were too many of these organisations and that their results and support of students were poor.”

“I’d be glad to have fewer organisations, without the need to say the exact number,” he added.

Written by Edward Szekeres

Edward is a freelance reporter from Slovakia with Hungarian heritage. He is currently based in Belgium and the Netherlands where he is completing his international journalism studies. He is a regular contributor to several platforms delivering news and analyses in English from V4 countries and a thick-skinned fan of sport clubs that only keep on losing. You can check all his articles right here!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

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