Bratislava, Slovakia – Slovakia has been one of Europe’s success stories in the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision to shut the country down within 10 days of the first confirmed case paid dividends. Two months down the line, and kindergartens and elementary schools are due to reopen at the beginning of June. Although secondary schools and universities are not due back until September, it appears that the education system, like the country, is through the worst of the crisis. education lockdown
This enables us to look back and reflect on the months of home learning and ask whether children’s education and prospects have been damaged, and what lessons have been learned from the experience of keeping school going remotely. As well as having my own experience as a teacher at a Slovak grammar school to draw on, I spoke to students, teachers and administrators at a number of schools
The end of Maturita?
The picture that emerges from the past few months is not that remote learning has brought about new issues, rather it has highlighted and brought existing problems into focus. It has also shown ways that Slovak education can move forward with a new reforming government.
The biggest educational decision the government faced, after the mass closure of schools, was to cancel the school leaving examinations (Maturita). education lockdown
What has been surprising about this decision is how little real impact it really had. Given how much of the school curriculum is taken up in preparing for Maturita, you might assume the decision would have had catastrophic consequences. But the reality is that most institutions (employers, universities at home and abroad) seem happy to use other criteria to accept graduating students. Some have their own entrance tests, some rely on the application and interview, or feel a continuous assessment mark from school is sufficient.
And it is worth noting that this is a decision that the government did not have to make. On April 15, the Public Health Authority (ÚVZ) announced that schoolchildren would be allowed to take both final exams and entrance exams at secondary schools, provided that strict hygiene guidelines were followed.
Slovak education gets creative in times of lockdown and pandemic
However, a demonstration that the Maturita is not the be all and end all chimes with the reforming programme of the new government. Branislav Grohling, Slovakia’s new minister of education, said on Facebook in March “Maybe now we’ll see all the things we have been teaching unnecessarily and we can edit the volume of education.”
He has also spoken of his wish to challenge the primacy of formal examinations in Slovak education. Speaking to Dennik N he said, “I think we’ll see that we don’t need so much testing and examinations. We’ll see that education can be interactive and students can participate in different ways.”
Many of these ways have been in evidence during the last few months at home. Remote learning is not conducive to the never-ending round of teach-test that makes up much of the curriculum. So teachers have had to be more creative in finding materials and tasks, use of technology has been a feature and the focus has been more learner-centred, more on learning than teaching. education lockdown
Research skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, time management and working independently have all come to the fore in the lockdown and have at least as much place in a child’s educational development as memorising for a formal test. Indeed both children and parents have indicated they would like more of this when schools return. In a recent Focus survey two thirds of parents said that they want educational reforms to continue.
Education lockdown exacerbates severe inequalities
However, it would be disingenuous to paint a uniformly rosy picture of teachers and students fully engaged in a range of motivating activities using the latest online applications. The truth is that teachers and students have adapted to the situation in very different ways, and quarantine teaching has highlighted severe inequalities of opportunity.
Motivated students with peace and quiet at home, access to high speed internet and with supportive parents tend to do well. But this is true also of normal schooling. During lockdown, struggling students have slipped through the cracks. It is very difficult for a teacher to spot remotely when a student is having difficulty or is just coasting along. And of course, there are the students who miss out altogether.
This is nothing new. Inclusivity has long been identified as an issue in Slovak schools. A 2019 European Commission report pointed to the stark differences in achievement between children from socially disadvantaged families and their counterparts from more stable socio-economic backgrounds.
This gap becomes a chasm with the Roma community. Roma children have low attainment rates and only a few manage to reach tertiary education. It is estimated that 62% of Roma children attend a school where all or most other children are also Roma. This effective segregation is part of an ongoing infringement procedure against Slovakia by the European Commission. education lockdown
In 2019, Slovakia received a country-specific recommendation from the Council of the EU to “improve the quality and inclusiveness of education at all levels and foster skills.” They also reported that “teachers in Slovakia rarely employ a differentiated and individualised approach that takes into account diverse educational needs.”
“I wish we had completely closed for a week”
As well as inconsistency of opportunity there has been a lack of consistency in approach and quality. As there was no online management system in place for teachers beyond the flawed EduPage, many have had to find their own way of organising students’ work. Students at the same school may find themselves having to work on EduPage, Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom, having online lessons via Zoom or Skype or a myriad of other platforms. Some teachers have opted out of this, feeling less than confident, and just sent exercises by mail.
One school manager told me, “In hindsight, I wish we had just completely closed for a week. Organised what systems to use and helped the teachers learn how to use it.”
But this would not have been enough to re-skill some of the teachers. The EU Commission report characterises initial teacher education and continuous professional development (CPD) as “weak”. Slovak teachers feel that their participation in CPD is hindered by its high cost, lack of incentives, and its low relevance. There is a relatively small wage differential between a new teacher and an experienced teacher, and between an experienced teacher and a head teacher. This is seen as a disincentive to developing professionally.
One student told me: “The ones that make a real effort to motivate you and make sure you learn when you are at school, are the same ones that do this during quarantine. There has been no real difference in consistency in that respect”. education lockdown
The teaching profession is ageing, with nearly 40% of teachers over the age of 50. There is a need for fresh blood in the system, but teachers’ pay puts many graduates off. Currently Slovak teachers are the second lowest paid in Europe. The average annual salary for an experienced teacher is less that €20,000. This is about half as much as a teacher in France or Spain would get and around a quarter of what an equivalent German teacher would be paid.
A catalyst for change
So, as Slovak schools plan towards September and a new academic year, what changes will they take from remote teaching and incorporate into the regular school programme? Some changes may be forced on them. It is extremely unlikely that vaccine for Covid-19 will be available, so strict hygiene rules and social distancing may be in place. Class sizes may need to be smaller, and schools may have to alternate which students come in and which stay at home. There will be a necessity for a blended approach between face-to-face and online teaching.
They will need the systems in place, and teachers and students will need to get up to speed. But it will be a missed opportunity if Slovakia does not go beyond enforced changes, and really get to grips with bringing in a curriculum and approach that truly develop the skills that young people need in the wider world.
This will take vision and investment. education lockdown
The overall educational spend of 3.8% of GDP is much lower than the European average. The new government, who were elected on a reforming ticket, must show they have the imagination and ambition for educational reform, but they must also find the money to back this. They have an excellent opportunity to show that the adversity of the Covid-19 crisis can act as a catalyst for great change.
Main photo credit: SITA/Martin Havran
By Brendan Oswald
Brendan Oswald is a freelance journalist based in Slovakia. He worked for the British Council for twenty years in several countries, including three years (2012-2015) as a director in Ukraine. You can read his previous articles here.