Czech schools brace themselves for new schools law


On Monday, primary and secondary school children went back to their classrooms after their Christmas holidays. With a new schools law in effect, they will be facing new teaching and learning methods. In today's Talking Point, we look at the state of the education system in the Czech Republic.

In 2000, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, began assessing the quality of education systems around the world. In December, it released the results of its latest assessment, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), in which it tested 250,000 students from 41 countries. Except for in reading skills, Czech fifteen-year-olds placed above average with only their peers from Finland, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong scoring higher. Jana Paleckova coordinated the assessment in the Czech Republic:

"In mathematics, the results of our students were above the average of OECD countries. In natural science literacy, the situation was the same and in the problem-solving domain, we were also above average. Only in the domain of reading literacy, our students weren't so successful. Their results were average and the same as in 2000, when the first cycle of this research was conducted."

So what do fifteen-year-olds think of the education they're getting?

Boy: "Well, I think it's not the best it could be because we are learning things by heart...I think it's a bit would be better if we learned how to think about what we learn and not just the facts. I would also leave it up to the students to choose what they study and not the schools. When I decide to study somewhere it's good to choose what I'm going to learn but we are in grammar school and have to learn everything."

Girl: "I think we have to study subjects that we do not need in our lives."

And what about the way the subjects are taught?

Girl: "It is not boring but we have to learn too many facts."

Boy: "I'm in a school that is financially well off but I think the money is not being spent on the things I would like it to be spent on, such as computers."

...a couple of proposals there from students for changes to the education system. Most of these will soon be introduced in Czech schools, as they fall under rules and guidelines of the new school law that took effect on January 1. The aim of the law is to make teaching and learning easier by doing away with the traditional "drill" method and adopting more modern and varied teaching methods that require the active participation of students in class. While schools are obliged to teach subjects from a basic curriculum, they are at liberty to choose the remaining subjects taught. The new law also proposes schools organise more projects and enhance research.

But for his part, Jan Koucky, the director of the Centre for Education Policy at Charles University, says a new law will not suffice to help children with weaker family backgrounds do better in school:

"In the Czech Republic it is a little stronger than in other countries that the family background or social influence plays a much more important role in their results and in PISA 2003. That is the reason why we can see that not only in different regions but also different schools have very different results. This is not because schools and regions are better or worse but because there are different family structures. This is very important for us now because we are starting the evaluation process in schools in different levels of studies and it is very important to see that the results of the pupils are not results of school work only but, even much more importantly, the result of their home background."

And this is where primary school principal Jindrich Kitzberger feels the new law has failed:

"The social, economic, and cultural background of families has a very large influence here in the Czech Republic and it is the task of the school to do its best to reduce the differences and disadvantages, and here is one area where the new law could have a negative effect. It makes it possible for every school to choose its own curriculum and teaching methods. So, schools will be different from each other and it is therefore very important for teachers to help individual students, especially when they transfer from one school to the other, to create such conditions that they can handle the differences well."

Another problem that teachers have raised is a lack of finances. They say Czech students fared well in the OECD assessment because schools received numerous grants and donations from foundations after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Now that the Czech Republic has completed its transformation from a socialist system and has joined the EU, most foundations are helping schools elsewhere. Teachers therefore fear that their schools will not be able to finance all the projects and research required. And, primary school Principal Jindrich Kitzberger adds, there is one more significant problem. Czech teachers need to undergo training before the law can be adopted efficiently:

"The teachers may be willing to use different and more modern teaching methods but many of them don't know how. It depends on their education and it is a big task for the government to ensure that the teachers are educated. It is not usual for teachers here to attend several courses that would improve their teaching skills. There is no money for this and teachers aren't motivated. This is what we need to change. In order for them to get the skills, they will have to take courses."

Karel Tomek from the Education Ministry stresses there will be sufficient money this year:

"I don't think it is like this at all. It certainly helped us that we were getting money and gaining experience from abroad. The fact that some funding is now going elsewhere is normal. We got it to prepare for [entry into] the European Union and now it's time for the money to be used to help other countries. But on the other hand, we are EU members and can accept structural help. We have reserved hundreds of millions of crowns of EU money for education programmes and it is available for our teachers. There may be fewer donations from the foundations but there is significantly more money now from the structural funds of the EU and we will do our best to make best use of it in the education sector."

The OECD will hold its next assessment of world school systems in 2006. Czech schools, teachers, and education ministry representatives have pledged to meet more frequently to review the new schools law and make the changes necessary to give Czech students the chance to best their peers from Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea in the OECD assessment next year.