Education Ministry ringing the alarm as Czech students turn their backs on maths

Photo: Filip Jandourek, CRo

May 2nd is D-day for the close to 90 thousand students around the country sitting their school leaving exams. The standardized exams are not just a test of their knowledge but an indicator of how well the Education Ministry has succeeded in reforming the education sector –a task it has struggled with these past twenty years.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  CRo
It may well be that the team of experts drafting education reforms is as nervous as the students themselves as standardized school-leaving exams start around the country. Setting a new education framework for the over one thousand secondary schools in the Czech Republic has not been easy and many of the reforms have been conducted on a trial-and-error basis with school-leaving exams seen as an important litmus test.

After the fall of communism in 1989, an education sector governed by strict norms and regulations, was suddenly given the freedom of decision-making and encouraged to teach in a new way –moving away from the old principle of memorizing and reciting. However there was little time and space to re-educate teachers and many were left helpless in the face of their new-found freedom and responsibility. The freedom for schools to create their own curriculum also resulted in huge differences in the level of education provided. After several years of this the ministry decided to take more control and introduce standardized school leaving exams, while still giving schools the freedom to decide on the manner and pace of teaching various subjects.

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  CRo
The standardized national school-leaving exams in 2012 were a disaster both for students and the ministry. Around a third of almost 100,000 students sitting them flunked and a whopping 48% of those who did flunked maths. Among those who failed were star pupils who took the matter to court arguing that the exams were badly prepared and unfairly rated. In 2013 following corrective action the results were better, but the ministry has noted a disturbing new trend – due to the fact that maths was no longer compulsory – pupils were turning their backs en masse on the most hatred subject in school. Last year 44 percent of graduates chose maths over a foreign language. This year the number dropped to 34 percent.

Marcel Chládek,  photo: Filip Jandourek,  CRo
Education Minister Marcel Chládek said the matter clearly requires attention.

“Many students are showing a preference for a foreign language over maths which is indicative of a problem. We obviously need to change the way it is taught. It is also time to think about making maths compulsory again –but that is not something that will happen immediately.”

Compulsory maths in school-leaving exams is not likely to be introduced before 2020 for two very good reasons – one is that the subjects that a student selects as graduation subjects are taught more intensively throughout secondary school and secondly, to give the ministry more time in educating teachers in new, more attractive methods of teaching the subject – which many consider to be dry and boring.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Jaromír Kozel is a math teacher at a Prague secondary school. He says that this year the number of student sitting a math school-leaving exam is the lowest he can remember.

“We need to employ software programmes and other teaching aids that will help students see the subject in a different light – not dry and boring but colourful and attractive.”

The imbalance in favour of humanities is also creating a problem at university level and ultimately on the job market.