How well is Czech education system responding to the challenge of change?

Photo: European Commission

The Czech education system has taken many strides in the last 20 years since the fall of Communism but still shows some of the scars. Recent governments and the Ministry of Education have stressed education as the best route for helping the country compete in the future. But they have been accused of paying just lip service to the required reforms.

In a study of the education systems of the world’s most developed countries released in 2006, the Czech Republic was far from the bottom of the class. Basically, the analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Czech 15-year-olds were better than average when it came to science and maths but worse than average when it came to reading.

Tomáš Bouška
Tomáš Bouška is spokesman for the education ministry:

“Czech students are, that would be the weak point, rather slow in language skills. That means they are not as good as other countries in Europe. And of course literacy, reading skills, that is our second major problem. These are two big issues we want to change and where we are hoping for a better future.

We as the Ministry of Education, we do not see today’s situation in the Czech education system as a tragic one. There are challenges and there is a lot to be improved. But if you look at the evaluation of the different scales or let’s say different evaluation tests that help to put the Czech education system in the context and compare it to other countries in Europe, we are not doing so badly.”

Those sorts of compliments and criticism come at a time when everyone agrees that the Czech education system should be transformed so that it can offer and deliver more. As well as the specific weaknesses, there is a repeatedly cited criticism that the education system across the board puts too much emphasis on rote learning rather than analysis, interpretation, and original thinking.

In recent years, the Czech Republic has stood out from other European countries with more skilled jobs being created than graduates to fill them. As a result, pay differentials for Czech graduates are amongst the highest in the developed world. But that scenario is set to change with more global competition expected for those jobs and the country looking as never before for education and skills to be the real creator of wealth.

The Ministry of Education says the country should take a leaf out of the rich and developed Nordic countries.

Photo: European Commission
“One of the models we are wishing to follow is the Scandinavian education system, not only because of the quality but also because of the size of the population. These countries, Nordic countries, are similar in size and they have similar problems as well.”

One of the main inspirations is Finland, which is regularly put at the top of European education tables. Its government made a conscious decision to invest heavily in the education and skills of its people in the mid-1990s following a deep economic recession. The Czech ministry expands its geographic trawl for models to include the Netherlands, thanks largely to its success in educating minorities.

But so far there is a shortfall in the financial means that the Czech state is making available for its education revolution. Spending on education has consistently undershot the average spent by developed countries as a proportion of national wealth. Mr. Bouška again.

“We need more money. The whole system is slightly under financed. It is of course a matter of big discussion how you define slightly. But it is under financed. We are using and implementing new tools. There are European funds to help the education system and that is at all three levels, primary, secondary and tertiary.”

Teachers this week will march on the Ministry of Education headquarters in Prague to protest a planned cut in the overall education budget next year. In fact, the ministry expects a cut of around 1.2 billion crowns in this year’s budget of around 134 billion crowns to be more than made up by European funds. For example it hopes for around 4.5 billion crowns of European funds to be injected into primary schools by 2012.

František Dobšík is head of the around 50,000-strong union of school workers which has members in all types of schools apart from universities. He says the reform goals are commendable but they are not matched by the financial commitment.

“Certainly, the reform has some foundations. As I understand it, it should motivate pupils to learn and should better exploit the human resources that we have. Unfortunately, the means offered by the state to do that have been minimal and are even being reduced. Recently, the ministry has been talking about relying on European funding from European sources. But this should be supplementary funding and the state should ensure the basic sum. As unions, we are not going to condemn this but we would like to highlight the fact that the state is not providing the basic amount.”

Mr. Dobšík points out that one of the main areas where spending has been cut is on the teaching aids which can make a difference in getting the message across in the classroom.

“Regarding the general financing of regional education from the pre-school level through to secondary schools and higher technical schools, if you look for example at the share of spending on teaching aids or training of teachers and other material, this is being reduced from year to year. We are now at about half or 60 percent of what was given in 2006. This spending has simply fallen and schools are encountering problems.”

It is also translated into a worsening of teachers pay compared with other professions and especially compared with graduates in other jobs. As recently as three years ago the union says wages were around 8.0 percent above the average. Now that differential has disappeared.

“For teaching, you require a degree. But on average teachers this year are getting 23,000 crowns a month, which is about the average wage in this country. For graduates who are working in the public sector where a degree is also required, in administration or something similar, they are regularly getting several thousand more. We are asking for this to treatment to be evened out. It is proof that we are under financed and that there is minimum interest of graduates to enter a career in teaching to replace those who are leaving or those who have retired. For this reason up to 20 percent of teachers in the regional education system are not properly qualified, they are not university graduates.”

But, as the education ministry is at pains to stress, it is not just a question of money. Some of the reforms, such as the introduction of a standard school leaving exam, or maturita, which would help universities to better evaluate would-be entrants are opposed by schools themselves which are jealous to safeguard their independence. The introduction of the standard exam was postponed again this year for the second year in a row.

A foot dragging factor is also the limited vision some parents and pupils have of education as a means to an immediate end rather a long term process aimed at creating useful and rounded individuals. The ministry’s Mr. Bouška says parents and pupils might welcome reform but the priority is still getting a place under the old rules.

“Even though parents and students wish to see the system change in this way. They still see the whole system of education as only the first or second step to manage the entrance exams whether it is to university or to a secondary school. So the whole system of education is seen as a tool for getting somewhere else. So this needs to be changed.”

Photo: European Commission
At university level there are other problems: a lower than average number of students in higher education compared with developed countries and a higher than average drop-out rate for those that get there. This was supposed to have been addressed by a far reaching reform of university education which would have introduced student loans. The reforms here have been debated for around a decade but are still pending.

All in all, shows promise but could do better seems to sum up the report card for the Czech education system so far.