The Slovenia Times

New School Deal


Educational reform

It has been more than 15 years since Slovenia has made any serious systematic interventions in its educational system at the levels of primary and secondary schools, apart from some minor shifts in different more or less successful directions. However, the new reform that was introduced at the beginning of April, and already caused some consternation among experts, will be a major milestone that will with no doubt have lasting effects on the educational system as we know it.

It is expected that questions such as the abolition of free preschool for a family's second child will be at the centre of the public debate around the new reform. However, the most important question remains whether or not this reform will contribute to the excellence of the pupils' achievements, since they usually fall in the middle of the comparable countries.

The so-called Bela knjiga (White Book) of school reform was prepared by a group of 20 experts that were appointed with this task almost two years ago by Minister of Education and Sport Igor Lukšič. They finished the document in the early April.

Safely in the middle

It is often heard among Slovenian politicians that the key challenge of the country's future lies in a well-educated labour force, which can provide extra value on the global market. Nevertheless, the numbers show that Slovenia has been investing less and less in basic education every year since 2005, and has now, with a little over five percent of GDP, sunk below the OECD average of approximately six percent of GDP invested into formal education.

What is perhaps even more worrisome, according to international research, is that Slovenian pupils usually reach a little over average, compared with the knowledge of their peers in comparable countries. For instance, according to the OECD PISA research project, Slovenian pupils fall in the average range in all three major subjects: reading, natural sciences and math. The most problematic is the reading literacy, where the results are in constant decline. They have reached their lowest point in 2009, with Slovenia below both OECD and EU averages. Another problem is that Slovenian children do not attain high levels of excellence. Only 0.3% of pupils are in the top of their generation, whereas the OECD average is 1.0% and the EU average is 0.6%.

Second baby free of charge: not any more

With these numbers in mind, the reform will start at the beginning of the educational chain - preschools. Trends show, that in the previous decade there are more and more children enrolled in preschools every year, which correlates to the rising number of working mothers. Approximately, 70% of preschool age children were attending such schools in 2009. However, a closer look into the numbers show, that there are only 40% of children of aged one year attended preschool, while more than 90% of children aged six years attended preschool.

Presently, if a family has a second or more children in the preschool at the same time, they only have to pay for the first one. This was one of the measures to encourage young people to have more children, introduced by now leading opposition party SDS in the previous government. Of course, now they are the most vocal critics of the new reform that will abolish this right. Instead, the reform proposes that second and other children would have 50% discount if they attended preschool at the same time as the first child.

Marks will come sooner

Primary schools will see the most changes if the reform passes with little modification. One of the key innovations is the introduction of numerical marks in the third grade, which is a year sooner than in the present system. The experts we spoke with agree with this change, saying that the material pupils have to learn is not as difficult in the third grade as it is in the fourth. Therefore, pupils will likely be faced with better grades in the third grade, which will contribute to a less stressful passage from one marking system to another.

They are also making significant changes in the learning of foreign languages. The first foreign language will be compulsory in the second year and optional in the first. The second foreign language will not be obligatory, which is considered to be a deeply flawed proposal by many experts and teachers.

There will be more external testing of the pupil's knowledge as well. Reformers are proposing one exam at the end of first three years and then another two at the end of sixth grade and eighth grades.

Furthermore, they are proposing smaller class sizes in the last two grades for the main subjects of math, Slovenian and foreign languages. At this point, it should be mentioned that Slovenian primary schools have nine grades. Pupils are usually around 5 or 6 years old when they enter primary school and 14 to 15 when they go to secondary school.

Dividing pupils

One of the more controversial proposals of the new education reform are the divisions of students into different levels in secondary school in the key subjects that are part of the Matura, the special exam at the end of four years of high school, which also serves for entry to university. Critics observe that it is unclear who will be the sorting students into different levels and according to which criteria. Reformers respond that they are only giving their expert opinion, but that implementation is not their responsibility. They defend the proposed change with the fact that last year only 43% of all students were enrolled in gimnazija - secondary schools aimed at preparing students for university. In their opinion, we cannot expect excellent knowledge from all of them, but the best should have opportunities to develop even further.

The question is of course, how to ensure that those who need more time to grow in their knowledge skills will be able to so if they are sorted into groups for "bad students", and of course how will this affect their psychological state, which is most vulnerable in adolescence.

There are also proposals for significant changes in the vocational training secondary schools. Those schools that were offering three-year programs will now transform to a four-year curriculum. At the same time, they are cancelling the programs that were offering a "three plus two years" program. Moreover, there will be more options for those who attend such schools to get more preparation, if they decide to write a Matura exam, which will enable them to enter university.
Public debate on the reforms of education system will be over by the end of May, when it is expected that the reform will enter into governmental and later parliamentary procedure. Until then, it can undergo significant changes.


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