Giving each child the precious gift of education
by Debbie Stowe, UNICEF Consultant
“Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” - John DeweyIt is difficult to overstate the profound importance that education plays in a person’s life. Aside from the simple aim of working hard at school to get a good job later, learning allows a child to engage with and explore the wider world, to understand and empathise with other people and peoples, to think critically and challenge, to wonder how and ask why. As American educator George Washington Carver put it, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
The indisputable value of this process to every child makes it even more incomprehensible that in a European Union member state in 2010, many children are still not taking advantage of the education to which they are entitled – and indeed required by law – to avail themselves. Poverty, family dysfunction, community traditions – all play a role in denying children their education and therefore their empowerment in shaping their future.
The state of the Romanian education system today may come as a surprise to many. Soviet Communism was known for its universal access to and championing of education. But that was not the full story. While Communist countries needed engineers, scientists and skilled workers, they did not want critical thinkers, people who would question the status quo. So schooling consisted of the transmission of information, recalling the ethos of Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, who considered his pupils pitchers to be filled with facts.
As the latest Program for International Student Assessment – a ranking system comparing 15-year-olds around the world by educational achievement – on the Commonwealth of Independent States/Central and Eastern Europe (CEE/CIS) reports, “Most countries in the region have the same legacy from Soviet times: school curriculum and teacher training mandated by the government that promoted knowledge acquisition and neglected knowledge application.” While this knowledge transfer may help scholars and scientists, areas where CEE/CIS students do well internationally, it does not equip young people with life skills.
Though change does not happen overnight, it was hoped that – once the economic and social chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had subsided – the education system would begin slowly to get better. But the reverse was largely true. “Not all countries were able to improve, primarily because of insufficient resources and other priorities. In some countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation and Kyrgyz Republic, student achievement actually became worse than during Soviet times,” said the PISA report.
Even in recent years, standards have continued to fall, with reading skills among Romanian children declining between 2000 and 2006. Of the CEE/CIS countries covered in the report, only Montenegro, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyz Republic did worse than Romania in reading and science and Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kyrgyz Republic in mathematics. Aside from Bulgaria, none of these countries enjoy the advantages of European Union membership. And the deterioration in standards was not inevitable or common to all former Eastern Bloc states. Some countries were praised in the report for the advances made. A notable example is Poland, whose students’ performance improved considerably after extensive restructuring of the education system, with a move away from unpopular vocational schools and the postponement by one year of the streaming of students into different school tracks.
The PISA research flags up some of what might be going wrong in the classroom. But in Romania, many children never – or rarely – even see inside a classroom. As well as poverty and family dysfunction, children having to repeat the year multiple times, the pressure to earn money, family members who have dropped out of school, involvement in crime, the effects of migration and early marriage and childbirth are some of the factors that give Romania one of the highest dropout rates in the European Union.
Remedying this is made more difficult by widespread disagreement of what constitutes dropping out. In research conducted by the Community Development Agency Împreună (Together) in 2009 and 2010 into education in deprived Roma areas, teachers and school directors defined it in myriad ways, from absences of two weeks to three years. With such disparity in the ways schools measure abandonment, how can society get a clear picture of the issue?
The problem is particularly acute in poor, rural and Roma communities. On top of the other factors, the latter also have the pressure of stigmatisation to content with, along with cultural and language barriers. The PISA report found that in Romania 83 percent of Roma children do not attend secondary school at all. Schools with large Roma intakes often have inadequate material conditions and less motivated staff. And school segregation – though the word conjures up images of 1950s America rather than 2010s European Union – is thriving. Research conducted for the Romani CRISS Organization in 2008 found that of the 90 schools studied, 67% had some segregation of Roma pupils, even though this is against the law. This persistence of segregation consigns high numbers of children to a second-class education.
What can be done? Some progress has already been made, in relation to the syllabus and teaching methods. Over the past decade, the Romanian National Curriculum has been constantly updated, to shift the focus away from the mechanical transmission of information and memory testing towards critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Another solution, of course, is more money. Romania’s spending on education has traditionally been low compared to other European countries: 4.3% in 2006, the latest year for which Europe-wide figures are widely available, as against 8% in Denmark, the highest-spending nation. Only Slovakia and Bulgaria spent less. And while the sum spent per student rose more than four-fold between 2001 and 2008, when purchasing power is equalised Romania’s education expenditure was one of the lowest in the EU. However, in 2008 the country’s education expenditure reached 6%, which perhaps presages better things to come in the future.
Nevertheless, the lack of money is still evident. UNICEF research has found that lack of funding for textbooks, heating, school maintenance and qualified teachers means educational quality is falling in Romania. With a net starting salary of RON 835 (just over EUR 200 at the current rate) a month and the maximum salary for a teacher of over 40 years’ experience not even double that amount, teaching is seen as an unappealing and low-status career, deterring many high-quality candidates. The resulting shortage of teachers is even worse in rural areas, and staff selection and training methods need updating and improving, enabling teachers to impart more relevant learning in the classroom.
But there are other, more affordable, solutions. Schools can be made more welcoming places for children. Running water, proper heating and spaces for play are part of it, and the UNICEF child-friendly school model outlines some of the main issues in this regard. But attitudes and actions also have a role.
Dropout can be addressed among parents, through school mediators, with staff trained to spot signs of potential school abandonment early, and address the issues proactively. Testimony from past dropouts could help those thinking of quitting school to get their options in perspective. These approaches could supplant the heavy-handed recourse to the law that some schools still employ, which fails to address the underlying causes of the phenomenon. The divisive mentality that sees children educated according to their ethnicity must also be tackled.
Most importantly, a joined-up approach must be taken to map and treat the problem, with particular effort going into the trouble spots. Authorities, principals, teachers, activists and parents must pull together to ensure that Romania’s children get the education they deserve – and need.
George was a good pupil. He got good marks, and was near the top of his class. A few years ago, when he was in fifth grade, he lived with his father and his maternal grandmother, his father’s partner (who was working at the time in the school where George was a pupil) and two brothers. When the relationship between the adults broke down, the house was sold and the money divided between them. George moves in with his father who, due to his alcohol problem, quickly spends all the money leaving the family homeless. George cannot continue to go to school: he gets a job and no longer has any free time. His clothes stink and he has nowhere to wash himself. He is ashamed to get together with his former classmates.
Four years later George goes back to school. He is still a good student. However, he faces some problems: he is much older than his colleagues and he has got used to having a job. He quits school again.
(A chaotic family life leads to early school dropout, an excerpt from Renunţarea timpurie la educaţie: posibile căi de prevenire – Early school dropout: possible ways to prevent it (2009), a report from the project Soluţii eficiente pentru prevenirea abandonului şcolar: costuri şi mecanisme (Efficient solutions to prevent school dropout; costs and mechanisms, conducted by UNICEF and the Educaţia 2000+ Center)