The Romanian Government needs to double its investments in education ASAP

Opinion article by UNICEF Representative in Romania, Pieter Bult

Pieter Bult
Pieter Bult, UNICEF Representative in Romania showing a drawing to a child
UNICEF Anamaria Dinulescu
10 December 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed education even closer to the edge: more children are out of school, digital or regular, and less children are learning something.

It’s a crisis UNICEF has been ringing the alarm bells of for many years now, before this pandemic made it worse.

In Romania, 400,000 children don’t go to school or don’t complete the compulsory education cycle. Of those that do go to school, the latest OECD PISA results (2019) show that 44% cannot properly read or write at age 15. The Romanian Government invests every year 38.000 million lei in education, which is 3.4 percent of Romania’s total Annual National budget.

Imagine now that the education system is a business. A business which has as its target to educate all children (it is mandatory to go to school from age 5 till 15) and prepare them for a fulfilling and productive life.  A business where 20% of the targets are missed and where almost half of the ‘products’ (i.e. educated children) do not meet the acceptable quality standard. Is this a business we should invest in?

The answer is yes, we should invest in education, but investing in education only makes sense if we invest more in education, a lot more, and not in the following years, but now, in 2021. If we don’t, then education and children will remain in crisis.

This increase in investment in education is what it is, an investment. An investment in children and an investment in the future of the country’s economy, progress and well-being. The remedial measures such us second chance are much more expensive and come also with hard to measure social inclusion expenses for the most vulnerable children: children from rural areas, poor or Roma families, children with disabilities.

Improving access and quality of education is directly and positively correlated to economic development, and thus an investment which will pay itself back manifold. Research has shown us that Education is one of the key factors promoting economic growth because of its role in enhancing human capital thus productivity. The return on investment of education is significant and in the case of early education every Euro spent will bring back between 7 to 17 Euros. 

Better education does not just result in a stronger economy, it also will lead to better health, reduced poverty, less violence against women and children, less corruption, improved governance and a stronger democracy.

So how much more does Romania need to invest to turn a failing business into a thriving one? Doubling the amount invested would be a good start and would bring Romania to the average (not the top) level of education spending in the EU. More than doubling would be recommended.

Which brings us to the crucial question on what that money will be used for.

UNICEF has extensive experience in education from all over the world as well as from within Romania. Since 1991 we have supported the Romanian Government in improving education in Romania through programmes like the School Attendance Initiative, Quality Inclusive Education, Transition from secondary school to high school, and Early Childhood Education, to name a few.

Based on our global and local experiences, we know how to address this crisis in education.

How? Let me outline 10 important actions that, when implemented, will have an immediate positive effect on access to education and its quality.

First. Get all children into early education. We now know early childhood education is the most important educational intervention there is, as it is during these early years where the brain develops the fastest. We know also that the earlier a child starts with education, the more likely it is that child stays in school and the higher this child’s learning performance.

Second: Make all schools and classrooms – including online classes - inclusive and ensure they have the facilities, capacities and services to deal with diversity, and are receptive for all children no matter what ethnicity, socio-economic states, or ability.

Third: Make parenting programmes available for all. Training parents and involving parents in the education of their children has a direct impact on school access and performance of their children, even more so now so many children are following classed from home.

Fourth: School governance needs strengthening so that schools can better address local challenges in access and quality of education. For that purpose, school management accountabilities will need to be expanded, more authority delegated to school principals, along with discretionary funding.

Fifth: The National curriculum needs to be reflective of the needs in the 21st century, and include mandatory subjects like civic education, life and socio-emotional skills, and digital skills. Not only the content needs to change with the needs, so do the methodologies of teaching.

Six: Teacher training and life-long learning is required for them to change with the changing content and new teaching methodologies. This is even more urgent now most of the schooling is taking place online.

Seven: All schools should be connected to the internet (and to electricity) and have the digital tools and equipment to deliver the new curriculum.

Eight: The numbers of school counsellors need to increase significantly, to ensure their service is accessible to all children. Our work shows we should have one counsellor for every five hundred children at most.

Nine: Ensure that all schools have adequate sanitary facilities and access to water.

Ten: Not all actions concern the education sector. Investments made in other areas of the social sector will help improve the education indicators. Tacking poverty, exclusion and violence against children will not only result in more children going to school, but also in improved learning outcomes.

The recent revision to the law 292 on social assistance is a great step forward. It will give children and their families access to basic community services provided by a small team of local professionals, a social worker, a community nurse and a school counsellor. Connecting households, especially the most vulnerable households, to these services has proven to have a direct impact on poverty.

These key actions have the power to move the Romanian education system through reform, ensure all children go to school, learn and become productive and responsible citizens contributing to a prosperous, sustainable and growing nation. And in such times as those we live now, the need to act has never been more urgent, nor have the stakes more precious.

I started with a message on the importance of funding. None of the above actions will happen without funding, and without these actions the education system will continue to underperform and be in a crisis.

But there is a second and equally important message which is the need for stability in the leadership of the sector. Soon Romania will have a new Government and Parliament and will start preparing the 2021 state budget. I would like to call on all political parties to ensure that the Minister of Education and his or her team should be in charge for at least the full term in order to have an opportunity to carry out the needed reforms.

The country has had almost 30 education ministers in 30 years, most of them coming with great skills and enthusiasm to address these huge challenges in education. However, no matter how competent and how enthusiastic, these reforms will not work without stability.