Bosnia: Rare Optimism on the Education Front

optimism on the education frontSARAJEVO | Back in 2004, Nadja Steta, a primary school teacher in the Bosnian capital was among those who taught the first generation of children enrolling in primary school under the country’s new nine-year program. She still remembers having “panicked”, as she put it, because of the task ahead.

“The new requirements put us under a lot of strain, but I think that the reforms introduced so far are really good,” Steta said. “Children have been placed at the center of attention in classrooms – unlike in the past when teachers were the undisputed authority.”

Those reforms, the product of an education bill adopted in 2003, led to inevitable growing pains but are now seen as a turning point in the development of the country’s education system. And while most experts agree that ethnic divisions still weigh heavily in Bosnia – biasing the teaching of numerous subjects such as history, geography, and religion – there is some hope that reforms encouraging independent and creative thinking could lead students and their parents to eventually start questioning the country’s divisive education policies.

A Watershed Law

Spurred on by the efforts of the OSCE, the 2003 law prescribed the state-wide introduction of nine-year, mandatory, primary education to replace the previous eight-year program, allowing for school enrolment at the age of six instead of seven. That change was widely seen as an important step forward in providing early access to education in a country where the pre-school attendance rate stands at around 7 percent, but is closer to zero in most rural areas.

The new law also called for an innovative style of teaching to replace the old formula of teachers lecturing and students memorizing lessons. Now teachers are required to provide more tasked-based lectures and tailor their teaching style and grading decisions to the needs and abilities of individual students. Schoolchildren are encouraged to engage in their own research on the topics they learn about, and to discuss and debate. The law also opened the way for the integration of children with special needs into the general school population.

For the first few years, the situation was trying for many teachers, who would receive their teaching plans and program just a couple of weeks before the start of the school year. Suddenly, they were expected to invest a considerable amount of creativity in coming up with teaching plans to engage six year olds.

“Things have started improving now,” said Steta. “Textbooks are being polished; teaching plans are prepared in advance. We still lack resources to introduce proper teaching aids, but reforms take time,” she said. “In a financially constrained, post-war society such as ours you cannot expect miracles to happen overnight.”

Marina Mesanovic, a teacher at a primary school also in Sarajevo, agrees that the reforms were necessary to accommodate new generations of children and young parents who “live faster, who are curious, who have access to the Internet, and can find knowledge everywhere.”

However, Mesanovic, who teaches math and physics, believes that the relevant authorities have failed to sufficiently support schools in the reform process, failing to provide teachers with proper training to prepare them for the new requirements, in particular for work with children with special needs.

A Tough Assessment

Mesanovic teaches three classes of 90 children in all, including seven children with learning difficulties and special needs.

“It is very difficult because nobody prepared us for work with children with special needs, and we also still teach to groups of 30 children without being provided with teaching assistants,” she said.

“Some of these children need help with going to the toilet. They need to take breaks in the middle of a lesson…Integration is generally a wonderful idea, but someone should have thought about how to make it work,” she said.

Funding for modern teaching equipment is also lacking. “Chalk and the blackboard remain our main teaching tools,” Mesanovic said.

Similar complaints, particularly about the insufficiency of teacher training, are heard across the country.

“Most teachers I know have attended some seminars to get acquainted with new, interactive, and child-focused approaches to teaching,” Gordana Kecman, a primary school psychologist from Banja Luka, said. But Kecman says that the authorities have failed to adopt a systematic approach to teacher training. “We do not have any accredited teacher-training program to help teachers gain new skills and upgrade their qualifications.”

Aleksandra Ukoljac, from the Banja Luka-based non-governmental organization Hi Neighbor, described how teachers in her city were required to pass special computer literacy exams. Many had to turn for help to their students in order to prepare themselves.

“But you cannot blame teachers for that,” Ukoljac said. “The training programs they are provided with by the authorities are mostly theoretical, and they do not help them gain practical skills.”

While some accept the government’s excuse that the global recession has further diminished already scarce funding, others believe that the problems stem from the poor targeting of public funding rather than financial constraints.

Some critics, such as Berina Hamzic, from the Sarajevo-based non-governmental organization Our Children, cite figures that show that the authorities spend up to 40 percent of the state budget on social handouts, mostly to war veterans, but are shy when it comes to investing in education.

“Last year, the government of the Sarajevo region announced there will be no public funding available to support NGOs, but only days later they published a call for funding of projects to assist war veterans and demobilized soldiers,” she said. “It is just an example of how they are more willing to invest in the past than in the future.”

A New Voice in Schools

One area where the law has clearly led to visible change, despite the funding problems, is the growing power of student and parent councils. With the establishment of these councils, also mandated by the 2003 education law, children and their parents were given a say in the work and life of the country’s schools and a mechanism through which to express their views and increase their influence on educational and learning practices.

Among other things, council representatives sit on school boards and have an opportunity to represent the interests of students and parents on a wide range of issues related to the operation and management of schools, from the choice of meals to the introduction of different educational, volunteer, or cultural activities.

Supported by Save the Children Norway, Hi Neighbor joined forces with Our Children three years ago to set up student-teacher groups in 18 schools across the country to monitor how children’s rights are respected in education, including access to education by members of minority and other vulnerable population groups.

Monitoring reports prepared by these groups have often triggered debates among school management, teachers, students, and parents. Improvements have sometimes followed, including the provision of necessary teaching equipment, the introduction of special after-school activities, and the organization of tolerance-promoting campaigns.

While some teachers and school boards still fail to understand that they must allow children and their parents to challenge them and to actively engage in the work of the schools, school councilor Jadranka Kapetanovic believes that this is increasingly changing.

Kapetanovic points to the example of parents of children with special needs, who are pushing schools to adopt the necessary changes to accommodate their children.

Kapetanovic is herself involved in the work of one such group and encourages parents to write letters not only to school management, but also to the local authorities, to demand extra support because many schools still cannot afford to employ special education experts, psychologists, or medical staff. Schools also lack funding for special teaching aids, such as textbooks for visually impaired children.

“Slowly and with a lot of difficulty, some things are changing. The voices of parents and children are increasingly being heard,” she said.

Next Step: Segregation?

Other parents now feel empowered enough to challenge lingering segregation in the education system, a product of education ministries and offices that are often still run by people who favor the current state of affairs. While Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croat, and Serb children continue to be taught different and mostly conflicting interpretations of history, geography, language, and literature, some parents have already started questioning the status quo.

The Association for Parent School Cooperation (APSC), which gathers some 1,200 parents from all over Bosnia, recently launched a program to challenge the official view that disbanding the so-called “two schools under one roof” approach is impossible.

Designed by the OSCE at the end of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, these schools were meant to be a temporary solution for providing education to children who returned to their pre-war homes in areas subjected to ethnic cleansing. But today over a dozen such schools still exist, where children from different ethnic groups use the same building, but are taught different things, by different teachers, from different textbooks – all the while physically separated from one another.

The APSC went to these schools and involved children, parents, and teachers from all ethnic groups in community projects.

“Regardless of their ethnic background, they all worked together to improve conditions in their schools,” recalled the APSC coordinator Samir Haljeta. “Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks worked together to, for example, stock their school libraries.”

As part of the project, children from ethnically divided communities jointly participated in art classes, sport competitions, and roundtables on different issues such as drug abuse and prevention and human trafficking.

“We want to actively engage in schools; we want to democratize schools; we want to exclude politics from education, including from the appointment of teachers and school boards,” Haljeta said. “A significant number of parents, children, and education professionals all want the same thing, but politics obstructs efforts to achieve these goals.”

“It helps when education ministers are not nationalists,” he added.

Aleksandra Jankovic, an education advisor in the Bosnia mission of the OSCE, sounded cautiously optimistic.

“Improving the education process and empowering children, teachers, and parents might be a good way to achieve changes in education policy,” she said. “Over time, this could lead us to a situation where the authorities will be forced to respond to the needs of children and parents instead of using educational policy to enforce their political discourse on them,” she said.

The OSCE has been actively involved for nearly a decade in reforming the education system. While primarily contributing to efforts in de-politicizing education, the mission was the driving force behind the adoption of the 2003 bill.

While ruling nationalist elites in Bosnia seem eager to use schools to produce new generations of intolerant and ethnically isolated citizens, Jankovic would not rule out the possibility that citizens will simply refuse to obey.

“That moment has not come yet. But in some aspects, the situation is developing in the right direction, and I believe that it is possible for real change to come from the bottom up,” she said.


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