While Slovakia’s state budget chapter on education for the next year may seem to be increasing, in fact it’s not. The Slovak teachers’ trade unions clam that the announced increase by EUR 16.6 million includes EU funding but if we deduct the EU’s contribution, the budget for 2013 is EUR 7.85 million lower than in 2012. Trade unions worry that this will be reflected in teachers’ salaries, as these, similar to overhead costs, cannot be financed within EU-funded projects. General opinion says there is lack of funding in education, but is that really the case? Can we find sources in the reserves of the system?
On September 13 teachers’ unions organized a one-day warning strike at all types of schools in Slovakia. Approximately 90% of primary schools joined the strike. In practice, teachers and other staff of schools joining the strike were not working on this day. In reaction to the previous announcements of possible teachers’ protests the minister of education told the media that salaries of teachers are among the top three on his list of priorities. But he also announced that the state treasury is empty and thus any increase to teachers’ salaries and school budgets will be very problematic in 2012. The situation seems very complicated, but there may be a solution.
Not many people would object an increase of teachers’ salaries and this article does not aim to say otherwise. However, whilst teachers’ unions call for more money to be poured into the system, there still may be reserves that can be used. One clear example is the huge system of special education.
Due to the lack of data from Slovakia, we will use the example of the Czech Republic. A detailed 2010 study by the Czech School Inspection at 171 schools focusing on special education (15,894 pupils) identified 5,052 pupils who were educated in special programs without being diagnosed with any special needs. In other words, one-third of children were enrolled in special education without any diagnosed mental disability and the schools were still receiving double per-pupil funding for them.
Now think about what the situation in Slovakia may be. Then add to that: (1) The Roma Education Fund’s study School As a Ghetto from 2009 indicated that approximately 86 percent of special classes and 60 percent of special schools are Roma; (2) the proportion of Roma in Slovakia is estimated to approximately 8 percent of the population (as opposed to 4 percent in the Czech Republic), among children it may be significantly higher; and (3) the total number of children in special education in 2011 was 35,646. There are not many reasons to believe the situation inSlovakia is better than in the Czech Republic. Quite the opposite.
Civil society organizations have been pointing at deficiencies of the troublesome system of special education for many years. The most absurd case reported might have been in Pavlovce nad Uhom where Romani children make 99.5 per cent of pupils of the local special school. It is not a unique case and overrepresentation of Roma in special education has been confirmed by number of researches and independent studies. Some teachers openly admit that the reason Romani children are failing in diagnostic tests is that they are unable to communicate in Slovak, the official testing language test. Others say they don’t suffer from mental disability but rather social disadvantage.
Summarizing the above, we can assume there is a large group of children, most of them Roma, who are enrolled in special education even though they have no special needs. If children have a language disadvantage, they don’t need support (equal to double per-pupil funding) throughout their whole primary school attendance. If children come from a poor family, it is not (and should not be!) an education issue, but an issue to be addressed within the delimitated competences of the social affairs ministry.
The education of disadvantaged children naturally requires increased funding to cover their individual needs; however, pilot projects run by nongovernmental organizations, both domestic and international, like the Roma Education Fund, in cooperation with municipalities show that early childhood development is a much better investment. As opposed to enrolling the children in special education and getting them ready for not much more than registering as unemployed (or even unemployable) at the labor office, a short-term investment in early education and preschool seems to be a much better solution. Children get ready for the mainstream school and are on the right track to get good qualifications and employment in the future. What the nongovernmental organizations in cooperation with municipalities are doing on the ground has recently also been confirmed by the World Bank in their 2012 Policy Advice on Roma Integration in the Slovak Republic.
The numbers are clear and economic benefits of good education are significant. A 2009 study, Costs of Non-Inclusion, revealed that changes in the education system could bring EUR 23 million in the first year of implementation and up to EUR 51 million in the year 2030. However, the authors add that this is only related to the education alone, and the general impact of the changes, mostly by improving the quality of education, could be significantly higher. In total, they assume that the inclusion of Roma (the children of whom are a significant share of children in special education) in Slovak society would bring about a contribution of between 7 to 11 percent of the GDP per year. We are talking about billions of euros.
Knowing all this, why wouldSlovakia, and other states, continue maintaining the current state of things and keep spending on a system that produces unemployment? We do not need to choose between two kinds of evils here, we have a good choice ready. There is an obvious need to push for changes and underpaid teachers should focus their activities this way. They should join the efforts of civil society, education and economic experts and push for an effective reform of education that would make the most of children’s talents. It’s the right time.
A version of this article appeared in SME daily on September 3, 2012.