Bulgaria: Under Repair

under repairSOFIA | During this summer, repair works were intense at the Second English Language high school in Sofia, as in most Bulgarian schools during the summer holidays. However, replacing window frames and refurbishing classrooms is not a cure for the ailing Bulgarian educational system.

A recent survey by the Open Society Institute (OSI) in 57 high schools in Sofia, sampling 1005 students, 888 parents, 125 teachers, and 20 principals in fall 2008 and spring 2009, revealed that low teachers’ pay and the poor quality of education in Bulgarian schools are the two major concerns of teachers and students. Not surprisingly, the two groups have diverging views on what ranks higher in importance: 51 percent of teachers point to their low salaries, and 37 percent students to the poor quality of education as a major reason why they would leave their school. In spite of their different perspectives, these two difficulties are intertwined: the quality of education is often a function of the pay level and the job satisfaction of teachers.

Poor Pay

The average teacher’s salary in Bulgaria is currently about 300 euro, which is double the minimum wage but well below what life in a big city like Sofia costs (at least 500 euro a month). The OSI report reveals a staggering 60 percent of principals and 53 percent of teachers say they might quit their job in near future, mostly due to low pay and bad communication with superiors and colleagues.

Marinela Gospodinova—a middle-school, German-language teacher in Sofia—says her net salary amounts to 195 euros per month. A teacher with 15 years’ experience, she was among those protesting in a national teachers’ strike in 2007, and has been disappointed with developments in the education sphere ever since. “They have been trying to reform the education system for years now, and every minister starts different reforms. Not a single one, however, has been brought to its conclusion,” Gospodinova said.

Stumbling Reforms

One of the many failed attempts at reform is the ‘outside’ assessment of pupils’ knowledge at the end of every grade. So far, it has been implemented only for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who sit an exam in every subject studied during the school year. For the second year in a row, the results are quite controversial: “There are many schools in small villages that perform far better than the ones in big towns. We think this is mainly due to teachers helping their students during the exams,” explained Diana Shagova, a literature teacher in a high school in the town of Gotse Delchev.

Shagova also doubts the positive effects of a reform which made teachers’ salaries dependent on individual performance. Since 2008, teachers can add money to their basic salary by using interactive and innovative methods of teaching, helping drop-out students, working in a team with psychologist and parents or in a multicultural environment. However, teachers receive the additional money only once every school year, and the amount is not enough to make a real difference: the average amount received is about 250 euro a year. “It is better than nothing but it is nothing like having a normal salary every month of the year,” argued Shagova.

This situation does not make teachers’ profession more attractive. “Teachers stay at their jobs out of habit and because they have nowhere else to go,” said Veska Karastoyanova, the Educational Policies Program Coordinator of OSI-Bulgaria. This is why the educational system in Bulgaria is slowly aging: young people do not choose jobs that offer low pay and have a crumbling prestige in society. “It is crucial that young professionals are motivated to become teachers because it turns out there are no young people in the profession. In one of the elite high schools in Sofia not a single teacher is below 43 years old,” claimed the OSI education expert.

Lack of Trust

In Karastoyanova’s view, this could be closely connected to another major problem leading to the deteriorating quality of education: the OSI survey showed that the teacher-student relationship is flawed, and trust between teachers and students is practically is non-existent. Twenty four percent of students even say the bad relationship between them and their teachers might potentially make them leave the school they currently attend.

Liliya Cherkezova, principal of high school No. 95 “Professor Ivan Shishmanov”, admits she was startled by the discrepancy between students’ and teachers’ perceptions about the trust between them. “Teachers think they have established a relationship of trust with their students to a much greater extent than students do. They say they do not trust their teachers,” explained Cherkezova. She says the OSI survey was very useful to the staff and herself as it provided a benchmark against other schools in the capital.

“We are now working to improve key areas such as the trust relationship, discipline in the classroom, and the knowledge requirements to our students. We try to take into consideration students’ and their parents’ concerns as they are the consumers of the educational service we provide,” Cherkezova added.

Karastoyanova explained that 20 of the surveyed schools are now trying to improve the quality of this service. The most common areas that need improvement are decreasing the absences of teachers and students, modernizing the school’s equipment and working on EU and non-governmental projects. This might not solve all problems but the overall quality of education is closely connected to these small improvements, thinks Cherkezova.

This is a step in the right direction, Karastoyanova and other educational experts say. But there is still a long way to go – a thorough reform of the system will take years, lots of painful changes and stable political will to carry them out.




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