Serbia: On Edge

on edgeBELGRADE, Serbia | New exit exams for elementary school students, the introduction of Romani teaching assistants, an equal starting point for all children – all were big changes brought about by Serbia’s new education law that took affect this fall. But all remained in the shadow of heated debates about financing, looming school closures, and possible layoffs.

Whether or not the school year would actually begin this fall remained uncertain until 1 September. All the leading teachers’ unions had announced a strike over the new law, passed by parliament only at the end of August, which stipulates that schools will no longer be financed according to the number of students, but according to the number of classes they offer.  This was a budget-cutting measure the World Bank had proposed in a study it conducted on the Serbian school system. Local media reported that the World Bank recommended that Serbia should have 30 students per class on average, merging smaller classes and terminating 11,000 classes overall in an effort that would save approximately 150 million euros per year. That would all be a prelude, the unions argued, to teacher dismissals.

Such austerity measures come amid a deepening economic crisis that has forced Serbia to seek out a loan of 2.9 billion euros from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a condition for closing a credit arrangement, the IMF demanded that the authorities make drastic cuts in public spending and increase taxes, as well as implement the World Bank recommendation on school financing. Out of the belief that a tax hike would ruin the national economy, the Serbian government instead proposed state administration cuts, including the dismissal of employees in government, as well as in health care and education. In mid-September, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said that, according to initial estimates, Serbia has some 14,000 excess employees in those three sectors.

Naturally, that made teachers fear even more for their jobs. In the end, Education Minister Zarko Obradovic managed to convince the unions that the new method of financing would not be implemented before 2013, by which time several pilot projects would have been carried out to monitor the potential impact of the new system. Obradovic told the unions that the cuts demanded by international lenders did not necessarily envisage the dismissal of employees, but rather proposed that money could also be saved through the redistribution of funds within the existing budget. He told the Belgrade media he disagreed with the World Bank recommendation that Serbian classes should have 30 students each, since the average number of students per class in EU countries was between 18 and 26 students.

Inching Toward Bigger Classes

Although the school year started on time after all, union representatives announced that they were ready to go on strike the minute it became evident the state would opt for layoffs or if salaries in schools were again paid behind schedule.  The latter had happened already in August – officially because of technical difficulties, but the unions believe the state just ran out of money to pay them.

However, at the beginning of the new school year, schools received instructions saying that first- and fifth-grade classes in elementary schools could only be divided up into smaller classes if they had 34 students or more. While not officially part of the new school financing plan, the move appears to be the first major step in that direction. The authorities apparently chose these grades, because they represent the least level of disruption.  Children start school in the first grade, and after four years with a single teacher, they start attending classes in the fifth grade taught by a number of different teachers.

The decision has caused dissatisfaction among parents, who believe that their children will not get a proper education in big classes. “We know the state has to save money, but do children have to suffer because of it?” asked Bosko Matic, the father of a first-grade student in Belgrade. “Besides, what kind of savings will there be in the end, if they are made in the education of future generations? How can a teacher devote sufficient attention to students when there are more than 30 in a class? The teacher will not have enough time to even check their knowledge regularly, let alone develop their talents.”

Leonardo Erdelji, head of the Association of Teachers’ Unions of Serbia, said he agreed with Obradovic that funds could be found elsewhere and not necessarily result in teacher dismissals. In an interview with TOL, he said that the union knew that a number of employees who are supposed to retire are still working in the educational sector. Just their retirement would lead to big savings, he said.

“We have also asked the government not to employ new people in schools,” Erdelji said. “If a new employee is needed, they should first be sought among the employees in a school who are or may become redundant, then in the municipality in which the school is located, and then in the county. Also, redundant teachers can switch to the adult education system.”

The Birth Rate Doesn’t Help

But demographics are not in favor of the teachers. According to Erdelji’s association, more than 812,000 students attended elementary schools in Serbia in the 1990/91 school year with the average number of students per class at 25.35. By the 2006/07 school year, however, only 622,562 students were attending elementary schools and the average had sunk to 20.70 students per class. The birth rate in Serbia is declining, ensuring that the number of students per class will keep decreasing, forcing more and more classes to be merged together.

An elementary teacher from Belgrade, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that her school had terminated one class due to too few students, resulting in the decision to lay off one teacher. “It was very stressful,” she said. “Prior to the dismissal, they gave points to each first- to fourth-grade teacher in the school. Points were given for everything – whether we have children, whether our spouse is employed, whether we have written a textbook, how many years we have been working … In the end, a female colleague of mine with the smallest number of points was dismissed.” And in Serbia’s current economic climate, with current unemployment at around 13.5 percent, finding a new job is no easy task.

But Vigor Majic, an education expert, thinks that the Education Ministry could have cited certain articles of previous laws earlier in order to create larger classes or shut down small schools instead of relying on outside pressure to do so.

“Whether there will be dismissals and to what extent is not a matter of the law, but of political will and intentions,” Majic said. “I think that the education system in Serbia contains an excessive number of unsuccessful and bad teachers – be they unmotivated or undereducated, or whatever the reason may be. But even if the system manages to recognize and dismiss them, the question is – who will replace them?”

Majic, who is the director of Petnica, an education center where gifted high school students participate in various science and humanities programs, added that the Serbian educational system does a poor job at motivating the country’s best students to excel either at the elementary or high school level.

Less Controversial, but Equally Important

Other amendments passed together with the Education Law received less press than the debates over class size and possible layoffs, but also represented major changes, including an entirely new process for entering high school. Students who started the seventh grade this fall will take a mandatory final exam once they finish their elementary education (after the eighth grade), instead of just an enrollment test for high school. Based on that exam, children will qualify for high schools according to their points.

“We will see how the schools prepare their students for that exam – the results of teachers and schools will also be monitored rather than just the children’s work,” Education Ministry State Secretary Tinde Kovac-Cerovic told TOL. The aim of the new test, she said, is to not only monitor the understanding of learned knowledge, but also its application. Initially students will have to take tests only in Serbian and mathematics, and the list of subjects will gradually increase.

Another important novelty is that the new law is meant to facilitate all children attending mainstream schools.  “Children will no longer be prevented from starting school because they do not speak the language, have no personal ID, or because they do not demonstrate sufficient knowledge in pre-enrollment tests,” Kovac-Cerovic said.

In the past, children that didn’t pass pre-enrollment tests were mostly sent off to special schools, leading to many Roma children being forced to attend educational institutions targeted for mentally disabled children. Now such children will not be sent to special schools, but teachers will work with them on adjusted programs. “…Students can be in the same class at the same time, but can work on different contents [parts of the curriculum] and in different ways,” Kovac-Cerovic said.

Romani pupils will have also Romani teaching assistants to further their development. As of 1 September, Romani assistants had been hired in 26 elementary schools in Serbia to help Romani students stay up to speed in their classwork. Those assistants are engaged in schools in Valjevo, Leskovac, Prokuplje, Lebane, and several other towns.

Education Minister Obradovic told the Belgrade media that the new law and the Romani assistants would help increase the number of Romani children in the education system, adding that help was also required of the Romani community and associations. According to UNICEF figures quoted by Obradovic, more than 90 percent of Romani children live below the poverty line, while just four percent go to preschool.

“The fact is that the number of Roma in preschools and at all other education levels is far below what is necessary,” Obradovic said. “Over 60 percent of the Roma in Serbia have an elementary school diploma. Some 7.8 percent have finished high school, whereas only 0.3 percent have graduated from college or university,” the minister said.

Despite all the positive changes touted by the Education Ministry, Majic from Petnica center thinks the new law is no guarantee for widespread improvement. “The quality of education is ensured by a mix of good programs, good teachers, and a good system. That cannot be seen clearly in this law, which mostly focuses on strong state control of the work of schools and teachers and very little on stimulating quality initiatives, innovation, and good results,” he said.

Majic believes that Serbia will be nowhere near the education standards of developed countries for many years with just this law. “Education is not a societal development priority here. The majority of faculties also offer a poor and dysfunctional education – hence the appearance of better teachers cannot be expected any time soon,” he said.


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