Slovakia: From Reform to Reward

from reform to rewardBRATISLAVA, Slovakia | It has been a traditional sight every 1 September for over a decade. Children across Slovakia would turn up fresh from the summer holidays and enter schools designed for many more children. Once in, they would find that the school had gone another summer without renovation. For years, Slovak schools, built in the fecund communist era, had failed to respond to the drop in the birth rate. For years, little had been invested into schools and their infrastructure.

That picture has, however, been changing dramatically over the past two years. Schools are now fuller and, though classrooms remain in poor condition, school principals now know that money specifically earmarked for modernization will come each year. For the time being, the benefits for pupils are less obvious and for some there is a down side – a need to travel farther to school. But there is the hope that gradually the number of young teachers will grow, a major reversal in what has been a graying profession.

The cause of these changes is a reform that has triggered a radical reduction in the number of schools. In 2004, 256 schools closed their doors and almost 500 merged. In 2005, another 122 schools have closed (78 nursery schools, 25 primary schools, and 19 secondary schools) and 112 merged. These are large figures in a country with a population of under five and a half million and with around 6,500 schools at the start of the 2004-2005 academic year. However, the process has so far proved less painful than might have been expected. The key seems to have been a combination of devolving decisions to close schools away from the Education Ministry to local communities, while providing principals with incentives to rationalize their operations.

Planning the Operation

This all represents a sharp change in the status quo that had persisted for almost 15 years. Every year since 1996, schools had been building up debts – and before that the money pinch had been evident in postponed repairs and modernization. While the number of pupils fell, the number of teachers remained stable, even growing in places. Allocating money was largely up to regional authorities and, more often than not, it was allocated based neither on need nor on the number of students. Typically, money was farmed out ad hoc, with the result that two similar state schools would end up with different budgets. In these circumstances, the schools with the best negotiators tended to win most money. Schools with poor negotiators lost out – or could choose to run up debt, secure in the knowledge that the state would pick up the bill. Those who tried to save money were effectively penalized, because the state based its budget on the sum spent the previous year; a cost-cutting principal would end up trimming his or her school’s budget.

A situation like that satisfied few people, but negotiations between the Education Ministry and local authorities in the 1990s produced little movement. Nor did a new financing law adopted in 2001.

“For a long time, people kept saying that the financing of local schools needed reform and that someone should finally find the courage to carry it out,” says Karol Korintus of the Education Ministry.

But by 2002, surprisingly little courage was needed. School funding was one of the rare examples of a consensus between political parties prior to the 2002 elections – and, even more surprisingly, most of them proposed very similar solutions.

Still, the government eased the political and psychological impact by making school reform just part of a broader package of reforms, as well as establishing a three-year transitional period. “We made use of the advantage that a reform of public administration and finances was already ongoing, so the redesign of the schools financing system became a natural component,” says Korintus, one of the people who drew up the blueprint.

The principle was simple: schools should receive money based on the number of pupils they teach. “We intended to create a simple and clear system to ensure that the behavior of school administrators is more rational,” says Jana Sladeckova, the head of the ministry’s schools financing division.

“From now on, school administrators who economize or merge schools are not disadvantaged, but can keep the spare funds,” she says. Administrators also have more discretion about how they distribute money for the schools they fund: roughly 80 percent of the budget goes directly to a particular school, but the remainder can be redistributed as the school administrator – usually a local council – sees fit.

In essence, the reforms provide principals and local councils with incentives.

The reforms also make local communities more involved in decisions about their schools. A policy of fiscal decentralization introduced in 2005 means that some funding for schools comes from tax revenues raised by local communities, and it is now the local community – rather than the state – that decides whether a school should be closed or merged. Now that they are involved in funding schools, local councils have an incentive to assess what schooling their community needs.

“We were pleasantly surprised to watch the dynamic changes started by school administrators and head teachers,” Korintus says. “Many nursery schools have merged with primary schools, secondary schools have merged, inefficient small schools have been closed down or merged with larger schools nearby and, in general, schools have started to fight for pupils by more attractive offers.”

Since the early 1990s, parents have been free to choose between local primary schools. Now, though, because funding and their survival depend on the number of students they teach, schools are actively seeking to attract new pupils. “Many schools offer foreign-language lessons from as early as the first grade, after-school clubs for younger pupils, or extracurricular activities for the others,” says Viliam Adamik, deputy principal at a primary school in the capital, Bratislava. “Our school differs by focusing on many sport activities: football, volleyball, and even fencing. There is a project under way to build tennis courts on the school grounds,” he adds.

Wielding the Scalpel

“The new financing law drove us to count student numbers and class sizes, as well as the per-student cost in our schools, especially the smaller ones,” says Peter Juras, head of the schools department for the city council of Zilina, a large city in northern Slovakia. “We subsequently closed down two primary schools and merged five nursery schools with primary schools.”

Much the same happened in Trencin, a city in the west of the country. “We have closed down two primary schools and school clubs and a nursery school,” says Jozef Balaz, director of the education and social affairs division at Trencin city hall. “That decision was based on a set of clear criteria approved by the city council: the number of pupils and class sizes, the schools’ operating and personnel costs, and demographic trends in the district.”

Most of the changes have been in areas where the population has fallen in recent decades. However, areas where the decline has been smaller have also economized. In Trstena, a small town in northern Slovakia, the impulse was the need to cover the cost of long-delayed repairs and the higher operating costs that schools in this cold, mountainous region have to foot. “We have merged the administration of four nursery schools in our town and also merged the nursery schools with primary schools in neighboring villages,” says Erika Kristofcakova of the local council’s education department. Kristofcakova, who supports the reforms, says more cuts are possible, though that would force the town to lay on transport to bring new pupils into town from outlying villages.

Overall, the reforms have been introduced with relatively few problems. However, the numerous school closures have often been accompanied by protests from parents and teachers; the use of the savings to invest into their children’s new schools has not assuaged some parents. That was the case when five of the 17 primary schools in Petrzalka, a large housing estate in Bratislava, were closed and the money spent on renovating and modernizing the remaining schools. Nor, for example, did the promise of better traffic lights near schools, police patrols, and school buses lessen the anger of parents in Trencin.

There have also been other problems. In some places, businessmen have put mayors under pressure to vacate attractive school buildings, Korintus says. Pressure from lobbyists has sometimes prompted local councils to choose a poorer option. Inevitably, teachers and mayors have clashed, with principals resisting plans to close schools. Teachers have been wary of cost-saving drives, primarily fearing that the result will be layoffs, larger classes, and the loss of optional classes. There have been demands – so far unheeded – for local authorities to be obliged to dedicate a certain amount to education and to use money raised, for instance, by the sale of school buildings for educational purposes only.


The pain and uncertainty from such teething problems may be soothed by plans to boost the education budget. For several years, the Finance Ministry refused to release extra money for the education sector in its unreformed state. But the big cuts in the number of schools and the layoffs of five percent of the country’s teachers – almost 7,000 in all – seems to have changed the ministry’s attitude.

Wages have already been raised, and the 2006 budget is expected to include funds for schools to modernize their equipment, to cover the costs of introducing new tests and exams, and to finance a pilot project to help especially gifted children. A particularly important injection of funds may be the creation of a fund to increase young teachers’ salaries. At present, relatively few young graduates join the profession – and low wages mean keeping them can be hard.

When the reform process is finished, the Slovak teaching profession is likely to be smaller, better-paid, and slightly younger. But there will also be a change in the nature of schools. Schools are not just being closed; some are being opened. In 2005, 40 new schools emerged – including 15 private and five religious schools. Under the new funding system, private and religious schools receive the same subsidies as state-run schools, which was not the case in the past. Slovakia has therefore joined the Netherlands and Sweden in granting all children the right to a subsidized education regardless of the type of school they attend. This is, though, a controversial move; as state-sector educators point out, private schools can also charge parents tuition fees, enabling them to offer more to pupils.

Both alternative types of school remain a minor part of the system – less than three percent of Slovak pupils attend private schools and five percent attend schools run by churches, Jana Sladeckova says – but the proportion is likely to grow, and not just because of incentives for the owners of private and religious schools. While some local taxes are now spent on certain state schools, such as nursery schools, or on after-school clubs, all subsidies to private and church education facilities come from the state budget. There is, therefore, a clear motivation for municipalities to transform public schools into private ones and shift the financial burden fully onto the state.

Overall, a new and rather different school system is emerging in Slovakia. But the biggest change may be a much more modest achievement. Figures from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (an international school assessment scale developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) showed that in 2003 Slovakia’s spending per student placed it in an unenviable position at the bottom of the list of 41 countries assessed, alongside Mexico. Cost savings and budget increases at least give the hope that that might change.


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