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24.10.2017How free is pre-school education?

In September, "an army" of 11602 experts, organized in1103 teams, began searching for 206,000 dropouts and children, who were out of pre-school and school education. Even cutting the ones, who are abroad, the amount of disaster "dropping out" remains stunningly impressive. The claim of investment in pre-school education as the most effective and inexpensive measure to prevent dropping out is self-evident and proved by plenty of evidence. The scope of pre-school education in Bulgaria is low - according to the National Statistical Institute, the net enrollment rate in pre-school education in 2016/17 has fallen to 79.4%, which means that every fifth Bulgarian child is out of range. The trend is downward from 2013/14. The scope at Roma community is dramatically low: According to a 2011 EU Agency for Fundamental Rights survey, only 45% of Roma children in Bulgaria aged 3-6 visit kindergartens.

Existence of financial barriers, incl. fees, is one of the reasons (though not the only one) for many Roma children not to attend kindergarten. The implementation of the Ready-to-School research project, implemented by the Trust for Social Achievement, shows that the percentage of Roma children attending kindergarten would increase significantly, so that nearly half of the ones, who are out of scope, could enroll in kindergarten if there are no fees. Municipalities that are principals of kindergartens have the legal right to collect fees for children attendance, and most of them really do so. Does this relate to the mandatory pre-school age of 5 and 6 years of age?

 

Is compulsory pre-school education for 5 and 6-year-olds free of charge?

The Pre-school and School Education Act states that "Pre-school education is compulsory from the school year beginning in the year of the child's 5 years of age" (Article 8 (1)). In this respect, the new act repeats the old one, which, since 2010, required compulsory pre-school education for 5 and 6-year-olds. Does this mean that parents do not pay any fee?

In essence, the answer is "Yes, fees are paid and for most children, aged 5 and 6 years they do not differ from the amount for 2-4 year olds." In preparatory classes in Fees are not collected in prepratory classes at schools, where the training is half-day (the Ministry of Education provides a full-time organization of first grade but not in the preparatory classes). In any case those classes are not so much requested: unwritten rule is preparatory classes to be available if there are no kindergartens, and currently no more than 4% of 5 and 6 year olds are trained in them. For full-day pre-school education in kindergartens, parents pay fees, although under different term.

According to information provided by the Ministry of Education and Science and related to 204 municipalities, twelve municipalities do not collect any fees for children aged 2 to 6 in kindergartens from June 2017. These are Zlataritsa, Nikola Kozlevo, Primorsko, Sredets, Chiprovtsi, Strelcha, Iskar, Banite, Bolyarovo, Tundzha, Georgi Damyanovo, Etropole. Another 13 municipalities have cut fees and all kinds of payments for 5 and 6 year old children: Valchi Dol, General Toshevo, Momchilgrad, Varshets, Kubrat, Isperih, Opaka, Kaolinovo, Hitrino, Straldzha and Krushari. Shumen. Thus, parents of 5 and 6 year olds are free from the main financial barriers in 25 municipalities. These are 13% of the 204 municipalities for which MES provided information, but only 5.47% of the children attend kindergartens, as thse are small rural municipalities (except Haskovo and Shumen, of course!).

Parents of the remaining 94.53% of children in kindergartens pay fees, incl. for the obligatory pre-school groups, and the amount of fees is defined by the relevant municipal council, ranging from the symbolic BGN 10 (for example in Antonovo municipality) to the non-symbolic BGN 60 and even more (in part of the big regional centers). In addition, 58 municipalities reduce the amount for 5 and 6 year olds (compared to the fees that the same municipalities collect for children at 3 and 4 years) and 121 municipalities do not make such a reduction, the latter with most children. For example, every fifth child in pre-school age lives in Sofia, with the fees there not being differentiated for compulsory and non-compulsory pre-school age.

 

Does the state support free pre-school education?

The standards by which the state funds the activities delegated by it to the municipalities are determined annually by a decision of the Council of Ministers. The part of it under the "Education" function is offered by the Ministry of Education and Science. They include 17 standards - basic and complementary, incl. standards for kindergartens, nurseries, and preparatory groups. They are divided into 7 categories of municipalities that reflect the terrain of the territory and the population density. Standards for 2017 are defined by DMC 920 / 02.11.2016. They are as follows:

It is clear from the above, that municipalities receive between 250-272 BGN more for a child in the compulsory preparatory age (5 and 6 years), included in a preparatory whole-day group in kindergarten or in school compared to other kindergarten children (aged from 2 to 4 years). This means that for the 9 months during which the whole-day preparatory group is organized, the reduce of the amount of the maintenance in it should be between BGN 27.77 and BGN 30.22.

DMC 702 / 02.11.2016, as well as its predecessors, indicate that funding under the above standards is for:

"Kindergartens - full-day groups for children from 2 to 4 years old, nurseries, special groups for mentally retarded children, impaired vision, linguistically speaking disorders and hearing disabilities- staff costs, including means of clothing and means under Art. 4 and 25 of the Health and Safety Work Conditions Act;

Preparatory half-day and full-day groups for compulsory preschool education in kindergarten or school - staff costs and maintenance, excluding food costs "

Ie. the budget delegated by the state does not only cover the cost of food in the preparatory groups, so the amounts collected by the parents are for food and are not defined as a "fee". Preparatory classes at half-day schools as well as half-day training groups in kindergartens are completely free.

The figures mentioned would have led the observer to think that fees for 5 and 6 year olds (we will use the word "fee" for convenience, although that is not always the term used) are not collected or are lower by 27-30 levs. This expectation was also expressed in a letter from the Minister of Education Krassimir Valchev to the municipalities in July. But as mentioned above, 121 municipalities do not reduce in any way the fees for compulsory pre-school education, and of 58 municipalities that reduce the fees, only V. Tarnovo lowered the fees by BGN 32. Reduction in the rest municipalities is by a very small amount.

 

How much does compulsory pre-school education "weigh" to the municipalities?

Reducing or even eliminating kindergarten fees is a step that has wide public support. Mayors and municipal councilors are interested in public support. The fact that only 25 municipalities have abolished mandatory pre-school age fees, despite the additional funding they receive, points to the existence of a systemic problem.

Insufficient funding is the one side of the problem. Nearly half of the municipalities (47%) planned spending part of their budgets to fund kindergartens in 2017- despite the fees collected. It is very likely that the remaining 53% of the municipalities will maintain a delicate balance, where the sum of the funds with which the state finances the activities delegated to municipalities in pre-school education are equal to the fees collected by the parents, which means that additional funding by the municipalitie's budget is not required. In fact, the lack of fees definitely affects the 25 municipalities that have made compulsory pre-school education free of charge: 14 of them finance their kindergartens from their budgets. For example, the municipality of Shumen has invested 500 000 of its own funds - a "hole" that would be fully filled if it started collecting fees for the children in the preparatory groups.

 

Can the state make compulsory pre-school education absolutely free of charge?

Of course, this is a matter of finance and political will.

As I mentioned above, the funds with which the state finances the activities delegated to it by municipalities in pre-school education are insufficient and the municipalities supplement them through the fees they collect. If the fees for 5 and 6-year-old children are abolished, the state should ensure further increase in the standards for the activities delegated to the municipalities in order not to create problems for the municipal budgets.

According to information, given by the Ministry of Education and Science concerning all municipalities, municipalities collectively collect BGN 61 048 690 per year for the training of 201776 children in kindergartens (of which 98524 children are in compulsory education of 5 and 6 years of age). Average municipalities collect BGN 27.5 per month for a child, but in this respect the difference between the individual municipalities is sensitive: 46 municipalities collect less than 10 leva, 33 municipalities - between 10 and 15 levs, 59 others - between 15 and 20 levs; etc. 

45 municipalities collect fees above the average levels of BGN 27.5. These amounts are average - some of the families do not pay the full fees, some of the municipalities do not collect any fees or reduced the fees for 5 and 6 year olds, which reduces the average amount.

It can be declared, with no exaggeration, that if the funds that the state budget provides to a child trained in a full-time preparatory group are increased by BGN 200 - 270, nearly 80% of the municipalities will not experience any additional difficulties from eliminating the fees for compulsory pre-school education.

Of course, the abolition of fees is a political decision, above all. Municipalities implementing this measure do so because of clearly identified political priorities: ensuring full coverage for the poorest children, detention of young people in the municipality, etc.

At present, the political debate on making compulsory pre-school education a real free service is left at the local level. It is time to move it to the national level where it belongs and find a solution.

Author: Deyan Kolev

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