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19.09.2018The new academic year: hopes and challenges facing schools

The Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria Ms. Maya Manolova, the Ambassador of Denmark to Bulgaria H.E.Soren Jacobson, British Ambassador H.E. Emma Hopkins, Embassy Diplomats of the United States and Norway (Bucharest), MES Secretary-General Albena Mihailova, Director of CEICSM Ms. Manuela Radeva, Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Policy Ms. Zornitsa Rusinova, representatives of the Trust for social achieevement, experts and other guests attended the celebrations on the occasion of the beginning of the academic year 2018/19 in schools from the Amalipe Center network, participating in the Every student will be a winner project. They greeted students, teachers and parents and wished them a successful academic year, which would unite them and make them more tolerant and committed to the better future of Bulgarian citizens!

Information about the events see here (in Bulgarian).

Schools, included in the Every student will be a winner project, as well as all other educational institutions teaching children from vulnerable groups and / or located in small settlements, have reason to meet the new academic year with hope and at the same time -expecting new challenges. Hope comes from the fact that institutions started to pay attention to education at this kind of schools and kindergartens, which is related to a fair distribution of resources within the school network itself, by targeting additional resources to important areas, which were not covered so far, as well as the opening up of new opportunities for development. This has not happened for many years, especially after the introduction of delegated school budgets a decade ago in a way that favored the so called "elite" schools (with a large number of students and located mostly in large cities). The changes that have been made in recent months (in the delegated budgets system, the allocation of additional funds to work with vulnerable groups, etc.), although seeming to be administrative and "boring", are in fact a sign of positive change of the attitude towards rural schools and those, teaching minority students and children from other disadvantaged groups.

The expectation of new challenges comes from another important fact: many of the changes that have begun are still incomplete and partial. There is still a lot of work to be done to keep going, with schools and kindergartens being active in that process. All this happens in an environment of negative demographic trends: decreasing numbers of children, migration in Western Europe, aging of teachers ...

What are the main challenges that the new academic year sets to educational institutions teaching vulnerable groups and / or located in small settlements?

 

Continuing changes in the system of delegated budgets

Since 2018, delegated budgets have been determined not only by the number of students, but also by number of classes and schools. Ie. MES grants municipalities not only the standard funding for student, but also the innovated standard for the class as well as the institution standard. Another new thing is the setting of standards and reporting of regional and municipal differences. The philosophy behind these changes is to give schools and kindergartens with small number of students (especially in rural areas) a chance to develop by "escaping" the chronic underfinancing they have faced over the last decade.

Despite the change, the increase in school budgets was not large. Many of the schools with fewer students find it difficult to ensure even increasing of teachers' salaries, not to mention more about the overall development of the institution. It is necessary to continue the changes in the system of delegated budgets by increasing the burden of the regional coefficient, introducing a standard or supplement for a school that is a single one in a given settlement.

 

Improving the effectiveness of funds, allocated for working with vulnerable groups

In 2018, for the first time, the Ministry of Education allocated nearly BGN 25 million between schools and kindergartens to work with children and students from vulnerable groups. The budget forecast shows a promise that this commitment will continue in the coming years.

The allocation of additional resources for work with children and students from vulnerable groups is done according to Art. 52 and 52b of the Regulation on Financing (published in State Gazette No 31/2018). As this is the case for the first time, many of the specific features are not yet clarified by the MES and are currently continuing to challenge many school principals' questions. Certainly, the effectiveness of this investment can be significantly increased, including secondary students (including those in vocational high schools), more community-based organizations, and more. See more here.

 

School segregation prevention

The over-concentration of Roma students in certain schools or classes is a worrying trend that has been in existence for more than half a century, but has become overwhelming in the last two decades. According to a study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights of 2016, Bulgaria is the EU country with the highest percentage of Roma students trained in entirely Roma schools - 27%. Another 33% of Roma children are trained in classes with a predominant number of Roma.

Universal solutions to overcome educational segregation are impossible. The circumstances in each municipality are different, so the decisions are individual and the local authority should be the leader. Not schools, but municipalities have the responsibility to stop school segregation, supported by the Ministry of Education and Science. The approach of a relatively equal distribution of Roma students in all schools can and should be applied in many municipalities: it is one of the prerequisites for avoiding secondary segregation. If the efforts start at the beginning of the process, it will hardly be possible to form secondary school segregated Roma schools. Even more successful would be if they were taken in prevention. Municipalities should bear this in mind: they will have to take unpopular decisions, if not taking preventive actions or at the time of secondary segregation. 

 

Expanding free transportation opportunities for high school students

By the end of 2017, through the State Budget Act of 2018, a change was made in Art. 283, para. 2 of the PSEA, with the second sentence being added: "The state budget for transport is also provided for students who travel daily to the nearest school in another locality in which they are trained to acquire a professional qualification if such training shall not take place in the settlement, where the pupil lives. " The provisions do not make it possible to choose a specific specialty from a profession to acquire a certain degree of professional qualification but provide the possibility of providing free transport to the students, in whose settlements there is no high school or only general education and / or profiling training, to be trained in the nearest institution that conducts training to acquire professional qualifications. Costs are covered to the nearest professional high school or vocational school, although they may be in a very different professional field.

The fact is that the new opportunity provided is in many cases not used, and students, parents and schools do not know about it. It is necessary the Regional Education Departments and the Ministry of education to communicate actively with the schools and the municipalities in order to take advantage of the possibilities of Art. 283, para. 2 of the PSEA!

It is also necessary that the MES and the National Assembly initiate an addition to the second sentence of Art. 283, para. 2 of the PSEA, which allows the transport costs to be covered also to students who travel daily to the nearest school in another location where they are trained to acquire a vocational qualification, preferred by the student and his/her parents. It is inappropriate for the state commitment to disregard the diverse interests and abilities of the students. See more here.

 

Fees free kindergarten for compulsory pre-school age

The Pre-school and School Education Act states that "Pre-primary education is compulsory from the academic year starting in the year of the child's 5 years of age" (Article 8 (1)). In spite of the foreseen requirement, the real extent of pre-primary education at national level is low, and has even worsened over the last four years. Numerous studies indicate that the range of Roma children in pre-school education is at least twice as low as the average for the country.

The existence of financial barriers as fees can be identified as one of the main reasons for the lower coverage of children from the Roma community and other vulnerable groups in pre-school education. Municipalities that are the principals of kindergartens have the legal right to collect such fees and the majority of them do so. According to information from the Ministry of Education in July 2017, only 5% of municipalities (exact number -13), do not collect any fees. Twelve other municipalities collect fees for children aged 2 to 4, but not for children in compulsory pre-school age of 5 and 6 years. Over 90% of municipalities collect monthly fees (between 5 and 35 euros) for all children in kindergartens. This is a serious obstacle faced by poor families. The implementation of the Springboard for school readiness research project of the Trust for Social Achievement Foundation showed that the percentage of Roma children attending kindergarten would increase significantly, so that nearly half of the missing Roma children will enroll in kindergarten, if the fees are cut.

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