It’s the Education, Baby: A Postcard for Ukraine & co.

While the war is still raging in the East and pundits are busy monitoring the next steps of Putin’s army, Ukrainians are already receiving all sorts of advice about how they should fix their country. The ‘economy’ is of course the magic word, and the top priority. Amidst the loud technical trade-speak, ‘soft’ issues like ‘education’ typically get drowned out. This happened in Slovakia – to its huge detriment.

When you see the daily newsfeed of tragedies taking place in Ukraine, calling attention to education might seem ill timed. But isn’t propaganda, and the ignorance and helplessness to fight it the fuel of the ongoing war? Unfortunately there never really seems to be a “good time” for an education overhaul – even in a country that is not at war.

Take Slovakia for instance – the country is frequently presented as a ‘champion’ of democracy, with lessons to share with its cousins further East. We like to talk about education in Slovakia. In fact, it is one of the most overused words in the public debate. If someone votes for the ‘wrong’ party, or supports the ‘wrong’ policy decision, then they must just be ‘uneducated’, so the argument goes. In these instances you would have a hard time finding someone who might argue against the importance of learning.

The frequent references to ‘education’ might easily lead one to believe that it is a valued public good. Unfortunately, the Slovak case cannot confirm this. Our elite talk about the importance of education, but they are reluctant to underwrite that talk with cash. One might believe that the budget-drafters do not believe that people can be educated – as if they were born either plain dumb or plain smart.

Annually, all V4s spend less on education less than their Western counterparts. In expenditures as a percentage of GDP, the situation only looks optimistic for Poland, Slovakia is significantly tailing. In 1989 the Central Europeans wanted to catch up with the West, but it remains a mystery as to how they wanted to do it with less education spending.

With the limited funding it is clear that the school reforms that have been announced have rarely made it down to classrooms. Teachers, without formal and paid retraining, were somehow expected to start teaching differently out of the blue – oh and, preferably tomorrow.

In 2014, a Slovak teacher takes home a few hundred euros – definitely not enough to compensate for the stress and the demands of the job. Becoming an elementary or high school teacher is far from a ‘dream job’. Occasionally you read about headmasters who, in order to save money, terminate teachers’ contracts for the summer, sending them to register at the Labor Office for two months, only readmitting them when the school year starts again in September. You also hear stories about teachers who, in order to stay in the profession they love, take second jobs to make ends meet.

According to a recent OECD study, only 4% of Slovak teachers think that the teaching profession is valued in society yet 58% still believe that advantages of being a teacher clearly outweigh disadvantages.

This article was originally published at Visegrad Revue. Continue reading here.

Fotocredit: Vitor Antunes via Flickr

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