Slovakia has long been in urgent need of a new education law: that much both experts and politicians can agree on. However, they still differ on the form the new legislation should take. The opinions of political parties and experts vary significantly. And while the governing coalition argues that the education law, which was passed at the latest parliamentary session on May 22, will finally reform the sector, non-governmental organisations and opposition representatives say it is a huge step back.
The new Education Act, or more informally the school law, will replace legislation dating from the mid-1980s, which was considered obsolete by both the drafters of the new law and its critics. The bill made it through parliament thanks to the 79 votes of the governing coalition. The coalition refused to accept any of the opposition's proposed amendments.
The opposition had asked the coalition to withdraw the bill and re-work it, or at least delay reform by a year to allow teachers time to prepare for the changes proposed.
Education Minister Ján Mikolaj is confident that schools will now be reformed thanks to the law. "The principle of this law is to give teachers freedom, without ordering them to do anything," Mikolaj told The Slovak Spectator. "So teachers cannot now ask us what subjects they are supposed to teach. Now they cannot say 'give us the reform and we will teach in line with it.' This would not be a reform."
According to Mikolaj, the reform provides an option which it is up to the teacher whether he uses or doesn't.
The new law sets this September as the start date for reform. At first, it will affect only the first grade at elementary schools and the first grade at secondary schools. The reform would be further refined over the next three years, Mikolaj said.
Mikolaj said that the reform would reduce the volume of content that students must memorise and would not require encyclopedic knowledge, instead allowing a focus on practical usage of information. Class sizes should also be reduced, according to the minister.
The new legislation will also oblige students to learn more foreign languages more intensively, from the third grade of elementary school, with a second foreign language from the sixth grade. The state will set a so-called state education programme, which will define the obligatory curriculum that schools must teach. However, each school will then be able to add their own education programmes, the minister said.
Another change is that nursery schools will become part of the school system.
Zuzana Humajová, an analyst at the non-governmental M. R. Štefánik Conservative Institute, said that Mikolaj's reform is merely an empty stage and she criticised what she called chaotic paragraphs in the law.
"The new school law cements the status quo, in which schools will continue to be managed by an incompetent central authority, insulated from trends in the broader school community, and denied the opportunity to introduce flexibly the innovations needed," Humajová told The Slovak Spectator. "The law itself is full of flaws and mistakes, which will complicate the work not only of teachers, but also that of ministerial officials."
László Szigeti, a former education minister and currently an MP for the opposition Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), objected to the increased powers of the school inspectorate and the fact that schools will be allowed to use only textbooks approved by the ministry.
"We talk about freedom and free hands, and at the same time, we force schools and teachers to teach only from specific textbooks - is this real freedom?" Szigeti told the public broadcaster Slovak Television (STV) on May 25.
Mikolaj said that it was simply that the ministry did not want, for example, neo-Nazi content to occur in textbooks, or for textbooks to be written by representatives of sects. He cited the example of a history textbook that had had to be withdrawn in the past.
Humajová said that the ministry has made the textbook policy harsher.
"Until now, teachers had the chance to freely choose at least the textbooks from which they wished to teach; from now on they will be allowed to use only those approved by state," Humajová said.
The law has also enforced changes to the financial status of schools. The state will now pay for the costs of educating five-year-old children at nursery schools. Private schools will lose 15 percent of their subsidies if they violate any of the regulations. However, state schools will not lose money if they violate the law.
Parliament partly accepted a request by the SMK that school inspectors who inspect ethnic minority schools should speak the language of those minorities. The law also stipulates that Slovak language must also be taught at these schools to the extent necessary for students to use the language. On this point the content of the law was changed, since originally Slovak should have been taught to the same extent as Hungarian.
Martin Fronc, a former education minister and currently a Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) deputy, called the law a missed opportunity.
"The law talks about school education programmes, etc., but within the reform everything has stayed about the same," Fronc told The Slovak Spectator.
Fronc said that implementation of the law should have been delayed for at least one year, so that schools could better prepare for the changes it foresees. As an example, Fronc gave the cuts in the number of pupils in one class, introduced by the law.
"This needs to be secured financially," Fronc said. "One cannot just say 'we will have fewer pupils in classes', and that's it."
But Mikolaj said that the education ministry has the money to pay for the reduction in class sizes. "We have Sk280 million to limit the number of pupils," Mikolaj said. Moreover, according to Mikolaj, the education ministry has agreed with the administrator of schools a three-year transitional period, during which such matters could be arranged.
Fronc said he doubts whether paragraphs about intensifying the teaching of foreign languages can be practically implemented. Those who teach foreign languages can get much better pay outside the school system.
"We simply do not have the language teachers, they will not come to teach with these wages," Fronc said.
However, Mikolaj argues that the state will teach existing teachers foreign language skills. He says that there are too many teachers now, about eighty thousand, and that some of them must therefore obtain a new qualification.
According to Humajová, instead of reducing the amount they must teach, teachers will now see their time reduced.
"Paradoxically, they will have less space for creativity than they had before the reform," Humajová added. However, Humajová disagrees with opposition arguments that the law will cause chaos. Schools will simply continue to teach in the old way, she concluded.
Article was published in the Slovakia`s English-language weekly The Slovak Spectator.