229. Educational Reform in the First Decade of Slovenian Political Pluralism

By
Leopoldina Plut-Pregelj

Since 1990, the Slovenian educational system has been undergoing continuous reform, stimulated by three major social incentives: introduction of political pluralism and market economy (1990); Slovenia's independence (1991); and, Slovenia's preparation for membership in the European Union (2003/04). To prepare and implement the reform, the Parliament and the Ministry of Education and Sport established a large and complex administrative apparatus with several permanent institutions and temporary commissions.

In 1990, the first Slovenian minister of education, a Christian Democrat, Peter Vencelj, stressed that, in spite of demands for radical changes in the educational system, the process would take place without haste. Rather, he advocated a gradual change, based on professional expertise, which would bring the Slovenian educational system closer to those of Western developed countries. This position of the Demos government was accepted by all major players in education.

After removing the obvious ideological contents in the elementary and the secondary curriculum (by changing civic education courses) and proposing content changes in social studies, especially in recent history, major changes in education were introduced in 1991 by the Law on Organization and Financing of Education. The law replaced the self-management model of education with a centralized one and set the conditions under which public and private education should be organized. In addition to prescribing the organizational structure and functions of educational institutions, the law spelled out the responsibilities and methods for their financing at the local and republic level. Furthermore, the general orientation and strategy of the educational reform were outlined in several documents. Since the 1992 election, work on educational reform has continued under the various coalition governments, in which the Ministry of Education and Sport has been in the hands of Liberal Democrats. Except for a short period during the year 2000, the Liberal Democrats have been responsible for the preparation and the beginning stages of implementation of educational reform.

Three stages of the educational reform

A decade-long process of the educational reform has taken place in three phases, overlapping in time, but each with a distinct focus. Beginning immediately after the 1990 elections, the focus was on overhauling the entire organizational structure, including financing, and on setting new goals for the educational system as a whole and for each of its levels in particular. This phase was concluded in 1995, with the publication of the White Paper on Education in the Republic of Slovenia and the introduction of four bills regulating individual levels of education (preschool, elementary, secondary, and adult education). They were enacted in 1996, while the law on higher education was already adopted by 1993.

The second phase began in 1995, with the establishment of the National Curriculum Council and its National Subject Committees of professionals and practitioners, which formulated a new curriculum for every subject taught in elementary and secondary schools. Curriculum proposals were widely discussed among teachers and partially tried out before their adoption in 1998. In addition to general goals as well as the objectives and topics of individual subjects, the new curriculum consisted of a very general teaching methodology, standards of students' knowledge and elements for its evaluation. Along with developing new curricula, professional development, teacher training, and the external evaluation of knowledge were discussed. New curricula for all pre-university education were adopted in 1998, and their implementation began in 1999/2000.

After almost a decade-long preparation, the third implementation stage of the reform began in December 1998, with the establishment of the National Commission for Evaluation. Its focus has been on implementing the new programs and simultaneously evaluating the changes in new curricula and organizational structures of the schools and their effects on the students' knowledge. However, it is not clear whether the National Commission has formulated a comprehensive framework and strategies for evaluation of the educational reform, at least, they have not been publicly disclosed. It seems that its work is still in the exploratory stage, theorizing and exploring other nations' experience. The gradual implementation of the new organization of instruction and curricula in preschool, elementary, and secondary education began in Fall 1999, and the National Institute of Education has since completed three descriptive follow-up reports for the school year 1999/2000. A program of nine evaluation studies, which will evaluate the new curricula and their effects in classrooms, was adopted in the Spring of 2000.

Basic principles of the reform

According to the basic principles of the reform, grounded in the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia and various international documents pertaining to education (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of Children, and expressed in the White Paper), the Slovenian education system should:
 

  • be democratic, ideology-free, and neutral;
     
  • respect cultural differences of the students and their environment;
     
  • guarantee equal opportunities and nondiscrimination of students;
     
  • be open and autonomous;
     
  • offer quality learning, based on understanding of the subject matter rather than learning by rote;
     
  • respect individual differences among students;
     
  • challenge every student; and
     
  • foster excellence.

    Although a relatively high degree of agreement about the basic principles of reform as expressed in the White Paper had been reached between professionals and educational policy makers, the reform itself has been marred by controversies of all kinds. A large number of professional experts and many practitioners were included in the debate, but their critical and different ideas were not necessarily reflected in the new laws and other documents. Not specifically Slovenian, this process of power play is well known in democratic societies, where policy makers are at odds with professional experts and their educational philosophies.

    Professional disagreements, publicly expressed in the media, have often been politicized, and professional criticism has either been dismissed or ignored, or was labeled conservative and coming from the right of the political spectrum, which has not necessarily been the case.

    Controversies

    The most publicized and controversial issue, not yet resolved, has certainly been the role of the Catholic Church in public education in general, and the question of an elective religion course in public elementary schools in particular. While the majority Liberal Democrats and left-leaning parties have fought to respect the Slovenian constitution and its provisions on separation of Church and state, some right-leaning parties have supported the Catholic Church's persistent efforts to include religious education as an elective course in elementary schools, and to have more influence on public elementary education in general. The Liberal Democrats, who have had control over education since 1992, have used this highly sensitive issue to control the discussion of other important professional, but highly value-loaded issues, such as the debate on ability grouping and differentiation in one such example.

    The 1996 Basic Law on Education introduced the nine-year elementary school, which is organized in triads (1st, 2nd and 3rd grade; 4th, 5th and 6th grade, and 7th, 8th and 9th grade). While the previous eight-year elementary school did not have any forms of ability grouping, curriculum differentiation or tracking, the new law provides for all these organizational structures in the second and third triads. Although more attention to individual needs is needed in education, early ability grouping and curriculum differentiation are extremely controversial for several reasons. Critics of these organizational, instructional solutions were reminded in the media, and also in private, that these measures had been proposed under the pressure of conservatives, who wanted to start tracking already after Grade 4 and to reintroduce the elite 8-year gymnasia. Consequently, the legal provisions regarding streaming and tracking in the 1996 Basic Law on Education, were already a compromise. It was suggested that adverse criticism of the law should be avoided because it would give more legitimacy to the demands of the Catholic Church and its criticism of the reform. While educational issues concerning the differentiation of curriculum, ability grouping and individualization have nothing to do with religious education and separation of Church and state, several professionals and teachers said in personal discussions that they did not want to raise these issues because they were afraid of being labeled "black and pro-church" or "old Communists."

    There were other, equally controversial issues in the reform of elementary education, for example, the transition from kindergarten to first grade - which now includes children a year younger - syllabi and curriculum, as well as external testing.

    The nature of these discussions often indicated that the individuals who publicly discussed an issue were frustrated because they had not been heard in the first place and also felt that they could stir public opinion in support of their claims. At the same time, the policy makers, who stood by their criticized solutions, were often on the defensive and supported their decisions on the basis of the "experience of other European countries," but did not explain their positions clearly or defend them on professional grounds.

    For example, for several years, physicians, parents, and many other professionals have been warning that Slovenian students have been burdened by long hours in school, and by the amount of homework in elementary and secondary schools, which caused physical and mental health problems, especially in the adolescence. As the new syllabi and curricula seem to be even more extensive than before, several groups became vocal about this serious problem. Although their claims were supported by research, they were consistently dismissed with the explanation that students in other European countries, to which standards Slovenia aspires, were in school longer and also studied more. That may be true, but the problem of overburdened students may not have so much to do with the hours spent in school, as with the nature of the curriculum, learning objectives, teaching strategies, and overall school climate. Therefore, dismissing the critics - at times offensively - as if they were advocating to keep students ignorant was not conducive to a democratic discussion.

    There are a few reform solutions which do not correspond to the basic principles of the reform upon which the participants had agreed. The White Paper, for example, emphasizes quality instruction, which focuses on interconnectedness of subject contents on one hand, and on students' needs to understand the contents on the other. This principle is very important since upper elementary grades and secondary schools suffer from teaching too many subjects with too extensive and fragmented contents. The new syllabus and curriculum for elementary education did not change much in this respect.

    A cursory glance through upper grades curricula shows that interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches in teaching different subject matter almost do not exist, except for being superficially mentioned. The formulations of new curricula were mostly driven by subject specialists with little concern for students. In the same manner, the learning themes are listed as fragmented units, unrelated to each other and having no connections with the students' life. There was not much discussion about curricula in public, and the little existing criticism was dismissed on grounds that the new school has to impart more knowledge and that only an empirical verification of the new curricula and instructional organization could give the answers as to what should be done and how.

    In June 2000, Parliament installed the sixth coalition government, formed from the parties of the right political spectrum. The Ministry of Education and Sport was placed in the hands of constitutional lawyer and professor Lovro Sturm, who, naturally, replaced the Liberal Democrats team with his own, and created a new body the Strategic Council, which could redirect further implementation of the reform. The critics of the educational reform got prominent positions and voice in the new Ministry of Education. Knowing that the approaching October elections would not bring victory to the right political parties, the new team acted quickly and wanted to take control over the implementation of the reform and its evaluation. However, their actions, unfortunately, created a lot of political heat and polarization instead of professional discussion. In addition, the daily media helped to create an atmosphere quite hostile to the new establishment and its sometimes hasty decisions.

    According to the Minister of Education, the National Commission for Evaluation of the Implementation (NC) had not completed its work satisfactory, and therefore he dismissed it in Summer 2000. The minister characterized the NC 600-page report on the evaluation of the educational reform as follows: "a hardwood floor was ordered, but what was delivered was quality furniture." The president of the NC objected publicly to such a characterization and called for the minister's resignation. According to his explanation, the Slovenian model for the evaluation of the reform had been praised by the World Bank and would be posted on its Web site as a model for other countries. Upon reviewing the material submitted to the World Bank, it was discovered that it consists of two papers by an outside consultant which describe mostly the British experience. While they contain useful advice with suggestions for formulating a framework of and approaches to evaluation, they do not deal with the Slovenian model as such.

    This political fight to gain control over the evaluation of the educational reform was short-lived, since the political left overwhelmingly won in the October 2000 election and in December, a new team took over power. However, the incident did demonstrate the political sensitiveness of education.

    Conclusion

    Despite the haphazard nature of the reform process, Slovenia has increased its funding for education from 4.7 percent of the GNP (1991) to 5.7 percent (1998) and has moved closer to the mean of OECD countries (6.1 percent in 1996). The number of institutions of higher learning more than doubled, as did the number of enrolled students: the percentage of the population with higher education increased from 6 percent (1991) to 15 percent (1998). There is more choice available in education with growing private education, which is extensively financed (80 percent) by the state. Much work has been invested in the preparation of new curricula and textbooks for elementary and secondary schools, and first steps have been made to carry out reform in elementary and secondary education.

    In addition, it needs to be stressed that the majority of educational issues debated in Slovenia have also been on the social and educational agendas of every industrialized country. While the transition to a politically pluralistic society and the Slovenian Central European cultural context have contributed to the educational reform, the excruciating problems of differentiation of instruction and curriculum, and of standardization (national standards) and control of educational processes (external testing) in elementary and secondary education have been in large part due to inherent contradictions in a quickly developing capitalist society. In this respect, Slovenia is approaching a "success story" in the adoption of the capitalist system with all its problems.

    Leopoldina Plut-Pregelj spoke together with Anastasia Karakasidou, Obrad Kesic, John Lampe, Vjeran Pavlakovic and Sabrina Ramet at a February 22, 2001 Colloquium entitled "The Situation in the Other Former Yugoslav States: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia." The above is a summary of her presentation, edited by EES Program Associate Sabina Crisen. Meeting Report #229.

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