Full Coverage Mechanism Coordination Unit meeting: what’s ahead in the new school year?
Nearly 50,000 children and pupils have been returned to classrooms in the last six years and dropout rates have dropped by nearly 40%, said Education Minister Prof. Tsokov and Prime Minister Acad. Denkov after the meeting of the Coordination Unit for the Full Coverage Mechanism. Upcoming developments in the work of the Coverage Teams in the new year, the activities of the educational mediators and their inclusion in the Coverage Teams, the reporting of the successes achieved on the coverage rate in the assessment of the added value of a school/kindergartens, possible changes in Decree 100, which regulates the work of the Coverage Mechanism were among the main topics discussed during the meeting. Participants included policy makers and experts from the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of the Interior, the main institutions involved in the Mechanism, the National Association of Municipalities in the Republic of Bulgaria, district governors, etc.
The Minister of Education highlighted several things:
– Over the last 6 years, the inter-institutional outreach teams have achieved important successes: nearly 50,000 children and students have been returned to classrooms and dropout rates have decreased by nearly 40%. In the school year 2022/2023 alone, 12,439 children and students were returned and permanently enrolled in the education system, of whom 7,992 had never been enrolled in kindergarten or school before. This is an increase of 722 compared to the same period last school year. Prof. Tsokov noted that there has been an increase in the coverage of 5-year-old children.
– There are 1,223 outreach teams across the country with 18,629 participants from different institutions. They will be reactivated and will start going to the addresses of children and pupils who are not reached or at risk of dropping out as from 15 September. Minister Tsokov stressed that the CIVIL REGISTRATION AND ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICES GENERAL DIRECTORATE will provide information on those subject to coverage in pre-school and school education as early as August, at the latest at the beginning of September.
– The participants in the meeting emphasized not only the role of the representatives of the institutions in the coverage process, but also of the educational mediators, social workers and teachers’ assistants. As prof. Tsokov and the Prime Minister Acad. Denkov stressed that mediators play a crucial role in efforts to ensure full coverage and retention of children in classrooms. One of the new things for the coming year is the sustainable funding that the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Education have secured for the payment of educational mediators/social workers/teacher assistants through a change in the Funding Ordinance. This change was undertaken after unprecedented civil pressure, organized by Amalipe and the educational mediators, which followed the decision of the interim Minister of Education not to continue the NP “Support for educational mediators…” and to leave the payment for these important positions entirely in the budget of schools and secondary schools.
The contribution of educational mediators was repeatedly acknowledged and they were expected to be involved in the retention efforts.
– Minister Tsokov reported that in 44% of dropout cases, the main reason is related to reluctance, lack of commitment and lack of support from parents and family. Around 13% drop out due to absenteeism. Other reasons for dropping out are severe financial situation in the family, caring for sick parents or younger siblings, de facto marriage. In this context, the Ministry of Education is planning increased work to increase parents’ motivation, with educational mediators expected to be the most active actors. Additional interest activities with students are also planned to make the school experience more interesting and useful. The provision of free meals, a practice that has become established over the last decade, will also continue.
– Changes to Ordinance 100 will be initiated. It regulates the Mechanism for Reaching, Inclusion and Dropout Prevention. They will regulate the participation of educational mediators, as well as new deadlines for the implementation of some activities.
The Full Coverage mechanism: what does it include and what does it fail to include?
Full coverage of all children of compulsory pre-school and school age has been one of the main priorities of the Ministry of Education since 2017. It contains a Mechanism, a Coordination Unit and local, multi-institutional teams. The Mechanism includes the key institutions working with children and their families (not only education, but also social and health institutions, police, municipal authorities, etc.). They are obliged to cooperate in seven cross-cutting areas to ensure that every child attends school.
The coordination unit is at a high political level, chaired by a deputy prime minister, and yesterday’s meeting was attended by Prime Minister Denkov. It includes the ministers of education, social policy, health, interior and others. Its main function is to ensure coordination at central level for the implementation of the Mechanism and its measures. As central institutions have decentralised structures at regional level, the unit can also ensure cooperation at district and local level.
Multi-agency teams are formed locally in each ‘catchment area’ which is the area of a particular school/nursery. They include/must include representatives from all local agencies working with children (including the police). The Head of the relevant Regional Education Department shall form the teams in consultation with the municipal authorities. The teams are expected to implement comprehensive measures in the area to ‘find’ children who are not attending school, enrol them and prevent drop-out and early school leaving.
The 2018 Civil Monitoring Report on the implementation of the National Strategy for Roma Integration indicates that “The establishment of a multi-institutional framework for full coverage can be assessed as an important, positive step that responds to a crucial need, namely to engage a wide range of institutions (not only educational) for a common goal. It is also a sign of political attention and willingness to mobilize all institutional resources. The envisaged high level of political participation is a prerequisite for achieving the expected tasks.” See the report here
At the same time, the report clearly outlines important limitations of the framework. Among them, we can point out that the involvement of parents and the local Roma community is insignificant: local teams can (but are not obliged to) include mediators and NGOs, but this is only optional and no involvement from them at central level is foreseen. The mechanism relies primarily on institutions (educational, social, health) and their role is exaggerated. They are expected to address all the challenges to full coverage, with the most important responsibility being that of the educational institutions – schools and day-care centres. The role of local communities has been severely underestimated, although it is widely acknowledged that change is not possible without parental involvement. The mechanism (at least in the early years) brought out some populist measures that could have immediate effects but are problematic from the point of view of child and family well-being: for example, replacing family benefits now provided in cash with clothes and shoes, increasing administrative punishment for attendance-related offences, etc. In March 2019, the National Assembly adopted a change in the law whereby child allowances are suspended for a whole year in the event of five unexcused absences, rather than just for one month as was previously the case.
The MPs acclaimed this measure, but it had rather the opposite effect – before it, the suspension of child allowances had a startling effect and led to higher attendance, as parents saw a real opportunity to recover the aid they received the very next month. Since the change, many headteachers have testified that this effect has been lost as the one-year time limit seems unrealistic and the incentive effect is lost.
Another important gap is on the pedagogical side of the process. In practice, the Mechanism does not pay significant attention to the change needed in pedagogical methods and tools in the classroom when children are reintegrated into school. As a result, many children returned to classrooms quickly drop out again. The whole framework is rather formal-administrative.
The Citizens’ Monitoring Report outlines several key problems for the implementation of the Mechanism. While these were identified in 2019, most of them are in full force today:
- The percentage of children successfully reintegrated is relatively low: against the background of children and students sought, and against the background of rounds made, it is no more than 10%
- Migration abroad seems to be the toughest challenge: in most cases, the children and students the Teams are looking for have long lived in Western Europe. In practice, no institution in Bulgaria has reliable information on how many children live abroad and whether they are enrolled in school in the host country, even though the Bulgarian constitution requires the state to provide compulsory education until the age of 16. Moreover, there are some regulatory obstacles that hinder their reintegration into Bulgarian schools upon their return to Bulgaria. Some children have to remain unenrolled for months or attend school without being registered in the official school records. Many parents point out that this is one of the biggest differences between Bulgaria and the countries they migrate to.
- In 1/3 of the cases (percentages vary from year to year), the Teams did not receive information on the visits made or the information was unreliable. A possible reason for this is that the Roma communities do not trust the local teams: in the first years they did not include the educational mediators or other representatives of the local communities. In many cases, the Teams found that families had moved without providing information about their whereabouts. Since most Roma maintain strong ties with their relatives and other community members, the fact that the local teams did not receive accurate information for 1/3 of them indicates mistrust (i.e. those community members who have information do not share it with the local teams). The absence of Roma and Turkish-speaking members in local teams, combined with the perception that social workers and police only visit Roma neighbourhoods to enforce sanctions against community members, closes local Roma communities to cooperation in many cases;
- The number of children found by local teams but not reintegrated is significant – it varies from year to year, but 1/5 of those found refuse to enrol in school. This shows the limitations of the administrative approach;
- Health problems also seem to be a serious obstacle, although the information does not indicate their type. The Bulgarian education system needs more adaptive forms (and their application in rural areas and Roma neighbourhoods) for the reintegration of children with health problems.
After the expected changes: what next?
The meeting of the Inter-institutional Mechanism and the participation of the Prime Minister Acad. Denkov and the Minister of Education prof. Tsokov, gives hope that efforts to ensure full coverage will be restarted. In the previous school year, they were not a real priority. This is undoubtedly good news.
The anticipated changes to the Coverage Mechanism are undoubtedly in the right direction. It is extremely important that educational mediators will be formally included in local teams. Even more importantly, the MoES has been able to secure a sustainable solution to pay for their work by providing dedicated resources for the recruitment of mediators/social workers/teacher’s assistants.
Other changes need to be made. For example, NGOs working on full coverage should be included in the Outreach Teams. It is particularly important to encourage changes in the methods, means and forms of pedagogical interaction with pupils and their parents: it is important not only to get children back into classrooms, but to keep them there. This can only happen once school becomes interesting and useful. The measures outlined by Minister Tsokhov, such as interest classes, free meals, all-day organisation, etc., are important but insufficient. They are still working, they are having an effect, but it is not universal. A complete change is needed in the way Bulgarian schools work.
Many teachers and principals point out that in practice the Full Coverage mechanism Teams primarily involve educational institutions. Social and health workers are only episodically involved, and the police are present only in the most problematic cases. The mechanism is well designed in this respect, but is not implemented in practice. The involvement of institutions outside the school system is a challenge for which innovative solutions must be found.
 Its full name is the Mechanism for Inter-institutional Cooperation for the Inclusion of Preschool and School-age Children and Pupils in the Education System.
 Decree 100/08.06.2018, art. 3