On the eve of International Roma Day, the Ministry of Education told the educational mediators that they would probably leave them without a job from July 1

The Department of Education appreciates the work of educational mediators in keeping students in classrooms. However, at this point in time the MoE is considering NOT continuing the National Support Programme for Educational Mediators but leaving schools to find their own way to cover their salaries. In this situation, most of the 940 mediators currently working under the National Programme will be out of a job from 01.07.2023.

This became clear at a meeting organised on 07 April, on the eve of International Roma Day. It was initiated by Center Amalipe and held at the Ministry of Education and Science. It was attended by 30 school and kindergarten principals, educational mediators and NGO representatives. Although the Minister of Education was supposed to participate in the meeting, he did not come to talk to the principals and mediators, as it was explained that he was suddenly called to talk to with the Minister of Finance. On the part of the Ministry of Education, the meeting was attended by the Head of the Cabinet Dimitar Zdravkov, Greta Gancheva (head of the project “Success for you”), Penka Ivanova (head of the NP “Support of OM and social workers”), Dima Kotseva and Mariana Lambova – Markova from the Finance Directorate.

In his welcoming remarks Dimitar Zdravkov specified that everyone is convinced of the usefulness of the work of educational mediators and that the only question is how to finance them after 1 July 2023. Deyan Kolev stressed that since 2013 the Ministry of Education and the Amalipe Centre have been holding an annual meeting of the Minister of Education with Roma teachers on the eve of the International Roma Day on 8 April. It was on 8 April 1971 that the First World Roma Congress began in London, adopting the Roma flag and the anthem “Djelem, Djelem”. Mediator Angel Angelov performed the anthem and the participants presented the Roma flag to the Chief of Staff.

This year’s meeting was different – not only because for the first time since this tradition began the Minister did not come, but also because it had a slightly different focus – to draw attention to the other important group of professionals for keeping children in school, namely educational mediators and the uncertainties facing their future – they continue to be treated as seasonal workers and every six months wonder if they will have a job.

Currently, no institution keeps a record of exactly how many educational mediators are working in the country. Indirect estimates put the number at over 1,100. Some of them are appointed with the funds for work with vulnerable groups under Article 52a of the Ordinance on the financing of institutions in the system of school and pre-school education, a small number are appointed under the project “Active inclusion in pre-school education”. The largest number of mediators are working under the National Programme “Support for Educational Mediators (over 900 mediators). It was originally scheduled until 31 December 2022. After a major campaign by Amalipe, the Network of Educational Mediators, and hundreds of schools across the country, the Council of Ministers extended the National Programme until 31.06.2023.

At the beginning of the conversation Deyan Kolev raised the issue of the need to extend the National Programme for another year. It should also include kindergartens, since the mediators working there are appointed under the project “Active Inclusion…”, which also ends on 31 June 2023. It is necessary to find a way for sustainable funding of educational mediators from the state budget, which is not based on the principle of national programmes or projects, but gives security to mediators and directors.

Greta Gancheva pointed out that from September 2023 the Success for You project will deploy all its activities, including the activity for work with parents. Under it, educational mediators appointed by schools will be able to receive “cashing/reimbursement” of up to 4 hours per day or up to 500 leva (including insurance) per month from the mediators’ salary. However, this means that in the meantime the schools will have to have already recruited the mediators and found somewhere to pay their salary so that part of it can be reimbursed by the project at a later date.

The Finance Directorate indicated that schools with concentrations of vulnerable groups could use the funds they receive under Article 52a of the Funding Ordinance. This year, hundreds of schools as well as kindergartens will receive such funds amounting to 34 million BGN. However, in their speeches, school principals across the country stressed that these funds are also received on the basis of the number of pupils in the school concerned. Thus, some of the large segregated schools in Roma neighbourhoods receive the bulk of this funding and it will not be a problem for them to continue the mediators’ contracts. At the same time, in smaller schools (especially in villages) the Article 52a funds are not even enough to hire one mediator. We should not forget that the Funding Ordinance allows the funds to be used for 4 types of expenses, and in small schools they are barely enough. Principals should also use these funds to pay honorarium/salary or part of salary if they deem they need to:

  • The inclusion of teachers in outreach teams,
  • extra hours to improve Bulgarian language
  • Parent club leader, etc.
  • teacher’s assistant
  • fees of other teaching and non-teaching professionals who help to work with children from vulnerable groups

Most of the principals who spoke said that they could retain a maximum of one mediator (and that is assuming that they do not use these funds to pay teachers or any of the other professionals listed above) or even none due to lack of funds. They noted that such an approach would create tensions within educational institutions and pit some professionals against others, especially in schools with small budgets.

The problem is particularly acute in ethnically mixed schools, which do not receive resources for working with vulnerable groups. Specific examples were given of such schools which make great efforts to remain ethnically mixed and educate a certain number of Roma pupils. They are in particular need of educational mediators and the national programme provides them with such an opportunity, but they will have to lay them off when the programme ends.

The Finance Directorate questioned why schools had transitional balances, stating that schools with concentrations of vulnerable groups had ten million BGN of transitional balances last year. In response, many principals stressed that maintaining a transitional surplus is often a matter of good financial management: student numbers are declining, and without a surplus the principal is often unable to support teaching staff throughout the school year. Deyan Kolev added that such balances are also necessary because of the non-rhythmic disbursement of funds from the Ministry of Education and Science for the various European projects: often schools have to wait for months to receive them (and sometimes this happens well after the projects have ended) and during this time they have to invest their own funds. The reality of the education system shows that for a school to be financially sustainable, at the beginning of each calendar year, it needs to have financial resources available to meet the most pressing needs.

At the end of the discussion, it was clarified that the Ministry has not yet decided whether or not to continue the national programme. A ray of hope for the mediators working in kindergartens under the Active Inclusion… project was the news that another European project will continue their employment until 31 December 2023. After that they will also have to be covered by the kindergartens’ budget. Participants from the Ministry of Education clarified that they do not take the decision and due to the absence of the Minister it is not possible to say whether the national programme will be discontinued/not continued or renewed, but at this point the hope for the mediators is that they will be covered by the schools’ budgets.

Beyond the facts: the meeting on April 7th was the most strange event organised together with the Ministry of Education on the occasion of the International Roma Day. In previous years, it was an occasion to acknowledge the increasing number of Roma teachers, and to once again send the message that education is the best way to develop the Roma community. There was indeed a festive spirit, even though we raised pressing issues for education. This year it was not so. For the first time, the Minister of Education did not participate. Since 2013, when we started the tradition of organizing a joint meeting of Roma teachers with the respective Minister of Education, it has always been attended by Acad. Miloshev, prof. Klisarova, prof. Tanev, M. Kuneva, Acad. Denkov, Kr. Valchev (during all the years of his mandate). Some of the directors and mediators came from the farthest parts of Bulgaria – Varna, Dobrich, Sredets, etc. Minister Penov did not meet them. He was apologetic that he had to go urgently to talk with the Minister of Finance, but it left a “bitter taste” in the directors’ mouths that he was called by the Minister of Finance at that very moment…

In spite of the good partnership tone that has always been present at such meetings, the Ministry of Education had come prepared with a list of transitional balances for each of the schools and kindergartens present. This list was used as an argument that the schools had money to hire the mediators. Generating a transitional surplus is not forbidden and in a market economy is a sign of good financial management (municipalities do not tolerate shortages and underfunding of schools/ kindergartens), but if formally the principals have the freedom to dispose of the school budget appropriately, in reality this is not the case and the officials in the MES (respectively the PDE) often send contradictory messages. In any case, the frankness and constructiveness of the conversation did not benefit from having this list.

Mediators felt particularly conflicted. They presented stories from the field, what they do, what they achieve and what it costs them. They shared that some of them are studying higher teacher education to become full teachers. They heard that their work is appreciated but that probably from 01.07 the Ministry of Education will not continue to allocate targeted funds for this.

To summarise, the message from the meeting was: ‘Mediators are important to us, but principals should absorb them from the budget and additional payments. And the surest thing is for principals to be trained in how to turn a limited budget into a ‘grandfather glove’ and accommodate all the needs that the educational institution they are responsible for has.”

After the meeting: whats coming up with educational mediators

The meeting made it clear that nothing is clear. The Ministry of Education and Science has not yet decided whether to continue the national programme, even though there is little time left before it ends. The MES experts are rather looking for a way to transfer the responsibility for the payment of the educational mediators to the schools, although they are aware that many will be laid off in this way. The situation will be worst in ethnically mixed schools, which do not receive funding for work with vulnerable groups, and in rural schools with small numbers of pupils.

Mediators in kindergartens working on the Active Inclusion project will be reassigned for 6 months under the Equal Access in Crisis project. After 31.12.2023, they will have to be covered by the budgets of the Kindergartens or be made redundant.

There is no change only for the mediators who are appointed with the funds for work with vulnerable groups.

It is not clear what the position of the Minister of Education is, although at the Mediator of the Year ceremony on 13.01.2023, the Minister promised that the Programme will be continued. Then Prof. Penov expressed confidence that an option would be found to continue the National Programme beyond 30 June, and that through a combination of National and European funds, decent pay would be secured for educational mediators and social workers in education. He may not have made a decision. There is still time for schools and nurseries, trade unions and employers’ organisations, civil society organisations, MPs in the newly-formed Parliament to influence the continuation of the National Programme or another realistic and acceptable way of ensuring the sustainability of pay for educational mediators.

Center Amalipe appeals:

  • The National Programme “Support for Educational Mediators and Social Workers” to be extended for the period 01.07.2023 – 31.06.2024.
  • The national programme should include the possibility for new schools and kindergartens to apply
  • To discuss and implement a change in the use of funds under Article 52a of the Financing Ordinance that reduces the differences in the amount of funds received by different schools and kindergartens. For example, a minimum value and a maximum cap could be introduced, etc.
  • To find a way for mediators working under the NP and the Success for You project to receive a salary increase in strict compliance with demarcation
    We appeal to all schools and kindergartens, NGOs and experts to express their solidarity with the work of educational mediators and the need to provide funding for their salaries.