The future in education: new, ongoing and absent commitments

Deyan Kolev

Continuation and expansion of key education policies from previous years, completely innovative policy solutions on other important thematic areas such as delegated school budgets and quality of education, and lack of explicit commitments to topics such as intercultural education, educational integration, school segregation, etc. This can be seen in the thematic Annexes to the Coalition Agreement between the parties that form the present government (We Continue the Change, There Is Such a People, Bulgarian Socialist Party and Democratic Bulgaria)! The annexes should outline both the Government’s programme and the main legislative initiatives in the coming years. What do they contain in the field of education?

 The purpose of this analysis is not to provide any political assessment, but to draw attention to the main political commitments for the development of pre-school and school education made in the Coalition Agreement. The analysis also outlines some of the key thematic areas where no specific measures are envisaged – intercultural education, overcoming segregation and promoting educational integration. I believe that these areas are key for the development of Bulgarian education and without tangible progress in them, real modernization, equal access for all children and improving the quality of education are not possible.

The future education policies of the ruling coalition are described in the thematic annex „Education“, as well as partly in „Labour and Social Policies“. The Education Annex contains proposals for several thematic areas: system-wide, pre-school and school education, (curriculum content and teaching methods, support and development of teaching staff, funding and facilities, vocational education, inclusive education), higher education and science (staff, facilities and funding). Most of them are concrete measures or more general principles on which a consensus has been reached and are to be implemented, starting with the 2022 State Budget Law and continuing with legislative initiatives and executive decisions in the coming years. Another part are ideas for which no consensus has been reached and their implementation is postponed to the more distant future – once a consensus has been reached or they take on more concrete dimensions. In view of the fact that the Annex contains policy measures proposed by 4 different parties, it cannot be considered as a comprehensive education programme. The measures included have different levels of specificity, some follow different philosophies and do not cover all thematic areas of pre-school, school and university education. However, they set the main directions in the development of education policies in the coming months and years.

Ongoing commitments

A number of measures have been proposed in pre-school and school education. Many of them continue and/or build on important priorities that have been initiated and launched over the last few years. We can define this as a positive aspect because education is a conservative area where it is necessary to characterise the political actions taken with a certain consistency, especially when it comes to measures that have proven their efficiency and effectiveness. For example:

  • It is planned to continue increasing teachers’ salaries so that they maintain a level of 120-125% of the average wage. The doubling of teachers’ salaries over the previous four years was an important measure that has raised the prestige of the profession and brought more young people into it. It required very serious financial resources. For this reason, the increase in the uniform cost standards over the previous 4 years has in practice only covered the increase in teachers’ salaries. Some schools with small number of students could not secure the increased salaries through the uniform cost standards alone and therefore used the additional funding for vulnerable groups received under Article 52 of the Financing ordiance and other sources. The stated commitment to maintain the levels achieved so that teachers’ salaries continue to be 20-25% higher than the average wage will also require financial resources. But it will be significantly lower in percentage. This will allow schools and kindergartens to use a larger share of the funds received under the uniform expenditure standards to develop and improve the quality of education and the attractiveness of the learning process.
  • Ensuring the maximum involvement of students in interest-based activities, full-day organization of the educational process, single-shift regime will continue to be among the main priorities. The same applies to the digitalisation of education, the creation of free internet-based learning resources, the creation of resources by teachers and so on. For years, interest-based activities were provided through the so-called “system projects” “Success” and “Your Lesson”. From 2019, the state budget provides additional resources to each school for the organisation of interest-based activities. It is important that this practice continues and even expands. Through the “Education for Tomorrow” project, a more systematic effort to digitalize education, to create and systematize digital learning resources with the participation of teachers and other pedagogical specialists has begun. Continuing this practice and turning it into a large-scale digitisation process is undeniably necessary.
  • Continuation of the Interinstitutional Mechanism for Full Enrolment: the establishment and development of inter-agency teams for full enrolment and an Outreach Mechanism (at policy level) has been one of the main efforts to get drop-outs back into classrooms. Some successes have been achieved in this respect, although a purely administrative approach could not bring about a cardinal change. The Covid-19 pandemic very much halted the activities of local outreach teams. It needs to be renewed and rethought.

The new commitments

Serious changes in the way education is funded are set out in the Coalition Agreement.

  • A significant increase of the budget for education is foreseen, as it should reach the unprecedented 7% of GDP – 5% for pre-school and school education, 1% for higher education and 1% for science. This would be a revolutionary increase in view of the fact that in previous years and even decades the overall education budget did not reach 4%. During the debate “Education – a dialogue for the future”, organised by leading NGOs in education on 23 March 2021, the main political parties (ruling and opposition at the time) stated a commitment to increase the education budget to 5%.
  • A new school funding model, including quality assessment, is set out in the Education Annex. The parameters of the new model have not been clarified and in some respects what is at stake follows slight internal contradictions. On the one hand, there is a “refinement of the school funding formula with an added component of value-added assessment. Money should also follow quality, taking into account the specificities of the schools and the impact of different factors (location, facilities, overheads)” (2. 4. 4. ) That is, it is intended that the assessment of quality will be on a vertical basis, assessing the added value that each school gives to its students. The ideas of vertical quality assessment in every school are not new. For years, independent education experts have proposed different scales for assessing the value added in relation to the educational level of parents, the progress of pupils through different educational levels, etc. Vertical assessment of quality and value-added is considerably fairer than the current (albeit informal) horizontal assessments of how different schools perform against the National External Assessment Examinations, State Matriculation Exams, Olympiad performances etc. It is clear that schools educating children from low-status families are likely to underperform on NEAEs, SMEs compared to schools, educating children from families of graduates with high socio-economic status. At the same time, many of the schools educating students from vulnerable groups (including rural schools, etc. ) have a much higher added value relative to the education they provide to their students.

At the same time, the arrangements in Annex Education also contain “the inclusion of an additional component in the school subsidy, for example, according to the qualifications of the school and the ranking of students in Olympiads” (2. 4. 5. ), i. e. there are also indications of horizontal quality assessment between different schools. Obviously, the specific way to include quality of education as an element of the way schools are financed has yet to be specified.

  • The abolition of fees for kindergarten and even nursery school is an innovative commitment combined with the construction of new childcare facilities. It is covered in both the Education Supplement and the Labour and Social Policies Supplement. It is planned to secure it already through the state budget for 2022. This important measure would complete a long-standing effort by the civil sector and the Ministry of Education itself to remove financial barriers in early childhood. Free kindergarten is probably the most effective means to overcome one of the key problems in pre-school education, namely the extremely low enrolment, especially in non-compulsory pre-school groups.

The net pre-school enrolment rate falls to 78. 1% in 2020/21 from 83. 6% in 2013/14, according to the Office for National Statistics. The negative trend shows that every fifth Bulgarian child does not attend a childcare facility. The number of families living in emigration is not enough to explain this decline. In any case, preschool enrolment in Bulgaria is significantly lower than in Western European countries and poses serious challenges for primary school teachers. Coverage is particularly low in the Roma community, with the EU Agency for Fundamental Human Rights reporting that only 68% of Roma children attend kindergarten.

In 2013-2017, the Trust for Social Achievement, in partnership with 19 local NGOs, implemented a large-scale research project “Ready for School” in 240 kindergartens across the country. Its aim was to examine to what extent the abolition of kindergarten fees would stimulate fuller coverage and greater attendance. The results showed conclusively that nearly half of the children not enrolled in kindergarten would start attending if fees and other financial barriers were removed. The research project was continued by advocacy initiatives for free kindergarten of the organizations TSA, Amalipe, World without Borders and New Path.

Gradually, free of fee kindergarten was also recognized as a priority by the Ministry of Education and Science as well as the main stakeholders in education. The 2018 state budget law banned the collection of additional funds from parents and left the possibility to pay only for meals in all-day preparatory groups. The next political step was taken through a change in the Pre-school and School Education Act of 09 September 2020. Through it, the state budget committed to providing funds for the exemption of kindergarten fees to a larger number of children. The legal change was made in a vague and not entirely consistent way. Through it, municipalities were given additional financial resources to waive fees without a clear commitment for which groups of children this would be done. For a more detailed analysis of the legislative change and its implications, see here.

A TSA study shows that after the changes are made, the number of municipalities that waive kindergarten fees for children in compulsory preschool or for all children increases sharply in 2021. The lack of sufficient financial resources is the main obstacle for smaller municipalities to abolish the fees, although they are willing to do so, according to the survey. The commitment to abolish kindergarten and nursery fees already through the 2022 budget, made through the Education Annex, will definitely be welcomed by municipalities – as long as it is secured with the necessary funding from the state budget. This will lead to a tangible increase in preschool coverage as well as significantly better preschool outcomes.

Missing commitments

Intercultural education, educational integration and segregation in education are among the main missing topics in the Education Annex and the other Annexes to the Coalition Agreement. This hardly means that they will not be worked on, but rather that at the moment none of the parties has set specific demands and goals in these thematic areas. The latter is not unusual – usually every new government perceives the mentioned topics as ancillary and less significant. Subsequently, the “head-on collision” with the realities of the entire education system leads to the realization of the fact that without desegregation, educational integration and intercultural education, the modernization of Bulgarian education is not possible. But this realisation takes time and strategic acumen.

For a country like Bulgaria, where at least a third of children belong to ethnic, religious and/or linguistic minorities and whose citizens often live and study abroad, intercultural education is imperative. The vast majority of Bulgarian students today will work and live with representatives of different ethnicities and cultures in Bulgaria. Many of them will study or work and live in other European countries. In order to prepare them for real life, Bulgarian education must include the intercultural perspective as an immanent feature.

Some of the faculties of education responded to this challenge by including intercultural courses in the preparation of future teachers. Dozens of teachers and NGOs also responded, initiating various forms of intercultural education in the form of interest-based classes, free elective training and others. The Law on Pre-School and School Education included a special standard for Civic, [. . . ] and Intercultural Education, which has subsequently been relatively well spelled out. However, a large number of students are exposed to very few elements of intercultural education through the few lessons included in the compulsory subjects – a requirement set in the post-2004 curricula.

In its part “2. 2. The “Curriculum Content and Teaching Methods”, Annex Education contains a sub-clause for the inclusion of intercultural elements, namely “Inclusion of information about Roma and other communities in history textbooks”. The above is insufficient for a comprehensive presentation of the intercultural perspective, but sets the stage for more detailed development.

Educational segregation is one of the worst problems that hinder access to quality education. The Ministry of Education and Science has not collected information on pupils’ ethnicity since 2010. However, since 2017, every school and kindergarten has been submitting information on parents’ educational status through the National electronic information system for preschool and school education. The Ministry of Education summarizes this information by defining children from families with less than secondary education as “children/students from vulnerable groups”, and primary schools with more than 20% of such parents as “primary schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups”. The latter are divided into five groups, according to the concentration of parents with less than secondary education. Although this information makes no reference to the ethnicity of the students and their parents, a review of schools with concentrations of vulnerable groups shows that the vast majority are rural or urban schools with a majority of Roma or Turkish students. According to the 2020 information, there are 930 mainstream schools (primary, junior, consolidated and secondary schools) with concentrations of vulnerable groups. Of these, 745 are schools that are the only ones in the locality, i. e. rural schools, where one cannot speak of educational segregation. At the same time, 185 schools with concentrations of vulnerable groups are located in regional or municipal centres and can be defined as segregated or segregating schools. To these should be added 150 vocational schools with concentrations of vulnerable groups. It is evident that there is a serious number of schools, many of which have hundreds of students – for example, in the VI Primary School “Bratya Miladinovi” in Sliven there are nearly 1400 students, in the 75 Primary School “Todor Kableshkov” – Sofia there are 1000 students, etc. Detailed map “Segregated educational institutions in Bulgaria”, see here.

Desegregation practices and policies in Bulgaria have over 20 years of history. After civil society organizations started successful pilot desegregation projects in Vidin and other cities, the Ministry of Education and Science adopted this policy and it became the basis of the Strategy for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities (2004, 2010, 2015). Anti-segregation texts were also enshrined in the Law on Preschool and School Education. From 2019, the Ministry of Education is funding a National Desegregation Programme.

A short text referring to the issue of segregation is included in the Annex Education in the section Inclusive Education: ‘4. 1. 3. Comprehensive System Analysis of Highly Segregated Places and Implementation of Inclusive Education Programmes. ” It needs to be continued and developed as a detailed policy for desegregation and prevention of secondary segregation.

Educational integration of children and students from ethnic minorities is a policy based on the introduction of intercultural education and desegregation. From 2004 to 2020, the Ministry of Education had a special Strategy for Educational Integration and for its implementation the Centre for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities (ЦОИДУЕМ) was established. The Strategic Framework for Education Development Bulgaria 2030, adopted in 2021, contains as a special priority “Effective inclusion, sustainable inclusion and educational integration”.

The term “educational integration” does not appear in the coalition agreement. A special section 4 is included in the Education Annex. Inclusive education, which refers to children with special educational needs, antisocial behaviour, learning difficulties. There is no section on educational integration or specific priorities included in the other sections. As pointed out above, the implementation of such activities is imperative as part of the modernization of Bulgarian education. The lack of explicit texts in the coalition agreement gives the Ministry of Education and Science the freedom to plan and implement educational integration activities – in partnership with teachers, educational experts, civil society organisations and other stakeholders.

After Education Annex

A new school funding model, including quality and value added, an increase in the percentage of funding for education and science, free kindergartens and nurseries, free textbooks up to grade 12 and a number of other innovative policy commitments are included in the Education Annex of the Coalition Agreement of the parties forming the current government. The annex also contains a number of commitments that continue the education policies of previous years, including maintaining teachers’ salaries at 120-125% of the average wage, continuing the work of the outreach teams, digitalization of education and a number of others. At the same time, important topics such as intercultural education, educational integration and desegregation are omitted. The Annex should not be seen as a complete education programme, but rather as the stated political priorities of the ruling parties. In democratic countries, every public policy is shaped and implemented in continuous dialogue with key stakeholders – teachers, independent experts, civil society organisations, trade unions, employers’ organisations, etc. The policy intentions stated in  Annex Education need to be further developed in such a dialogue.


See more:

The National Assembly adopted at second reading amendments to the Preschool and School Education Act

. Detailed map “Segregated educational institutions in Bulgaria”