The Future of Desegregation and Education Policies

A sincere conversation about the range of educational segregation, the ways to overcome it and the overall development of school education in the coming months and years, took place during the National Conference “State of Educational Integration: From Segregation to an Ethnically Mixed Environment”. The first panel of the Conference was attended by the Minister of Education Nikolay Denkov, MPs Krasimir Valchev and Denitsa Sacheva, Christina de Bruin – director of UNICEF for Bulgaria and representative of the Group of Ambassadorial on Roma Issues, Teodora Dacheva, deputy director of the National Association of Municipalities in the Republic of Bulgaria, Hristina Petkova from DG Education of the European Commission, Deyan Kolev from Center Amalipe Center and Boyan Zahariev from the Open Society Institute. Around 150 teachers, principals, educational mediators and NGO representatives took place in the conference.

The National Conference “State of Educational Integration: From Segregation to an Ethnically Mixed Environment” was held on July 4 and 5, 2022 in Sofia. It was part of the “No Segregation” Project implemented by Center Amalipe and financed by the European Commission, DG Justice.

At the beginning of the first panel of the Conference, Boyan Zahariev presented the methodology and results of the study of segregated educational institutions, conducted within the framework of the “No Segregation” Project. It covers all regions of the country and all educational institutions – kindergartens, general education schools, professional and vocational high schools. The survey is based on the information that each school and kindergarten submits through the National electronic information system for preschool and school education regarding the educational and socio-economic status of the parents. It also uses the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) classification of educational institutions according to the concentration of vulnerable groups, dividing them into 6 categories – 5 groups of schools depending on the percentage of parents with less than secondary education and the 6th group, uniting schools without a concentration of low- educated parents. In addition, experts from the No Segregation Project conducted field research to supplement this information with data on the ethnic background of the parents.

The study shows that in Bulgaria there are 930 general education schools (elementary, primary, united and secondary), 150 vocational high schools and 483 kindergartens with a concentration of vulnerable groups (as of the academic year 2019/2020). I.e. in these institutions, between 20 and 100 percent of parents have less than a high school education. Of these, 120 general education schools and 77 vocational high schools can be defined as segregated because they are located in regional and municipal centers with more than one school, and the percentage of parents with low education is between 60 and 100 percent. Another 65 general education schools and 83 vocational high schools are in the process of secondary segregation or under threat of segregation.

Boyan Zahariev presented interesting maps of the segregated educational institutions in several of the major Bulgarian cities and the potential reasons for their segregation. You can see the presentation here.

Deyan Kolev presented the main models of segregation and important successful examples of desegregation in Bulgaria. He also made recommendations for urgent policy actions through which the executive and legislative authorities should support the efforts of municipalities, schools

and NGOs for desegregation. The recommendations include changes to the Law on Preschool and School Education, the Standard for Civic … and Intercultural Education, expanding the scope of the National Program for Desegregation, and a number of others. See the entire presentation here.

In his speech, the Minister of Education Prof. Denkov pointed out that educational integration should be one of the top three priorities for the development of Bulgarian education. He pointed out that thanks to the efforts of the outreach teams, more than 3,000 out of a total of 44,000 children who are in Bulgaria but not covered by the education system have been returned to the education system in the last year. I.e. there are still 8% of children living in Bulgaria of compulsory education age who are not in classrooms. Apart from them, there are tens of thousands of others who are abroad.

Minister Denkov agreed with the recommendations made, stressing that the Amalipe Center and the Open Society Institute have a unique opportunity to combine large-scale field work and skills for deriving analytical and political recommendations. The MES will expand its activities to promote education in an ethnically mixed environment and for desegregation. Minister Denkov emphasized that the strongest potential for solving the problem lies in increasing the quality of education in every school, regardless of the ethnic diversity in it. Children are different, they have different interests, and we must give all children an equal start. Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate the approach to them.

Minister Denkov pointed out important steps that have already been taken, paying attention to what was achieved under the previous government. For example, compulsory pre-school education from the age of 4, free kindergartens, diverse extracurricular activities and so on. He pointed out 7 directions in which educational policies should be developed in order for the school to be an interesting and attractive place for every child:

  1. Early childhood development – increasing the standard, continuing the construction of kindergartens and nurseries, appointing the necessary number of speech therapists, psychologists and other specialists, so that every child receives the necessary care and enters the first grade prepared;
  2. Education should not be a financial hardship for parents – we have already introduced free kindergarten and I thank the NGO sector for initiating the discussion on this much-needed step. We will continue with free textbooks, food for the children, dormitories, electronic resources… The MES is taking care of starting this autumn an electronic cloud with resources – electronic lessons and other online educational products, which should provide online educational materials to everyone. This access should not be abstract, but free and easily accessible to all children and parents, to enable exchange between students and teachers;
  3. Quality of school learning: we will continue to invest in teacher qualifications. Thanks to Teach for Bulgaria and Amalipe for showing in which directions the qualification should develop. It is necessary for the state to take care of the practically oriented qualification of teachers. Every single teacher, during their university training, has to complete an internship in a difficult school, together with an internship in a basic school, which usually has a low concentration of vulnerable groups;
  4. Creating interest among students: we will continue to build STEM classrooms. In addition to natural – mathematical sciences and inter-subject connections, they should become a center for extracurricular activities in addition to the national programs and children from all ethnicities and social groups should participate in them. In this way, the difference between one and the other schools will be overcome;
  5. For vocational high schools: there are serious funds planned in the Education Program, as well as a new program in the coming months. It is necessary for vocational high schools to acquire the prestige and attractiveness that language and mathematics high schools have – I believe that this is possible and not an illusion;
  6. Role models: educational mediators are a small part of the role models who motivate students and their parents. We will ensure sustainability of educational mediators. In addition, we are considering a new role for Centers for personal development support – expanding the activities of the centers for personal development, career development and organizing various extracurricular activities in them. Children from different schools and different ethnicities will participate in these activities so that they can constantly interact;
  7. Introducing a value-added assessment system: it assesses how far pupils have progressed, their family background and where they start from when entering the school concerned. The system will evaluate schools according to the efforts made and the effect they achieve on specific students. We anticipate that this system will be partially tested within 2 months, using the achieved results of the State matriculation exams and the external evaluation. I expect that the winners will not be the “usual suspects”, but schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups.
The head of the UNICEF mission for Bulgaria and representative of the Group of Ambassadors on Roma issues, Christina de Bruin, congratulated the Bulgarian government on the successes achieved regarding the equal access of all children to pre-school and school education – the mandatory pre-school preparation from the age of 4, the abolition of kindergarten fees, the activities of the Inter-Institutional Outreach Mechanism, etc. She recommended working in three directions to ensure the access of Roma children to education: removing any financial barriers to participation in preschool education and increasing the percentage of Roma children included in early childhood development and preschool education services; increasing the quality and scope of primary and secondary education; respect for Roma culture and language. Mrs. de Bruin pointed out that an important decision at European and national level is the Child Guarantee. The European Commission placed special emphasis on Roma children in it. UNICEF is piloting the child guarantee in seven countries, one of which is Bulgaria. Here it was implemented in ten municipalities in the regions of Burgas, Sliven and Stara Zagora, achieving very good results and reaching 13,000 children and 5,000 parents. Currently, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is preparing an action plan for the implementation of the Child Guarantee. We are sure that desegregation will play an important part in it.
In her welcoming words, Hristina Petkova from DG “Education” of the European Commission congratulated Center Amalipe both for the tremendous work with the schools and for the very important advocacy at national and European level. She also highly appreciated the commitment of the MES, Minister Denkov, UNICEF and other stakeholders. Mrs. Petkova emphasized the importance of desegregation, as it corresponds to three principles laid down in the documents of the European Commission and the Council of the EU: achieving full coverage of children by the educational system, eradicating poverty and overcoming under-achievements is impossible without effective desegregation. Therefore, the European Roma strategic framework sets specific goals regarding the desegregation of Roma students. Hristina Petkova presented three initiatives of DG Education, which help ensure equal access and desegregation of Roma students. The first is related to national recovery and resilience plans. An expert group has been set up at European level to prepare guidelines for national governments on how to use this large-scale investment to improve access to digital education, including desegregation. The second is the joint project of the Council of Europe and the EC Inschool. And last but not least, is the initiative that was published a week ago, on 30.06.2022 – “Pathways to school success”. It contains recommendations from the Council of the EU, as well as a number of analytical documents that address early school leaving, as well as under-achievements and limited access to digital education. The initiative emphasizes the need for classroom diversity and desegregation as part of Pathways to School Success.
MPs Krasimir Valchev and Denitsa Sacheva also made their speeches. The former Minister of Education and current Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Education and Science at the 47th National Assembly, Krasimir Valchev, expressed strong support for the acceleration of desegregation policies. He indicated three mechanisms – financial, regulatory and the formation of a new work culture. Regarding the financial mechanism, it is necessary to continue the NP Support of municipalities for desegregation, as well as funding for schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups under the Ordinance on Financing. The latter needs to be increased in percentage and size, which may be a task for the next 3-4 budgets. In addition, it is necessary to diversify the possibilities of this funding – not only for salaries and fees, but also for desegregation activities, activities under the coverage mechanism, including for paying the institutions outside the education system participating in the inter-institutional teams (social workers, police and etc.). It is necessary to continue and increase the construction of kindergartens and schools in large cities and villages with a need for this. Regarding the regulatory mechanism, Mr. Valchev expressed his categorical support for changes in the Law on preschool and school education, which would oblige the municipalities to implement a desegregation policy and even limit the years of stay in a segregated environment. We have to be braver, even if we have to partially limit the right to choose the nearest school, if that way we will support the desegregation policy, emphasized Mr. Valchev. The formation of a new work culture is especially important. I fully support the teamwork of the Amalipe network schools, that they exchange successful experiences and practices. A culture of innovation must also become an integral part of the way modern educational institutions work. Krasimir Valchev also supported the proposal to organize systematic extracurricular activities involving students from schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups and schools without a concentration. Why not go even further and consider a collaborative learning process, he suggested.
The former deputy minister of education, social minister and current member of the Committee on Education and Science  Denitsa Sacheva continued his colleague’s speech, emphasizing the need for extracurricular activities in the field of digital technologies. She proposed the creation of a “Bulgarian Erasmus”, i.e. an opportunity for schools to learn from the experience of others and thus interact, deepening the current NP Innovations in Action.
The MP Elisaveta Belobradova, member of the Committee on Education and Science member  also supported educational desegregation policies. “Education cannot be left to fight segregation alone. The whole environment must change and we all live together under the same rules, with the same opportunities for development, with the same rights and obligations, in the same workplaces. No matter how hard we try to reduce segregation in schools, if it continues to dominate the workplace, we will never achieve equal outcomes.”

Teodora Dacheva, deputy executive director of the National Association of Municipalities in the Republic of Bulgaria, pointed out that for all municipalities education is a leading priority. She emphasized the fact that the situation with the number of children and school buildings is very different in different municipalities – in 40 municipalities there is only one school, in 70% of the municipalities the number of children is decreasing and the school buildings are empty, while in Sofia, Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna and several other regional centers do not reach the kindergarten buildings and a single shift teaching process cannot be implemented. Desegregation is important for all municipalities, and in small rural municipalities it is associated with increasing the quality of rural schools, while in regional centers other approaches can be sought.

Our first and main recommendation, which we have been repeating for many years, is to have a specific approach to each individual municipality. The problems in Borovan and Varna cannot be solved with the same measure. Municipalities must have the resource and be given the right to spend funds on whatever they need in order to achieve the goal. The other thing we couldn’t deal with is parental responsibility. Every child must have access to education – it is written in the constitution and since the parent is irresponsible and cannot provide him with this access – the state must step in with all its might. The other thing that we think will help desegregation is to finally have a school rating. So far this is just based on urban folklore. If there is any objective measure to show that this school is not that much better than another – it will result in a mixed educational environment. Personal development support centers – for us, they are a good form of creating a mixed environment. This is the place to gather children from different ethnicities. We would very much like to have a financial incentive for schools and Centers for personal development support to encourage mixed events. There should also be a percentage of children of Bulgarian origin. Let’s not divide them.

Beyond the words

Both the first panel and the entire conference made a strong impression with the constructive tone of the political discussions held, in which representatives of various political parties participated. Despite the tense political situation and the extremely heated tone of the parliamentary debates in recent days, the conference was characterized by a spirit of shared values, respect for the achievements of other participants, a desire for supra-partisanship in education policies and recognition of the role of civil organizations. All this made the participants feel confident that the policies of educational integration and desegregation would be continued regardless of the political turbulence and that the solutions reached by the participants would be implemented.