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EDUCATION: Illiteracy Rising in Parts of Europe

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, May 12 2009 (IPS) - A global event to promote literacy has drawn attention to the fact that an increasing number of Romanian and Bulgarian children are not getting minimal education.

The trend was explored by Romanian and Bulgarian participants at the ‘World’s Biggest Lesson’ organised Apr. 26 by the Global Campaign for Education. During this event, schoolchildren all over the world took the role of teachers in classrooms, and spoke to decision-makers and journalists about the difficulties many of them face in access to education.

The Global Campaign points out that 75 million children worldwide are still waiting to learn to read and write. And this in spite of the fact that world leaders have committed to ensuring that, by 2015, every child will have the chance to complete primary education (one of the eight Millennium Development Goals).

In Romania and Bulgaria an increasing number of poor children are seeing chances of getting access to education reduced rather than enhanced. The trend is unexpected, given that the two countries are believed to have developed significantly since 1989 (when communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed), and joined the European Union in 2007.

According to the ministries of education in these countries, school dropout rates have tripled since the late 1990s among some vulnerable social categories, such as children from rural areas, from poor families in the cities, and Roma kids. The Roma, numbering an estimated 10 million, are believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

In Romania, the primary school dropout rate for rural areas – considered the most vulnerable – was 0.6 percent in the 2000-2001 academic year, and increased to 1.8 percent in 2006-2007.

In Bulgaria, official statistics show a similar trend: according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on the Millennium Development goals in 2006, primary school completion rates in rural areas were 17 percent lower than in urban areas, and the gap is increasing.

Mihaela Manole, project coordinator at Save the Children Romania (the non- governmental organisation in charge of holding the ‘World’s Biggest Lesson’ in Romania), told IPS that the main reasons for the increased dropout rates are insufficient investment in education, poor motivation among teachers, and “the excessive politicisation of the education field.” This, she said, means incoherent policies that shift with every new government coming to power.

“Having to cope with these general obstacles, rural education suffers from a series of specific challenges,” says Manole. Cost cuts over the past years have led to the closing down of many schools in villages. The number of kindergartens in Romania has been reduced from 7,616 in 2003 to 1,731 in 2007, she said.

“Schools have been forced to cancel courses and merge various forms into one (which means that children of different ages and levels follow the same course),” says Manole. “Many schools have completely shut down. In this situation, children are forced to walk many kilometres, even during winter, to get to school.”

According to a report broadcast on private channel Realitatea TV, in Garda de Sus, a locality in Alba county in Western Romania, most children attending the seven local schools have to follow merged courses for all ages. In order to reach the school in Ghetari, some children are forced to cross a mountain. In Brestovat locality, in the western county Timis, some teachers travel 30 km to get to their schools.

According to representative of Save the Children, rural schools often lack basic facilities, such as heating during the winter, running water, or functional toilets. Poverty in rural areas forces families to use children for labour in the fields, which takes priority over education.

The burden of an under-funded and mismanaged educational system have hit Roma children hardest. Although Roma represent around 10 percent of the population in both Romania (total population of 22.5 million) and Bulgaria (7.5 million), little progress has been made in giving them access to education.

According to a 2005 UNDP report, in Romania the enrolment rate for primary school is 76 percent for Roma children as compared to 94 percent among the majority living in areas where Roma also live. In Bulgaria, while 7-8 percent of kids in rural areas do not finish high school, the incidence climbs to almost 40 percent in Roma communities.

Roma are further marginalised because of limited access to teaching in Romany language, and widespread discrimination. The pre-1989 practice of segregating Roma children into ‘special’ classes has still not been effectively eradicated.

In both Romania and Bulgaria, the educational system is being reformed towards decentralisation, which is intended to help education managers better understand specific needs and to lead to more efficient spending.

But according to a study of the Bulgarian educational system earlier this year by the EU Monitoring and Advocacy Programme (EUMAP monitors the performance of EU states and potential new members in the fields of human rights and the rule of law), “the reform, intended to create spending efficiency, is likely to put significant pressure on small village schools, which lack the number of students needed to secure adequate funds under the new system.”

In both Romania and Bulgaria, education is chronically under-funded. In the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, a grouping of 30 wealthy countries), national budgets for education exceed 5 percent; in Romania and Bulgaria spending on education has varied between 3 and 4.5 percent over the last five years.

In city schools it is common practice to supplement budget funds with money raised from parents, which is difficult to do in poor areas.

The state education systems in Romania and Bulgaria produce, consequently, highly uneven results. Privileged Eastern European students have won international competitions in sciences for decades, though the trend is decreasing. But many others cannot read and write. And the majority seem to be performing at a mediocre level.

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