Shock Therapy for Moldovan Education

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Victor ENI
With no skills and resources to upgrade the inherited education system, Moldova time after time comes up with reforms, the meaning of which is merely to reduce the number of educational institutions
Behind the sheer exultation over the European Council’s decision to open accession negotiations, a much more pressing issue - the situation in the education system - went almost unnoticed. This issue is also vital because it is one of the glaring indicators of the country’s demographic tends. The latter point that further experiments with educational policy will lead to the fact there will be nothing and no one to integrate into the EU. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, last academic year 336,713 pupils studied in primary and secondary education institutions, while this year the number has already decreased by 2,000. The number of schools has also decreased by 13 - there are now 1,218. We remember that the first major reform of general education in Moldova was implemented by the current President Maia Sandu. As a result, during the last decade about 200 schools were closed and 303 were reorganized. Also, according to statistics, compared to 2000, there are 355 fewer schools in the country now, but the number of pupils has almost halved over the same 23 years (from 631 thousand to 334 thousand). Another public response and increased interest in the deplorable situation in the educational sphere were caused by the recent results of a study conducted as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It turned out that Moldova’s indicators are below the average level of developed countries; every second teenager in our country is “functionally illiterate”, i.e. cannot understand what is read and cannot solve complex mathematical problems. The Ministry of Education explains this by the significant gap between the quality of education in large and small schools. According to the ministry, today we have about 100 schools with less than fifty pupils and 300 schools where the total number of children is less than a hundred. For more detailed explanations, the parliament invited Education Minister Dan Perciun to report to the plenary session. The official’s speech highlighted an even more alarming situation in the education system. As it turned out, there is a shortage of about 7 thousand teachers in the schools all over the republic, and about 30% of the working teachers are pensioners. This, in turn, leads to the fact that their workload per month is one and a half times higher than the standard one, and often pedagogues teach subjects they have not studied and so they have to master it along the way. The overload seems to generate higher incomes, but it also leads to professional demotivation. In addition, despite thousands of graduates from teacher training institutions every year, only 20% of them are employed in educational organizations. The authorities, of course, found it easiest to blame small schools, located mostly in villages, for all the woes in general and the poor quality of education in particular. Meanwhile, local administrations have long been alarming that schools with small numbers of students regularly face shortages of funds and underfunding, while large urban and district educational institutions thrive. In 2021, the Ministry of Education promised to revise the funding formula by student population, but the issue still remains unresolved. This hints at the deliberate “bankruptcy” of small schools, where 70 to 90% of all allocated resources are spent on salaries and there is no talk of any infrastructure development at all. In order to improve the efficiency of general education, the relevant ministry has developed a financial mechanism to incentivize parents to transfer their children from rural areas, where there are still small schools, to nearby more promising institutions for a monthly allowance of 50 euros. In addition, the state wants to purchase school buses and invest the available resources in the creation of a network of premium lyceums, which will include 35 large and well-equipped regional educational organizations. However, so far, the trend is not in favor of the state. As statistical data show, parents have started to send their children to private schools more often, even despite the rather high cost of education, which can reach almost eight thousand euros per year. Local authorities and parents remain one of the obstacles to the implementation of the another “school reform”, which envisages a gradual weakening and further elimination of small educational institutions. The situation in Ialoveni district, where attempts not to open the 10th grade met with serious opposition from both teaching staff and parents is a good example. Together they publicized the situation and achieved the opening of a lyceum class. The minister of education had previously shared his thoughts and priorities for the next two years, so it was only a matter of time before the issue of small rural schools would be put pointblank. This situation is being presented as a good cause to address structural problems that have accumulated in the system over the years. One of them concerns the shortage of teaching staff and the other – the better management of funds. It is obvious that the Moldovan provinces will be hit hardest by the new wave of school optimization. With the steady decline in birth rates and the villages becoming increasingly deserted, the state is only accelerating the process of extinction of small settlements by its reluctance to finance schools, health centers and other social institutions, which are the main features that distinguish a farmstead from a locality. There is no doubt that the schools of national minorities, which have long been considered a burden on the budget, “of no practical benefit to the state”, will be the first to get downsized. You can recall last year’s dispute in parliament between one of the deputies and the minister of finance. In response to a proposal to increase funding for Russian schools, which have a slightly heavier workload, the head of the Finance Ministry has instead suggested that they switch to Romanian in order to save money. What conclusion can be drawn from all this? Under the slogan of fighting for the quality of education, in fact, the state hides its impotence. Lacking the skills and resources to upgrade the education system inherited by Moldova, the relevant ministry time after time comes up with reforms, the meaning of which is only to reduce the number of educational institutions. By shrinking the education system year after year, the state provokes further demographic decline and depopulation, emasculates national diversity and deprives itself of any perspective and sense of existence.