Who’d be an Education Minister in East Central Europe these days? Once a something of a political backwater, you now face an unenviable set of competing demands: of implementling EU-endorsed plans for transformation of communist-era education systems to shape up for the knowledge economy, putting a culture of critical, independent learning and foreign language learning in place of entrenched ex-cathedra methods, rote-learning and a bias towards technical specialisms; an ageing, over-feminized and under-qualified teaching workforce at primary and secondary level, chronically underpaid but with relatively good levels of union organization; unreformed teaching training institutions; and a need to expand and reform higher education, similar lines taking advantage of sizeable EU structural funds while your country is still sufficiently far behind the EU average to qualify for them.
The most spectacular recent casualty of this conundrum was (now ex-)Czech Education Minister Dana Kuchtová, one of three Green cabinet members, in the current centre-right led minority administration. Projects for the reform of higher education, which should have qualified for tens of billions of crowns of EU funds, were not ready and not up to scratch, leaving rectors of universities furious. Although such situations are not untypical problem across the new CEE member states, given inexperience and not sufficiently professionalized or qualified civil service concerned Ms Kuchtová seems to have had the misfortune to have inherited problems at the Czech Education Ministry just as they came to a head and to have mismanaged the crisis both administratively and politically, making promises she couldn’t keep and antagonising MPs in the Education Committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies.
Lower down the education system in the Czech Republic, a new reformed curriculum stressing theme and competences (‘learning how to learn’), rather than the accumulation of knowledge in traditional subject areas is being rolled out. There are sceptical reports in the press as to whether current teaching staff have the ability and inclination to teach it as intended with suggestions that it is essentially a Potemkin repackaging of the old syllabus. Conservative resistance is also coming directly by the traditional Czech intelligentsia and scientific establishment, who see traditional teaching methods based on a canon of knowledge as central to Czech national identity (and one might add, the rather elitist culture of the Czech intelligentsia itself). In a telling phrase a letter signed by a host of leading academics including the sociologist, ex-dissident and feminist scholar, Jiřina Šiklová, warns in a characteristic phrase that the new reforms threaten to lead to the ‘degradation of the Czech population into an unthinking mass (dav) of consumers’ (Cynics might say that was possibly largely the situation already, which was why reform is needed – why do Czech intellectuals harp on with fantasies of imminent national decay rooted in lack of culture/morality/education so persistently?)
Meanwhile, Czech unions representing secondary school teachers are preparing once again to stage strikes over low pay, joining their colleagues in Bulgaria, who are already locked in acrimonious series of strikes. Here, government ministers see salary increases as potentially budget busting and linked to reductions in the size of the teaching force justified by Bulgaria’s rapidly ageing population and consequently declining school population, performance-related pay and financial decentralization and ring-fencing of education budgets. Figures reported in the Slovak press recently also highlight that the country’s teachers are amongst the worst paid professionals in the country.
The political demise of Dana Kuchtová, under pressure from both the Civic Democrats and junior partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats, has also triggered a minor crisis in the Green party, offering a focus for party members discontented with leader Martin Bursík for excessive accommodation of right-wing parties and in effect hanging, Kuchtová, a former activist with the South Bohemian Mothers anti-nuclear group, out to dry. The EU funds fiasco, they argue was no worse at the Education Ministry than at many other Czech ministries struggling to download European funds on time, but served as a pretext for the two right-wing parties in the coalition to target and pressurize the small and inexperienced Greens. Kuchtová’s resignation was partly prompted by a desire to head off factional conflict in the party.
Discontent is also mounting among some Greens about the role of the Green-nominated Foreign Minister, aristocratic and ex-Havel confidante Karel Schwarzenberg. Although his appointment was seem as a major political coup for the Greens at the time the government was formed, some Greens have, it seems, now worked out that Schwarzenberg is in no way carrying out a Green foreign policy but rather one informed by his own aristocratic sense of public service and Schwarzenberg family tradition. Clearly, the nation’s schoolchildren are not the only ones in the Czech Republic who need to learn faster.
Karolína Vitarová-Vránková, ‘Ekonomika a štěstí pro ZS’, Respekt, 1-7 October, pp. 60-1