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Belarusian schools: modernisation or stagnation?

On 12 May, Alexander Lukašenka suddenly announced that starting in September, school children would start class at 9:00 am rather than 8:00. This reform would give children an extra hour of sleep. However, many maintain that the change would...

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Pupils at a school in Minsk. Photo: TUT.by

On 12 May, Alexander Lukašenka suddenly announced that starting in September, school children would start class at 9:00 am rather than 8:00. This reform would give children an extra hour of sleep. However, many maintain that the change would be just another formality, without actually improving the condition of school education.

Meanwhile, the increasing ideologisation of schools, the lack of funding, and low wages for teachers remain much more serious obstacles to Belarusian education.

The legacy of the Soviet Union is still obvious in Belarusian schools, and this factor hinders the development of general education. Instead of changing pupils' schedules, the authorities should focus on developing study programmes, guaranteeing more freedom for teachers, and opening schools up for civil society activism.

Preserving the Soviet Model

Belarusian schools still preserve many features of the Soviet education model. Textbooks on history focus on Belarus's Soviet past, devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the Great Patriotic War. Old-fashioned schoolbooks in other subjects need to be completely overhauled, as do testing and monitoring, believes Tamara Matskevich, Deputy Chairwoman of the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society.

What's more, the workload of pupils at Belarusians schools remains very high: This contrasts to many systems in other European countries.

Teacher status and salary is another post-communist remnant of the Belarusian school system. Since 2010, the wages of school teachers have declined from $341 per month in 2010 to $258 in 2017, reports Belstat, the Belarusian government's statistical agency. This number is much lower that in neighbouring Russia, where the average salary is $526 (Rosstat). What's more, the average salary of teachers in Belarus is still far from the $500 routinely promised by Lukašenka.

Another tradition the Belarusian school system has inherited from the USSR is the tradition of giving ‘gifts’ to teachers. As a member of a parents’ association of a Minsk school reported to Naviny.by:

We collect money for classroom needs twice a year for about 50 rubles (around $26 – BD) per year. I can name some of the expenses that we paid for: these are gifts for teachers for the holidays, matinees for children, and symbolic gifts for children's birthdays. Last year, we bought blinds.

As in Soviet times, when Russian was the main language of education, the status of the Belarusian language remains unequal. In the 2016-2017 academic year, only 13.3% of all pupils studied in Belarusian-medium programmes, compared to 86.6% who studied in Russian, according to a recent report by Belstat. Additionally, in some regions Polish schools regularly encounter obstacles created by the authorities.

This Soviet heritage, however, also has some advantages: nine years of schooling are universally obligatory. The literacy rate of adults in Belarus is 100% according to UNESCO.

Ideologisation of School Education

Ideologisation remains another problematic feature of Belarusian general education. To this day, pupils are required to join the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM): this is the successor of Soviet communist organisations such as the Young Pioneers or Komsomol . Members of BRSM receive academic and social benefits, including discounts at discos, certain stores, and hairdressing salons, reports the official web page of the organisation.

In December 2016, a representative of the communist party and former ideologist of the Minsk executive committee, Ihar Karpienka, was appointed head of the Ministry of Education. Sviatlana Matskevich, a pedagogy Ph.D., remarked to Belsat that this new leadership for the Ministry bodes ill for Belarusian education. However, according to Matskevich, the only silver lining might be that this could lead to such a complete stagnation of school education that modernisation would be inevitable.

Teachers also serve as tools for falsifying elections: school and university teachers often act as members of the election committees which count votes. The OSCE, PACE, and many independent international observers have refused to recognise Belarusian elections, pointing to the closed procedure of vote counting at polling stations.

A new reform and Mikalai Lukašenka

In a comment on the new reforms regarding changing the time school starts, Lukašenka mentioned that his son had expressed dissatisfaction with the idea. The name of Mikalai Lukašenka often appears in the Belarusian media, as he follows his father to many official meetings, including international ones.

However, due to the frequent absences of Mikalai at lessons, the media often doubt whether the younger Lukašenka visits school at all. Many believe that the president is preparing Mikalai as his future successor. During his last 'official' visit, which occurred during school time, Chinese journalists took a photo of Mikalai Lukašenka allegedly drinking champagne at the International Forum in Beijing.

According to Alexander Lukašenka, Mikalai studies in a small school with only 500 pupils. Observing his son's studies, the Belarusian president has many times expressed the need to simplify the school curriculum for children and shorten studying hours. In April, Lukašenka told Parliament: 'When we complicate the studying process' and introduce 'complicated textbooks at school, we discourage children from getting knowledge. Children start to fear'.

Modernisation of School Education

Low wages discourage people from becoming teachers. However, as they have been unable to improve working conditions, the authorities are suggesting two reforms. Starting next year future teachers will no longer sit a state examination (Centralised Testing), which is obligatory for all other disciplines. Moreover, on 31 May, the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of mandatory reexamination of teachers which used to take place every five years.

Belarusian schools have already experienced certain reforms. In 2002, the Ministry of Education replaced the 5-point assessment scale with a 10-point one. In 2004, Belarusian schools changed the term of studies from 11 to 12 years. Later, after only four years, Lukašenka rescinded this reform, causing inconveniences for schools and pupils.

However, all these reforms, including the recent change of start time, seem to be little more than formalities. In order to enact real change, the state must seriously commit to tackling several problematic aspects of the system.

Rather than mobilising pupils to become members of official youth organisations, authorities could open more space for non-governmental and non-political initiatives. Cooperation with NGOs would develop international exchanges and local initiatives in which schoolchildren have the possibility to be proactive.

Belarusian schools would benefit significantly from improving working conditions for teachers. Paying them more and providing them more autonomy would help to modernise the Soviet-style education system in Belarus.

As Liavon Barscheuski, an activist and former chairman of the BNF party, told the publication Belarus Partisan: 'the educational sphere – , first and foremost, consists of human beings' and no reform can be effective as long as teachers struggle with paperwork and receive low wages.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.
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