Education's Ailments - in the 21st Century, Sufferings from Two Centuries Ago

Octavian Dan
English Section / 23 ianuarie

Education's Ailments - in the 21st Century, Sufferings from Two Centuries Ago

Versiunea în limba română

In 2024, the domestic education system is still grappling with issues that were identified in the 19th century. Clearly, there are differences, especially in terms of perception, but in broad strokes, the "ailments' remain the same. We continue to talk about violence in schools, unsanitary toilets, the salaries of teachers and auxiliary staff, and student meals. The current Minister of Education, Ligia Deca, addressed all these issues this month, much like her predecessors. The problems are well-known, but solutions seem to be delayed. While authorities make clear statements and propose solutions, the reality on the "field' differs.

Violence in Schools

The issue is as old as time. However, at this moment, the narrative has shifted a bit. If decades ago, teachers were accused of using physical punishment too often, now it is the students who are accused of transgressions. Minister of Education Ligia Deca stated that there should be zero tolerance for any kind of violence in schools, emphasizing that combating it requires collaboration between the school, family, authorities, and society as a whole: "I believe that in schools, we must have zero tolerance for any kind of violence, whether it's physical, psychological, or emotional violence. This responsibility is not just for the school principal or the school counselor; it is the responsibility of every person in the school, whether they are teaching staff, auxiliary personnel, administrative staff, or students. We all must have the responsibility of preventing and addressing all acts of violence. I don't think there should be any teaching staff member who remains indifferent when a student comes and reports being assaulted. There are procedures in place in schools; we have a procedure to combat violence that outlines clear responsibilities for everyone in the school. There is a mechanism to alert other institutions in serious cases, such as the Directorate-General for Child Protection and Social Assistance (DGASPC) or the School Safety Office, i.e., the Police. This is to ensure that in cases of serious incidents, all professionals who need to take action are involved." Ligia Deca emphasized the need for a change in mentality: "It's also about a change in mentality. It is clear that violence in schools needs to be fought through collaboration between the school, family, authorities, and society as a whole. For me, it was very important, first of all, to have a clear procedure for combating violence because until now, people said, "We don't know what to do, we don't know who to talk to.' Now this circuit is clear. Moreover, we focused on the topic of "Different School' this year to prevent violence in schools, prevent violence, prevent all forms of bullying, and provide training on what cyberbullying entails because many children spend a lot of time on social networks, and even if the interactions are not face-to-face, the psychological effects can be equally harmful, especially for developing personalities." From her perspective, there are no inherently bad children; rather, there are children who, at some point, had behavioral issues: "Issues of violence in schools have existed and will continue to exist. They are common to other European Union states, and we all operate within the constitutional framework of the right to education. When children become violent, there are underlying causes that need to be addressed through appropriate measures, involving professionals such as school counselors, social assistance departments, and collaboration with the family and school. Certainly, with the new pre-university education law, we have introduced clearer and sometimes more drastic measures, so that serious cases have appropriate sanctions to guarantee the right to education for the students and their peers. But I believe there is no inherently bad child; there is a child who, at some point, had a behavioral problem, a problem that we, as adults, need to help them overcome. So, I believe in the responsibility of the family, professionals, the school, and, why not, society, to create an environment where that child can be rehabilitated. I believe this is possible, and the results of real and professionally based interventions in schools where such problems existed give me hope that we will find solutions whenever a child goes through a difficult period or makes a mistake. I don't think any of us want to be characterized throughout our lives by a mistake we made at some point."

We know, we have projects, there are solutions, but solving the problem is still elusive.

Toilets in the Backyard

This issue has been discussed with disgust for decades. The number of schools with such toilets has diminished, but the topic has not been eliminated from discussions even in the 21st century. Ligia Deca stated that there are still fewer than 200 educational units with sanitary facilities in the yard nationwide, and the ministry has the necessary funds allocated in its budget so that this problem can be solved this year: "This year, we have allocated funds in the budget of the Ministry of Education, approximately 30 million lei, which largely covers these fewer than 200 educational units that have sanitary facilities in the yard. We're talking about a percentage of less than 10% compared to what we had a few years ago. Progress has been consistent, and the number has significantly decreased each year (...). If local authorities mobilize to access these funds, I believe that this year we can solve the problem of schools with sanitary facilities in the yard. We cannot carry out these works to bring sanitary facilities inside the schools, but we fought to have the funds in the Ministry of Education's budget for local authorities to close this chapter that does not honor us." The issue was supposed to be definitively resolved 10 years ago, nine years ago, three years ago...

Teachers' Salaries

The Minister of Education talked about salaries in education, stating that they will increase by an average of over 50% from June 2023 to June 2024: "I will give just a few examples because they might be of interest. I spoke about the increase in salaries for education staff. We know that salaries increased, on average, between 25% and 30% last year. This year, they will increase similarly, on average, by 20%. This means that between June 2023 and June 2024, we have an overall increase of over 50% on average in education. In the case of school principals, the increase, reported in December and starting from January 1, is approximately 30%. In June, the average increase jumps to around 36%, and we're talking about significant increases." In this context, Ligia Deca explained that a Grade I school director will be able to earn a gross salary of 11,484 lei in June 2024, without considering additional bonuses, and a Grade II school director will reach a gross salary of 11,812 lei, to which various bonuses can be added: "Also, a teacher with Grade I, with over 25 years of experience, in June will earn a gross salary of around 10,232 lei, and a beginner, in June, will earn a gross salary of 6,446 lei. I am referring to beginners with up to one year of experience (...), to which various bonuses can be added." While the figures are not negligible, teachers remain skeptical. Discussions about teachers' salaries were intense even when Eminescu was a school inspector.

Students' Meals

Since the inception of the first school, the issue of students' meals has been raised. Education cannot be conducted on an empty stomach. The minister claims that the number of beneficiaries of the Healthy Meal program will be around 420,000 this year, more than double compared to last year: "Last week, towards the end, the Government adopted the Decision on the establishment of the national Healthy Meal program. The budget is 1,139,000,000 lei. The Minister's Order with the criteria has been signed, and proposals to supplement the list of schools will be received because the 450 schools nationwide that were part of the program last year will remain in the program. The number of schools will be increased to 1,000, and after we receive proposals from the inspectorates, another Joint Order with the Ministry of Agriculture will be issued, a ministerial order, with the list of schools, and then a Government Decision with budget allocations. There is a significant increase in beneficiaries. If last year we had around 180,000, this year we expect approximately 420,000 beneficiaries, so more than double. We hope to reach, initially, one million beneficiaries and then be able to generalize this program."

Equality at Entry

More recently, the issue of entering schools has been raised over the past 34 years. Regarding separate entrances in schools for teachers and students, the minister says that each educational unit decides based on the specific features of the buildings: "I believe that in Romania, from an infrastructure point of view, we have many situations. We have situations with historic buildings that have one entrance directly on the sidewalk, and the sidewalk is quite narrow, leading to the street. We have schools where there are ample entrance spaces, and it wouldn't be a problem to have the same entrance flow. Therefore, I am for each school to establish its access rules, what conditions the community considers acceptable." Ligia Deca added that, from her point of view, respect for teaching staff is not limited to a separate entrance: "I don't think respect for teaching staff is limited to a separate entrance. I believe education should be about dialogue, mutual learning, and I support the fact that each school, depending on the constructive specificities and safety-because, ultimately, even evacuation plans, yes, which are made for emergency situations, depend on infrastructure, what kind of corridors, what kind of entrances and exits we have-so, based on these elements related to child safety, I believe the access rules need to be considered, and it needs to be decided whether one entrance, two entrances, or more are needed. I don't think this decision can be made centrally, but I encourage the partnership between teaching staff and students, which should be based on mutual respect, not hierarchy. Depending on the constructive particularities, each school decides."

The Eternal Problem of Textbooks

Discussions about textbooks (quality, physical condition, usefulness) are age-old. From paper to digital, few changes have occurred, and adapting the curriculum to current requirements is challenging. The minister claims that for primary, secondary, and early education cycles, an analysis of the existing curriculum is needed. For high school, where the curriculum has not been revised for a long time, new programs, framework plans, and textbooks will be available from the 2025-2026 school year.

The problems in education are many more. Discussions about academic achievements, new teaching and learning methods, and the challenging reform of textbooks and the curriculum find it difficult to make their way among these "historical' issues, which are, moreover, less spectacular."

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