Education reform is currently the most topical issue of the Latvian education system. The Latvian education system is undergoing serious changes. The existing education content is obsolete, therefore it is proposed to introduce changes in both the education system and education content. Education content is revised in the light of reports and policy documents both produced domestically and at European level (e.g. the European Commission’s report Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes (European Commission, 2012) and Developing Key Competences at School in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities for Policy (European Commission /EACEA/Eurydice, 2012). The current education reform mainly addresses the level of basic education, but certain aspects of this reform (e.g. transition to Latvian as the language of instruction in ethnic minority schools) also affect general secondary education. In future, other changes are planned at the level of secondary education as well.
The reform concerns significant aspects of education:
- a gradual transition to Latvian as the language of instruction in ethnic minority schools will take place from 1 September 2019 to the school year 2021/2022;
- the education content is changing by introducing the competence approach;
- a consolidation of the school system closing schools with a small number of students and combining schools is happening;
- a transition to inclusive education, closing schools for children with special needs and offering these children to be educated in the usual general education schools is promoted;
- the age of 6 is proposed as the start age in a general education school (traditionally, children in Latvia start school from the age of 7, but they obtain compulsory pre-school education in kindergartens from the age of 5).
The planned changes to the education system are directly related to cultural education and identity issues. The draft of the new curriculum was published in October 2018. The official public discussion of this project continued for almost two months, and at the end of 2018 the new standard of basic education “Regulations Regarding the State Curriculum in Basic Education and Model Basic Educational Programmes” was adopted and published. Changes in the education system will be gradually introduced as of the school year 2019/2020. Although the new basic education standard was only published in October 2018, education reform was discussed in society back in 2017. Both the transition to Latvian as the language of instruction and the introduction of a competence approach caused a lack of understanding and protests in society.
The Ministry of Education and Science points out that the amendments do not contain discriminatory clauses against any of the ethnic minorities, but, on the contrary, promote the acquisition of the Latvian language for all. In the context of the reform, ethnic minority pupils will maintain an opportunity to study their language and literature, as well as subjects related to their culture and history in their mother tongue as part of efforts to preserve their ethnic identity, which is a right determined by the Constitution. The Ministry stated that it is important to provide equal opportunities for every child in Latvia to receive quality education, which contributes to acquiring the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes for the 21st century. The new language of instruction framework will expand opportunities for young people from ethnic minorities in vocational and higher education, where training takes place in Latvian, and it will also promote their competitiveness in the labour market (Izglītības un zinātnes ministrija, 2017).
Transition to Latvian as the language of instruction led to protests by ethnic minority representatives, who pointed out that such an approach restricts minority rights (Kušķe, 2017). Opponents of the reform believe that the transition to teaching in Latvian will lead to deterioration of learning achievements in minority schools. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Science does not share this opinion and emphasises that the reform, on the contrary, places a greater focus on Latvian language training therefore learning achievements could only improve. Opponents of the education reform do not provide a vision of how children of ethnic minority schools who acquire education only in their mother tongue can successfully obtain higher education in Latvia and become part of the Latvian labour market.
The transition to Latvian as the language of instruction in general education schools is determined by the cultural policy priorities defined in Latvian policy documents. On the other hand, it is determined by historical and demographic development factors: being part of the Soviet Union, where the role of the Latvian language was subverted and the cultural environment destroyed; the fragile situation of Latvian as a small language; the relatively large share of ethnic minorities in Latvia, especially the Russian-speaking population. The planned changes to the education system will promote belonging of graduates of ethnic minority schools to the state of Latvia and their integration. These changes, probably, will also affect the cultural identity of Latvia’s population in the long run.
An important issue of the education policy debate, both at national and EU levels, is the adaptation of the European education and training system to the needs of today’s economy and society. In order to overcome the effects of the economic and financial crisis, skills promoting growth and prosperity have been recognised as particularly important. The new basic education curriculum pays increased attention to the development of the fields of science and mathematics, which contributes to a reduction of the number of lessons for subjects related to culture. In October and November 2018, one of the most discussed issues in the public debate was the reduced number of lessons in literature. Teachers of higher education establishments, the Writers’ Union and the Latvian Association of Language and Literature Teachers wrote protest letters and called on the Saeima not to adopt the new education curriculum. The issue of reducing the number of lessons in literature is regarded not only as a matter of education content but also as a matter defining the future of the state of Latvia. A similar public protest was observed also in relation to the reduction of the number of lessons in music. The Ministry of Education and Science promised to find a way to leave the number of lessons in these subjects unchanged in the new education standard.
The ongoing debate shows that the public has not been fully informed about the strategy and specificities of the education reform. A large part of society does not trust education and cultural policy makers, indicating that the proposed reforms will not deliver the expected outcome. Experts in the sphere of education indicate that the necessary preparations to successfully implement the abovementioned changes were not made at Latvian schools. However, both society in general and policy makers understand that in order to promote Latvia’s national growth and youth competitiveness at national and international levels, serious changes in the education system should be made. The vision of these changes differs, though.
About the author
Dr. Alina Romanovska is a researcher of the Centre of Cultural Research at Daugavpils University Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her main field of research is cultural anthropology, identity, comparative studies.