The intertwined relationship between politics and curriculum reform

Protest in support of Educational reform (Zagreb, June 2016); photo: Marko Matijević/srednja.hr

Since the Mid-2000s the process of designing and implementing a curriculum reform in Croatia has been taking place. It has been characterised by a number of controversies as it has resulted in heated discussions in academia. It has also become a major issue on the political scene, in the right and left wing bloc debates. The importance of the curriculum has been emphasised considering the key role formal education plays in the production and transition of cultural knowledge and the development of cultural literacy among young people. The school curriculum embodies dominant narratives in terms of identity formation processes, relationships to cultural heritage and inter-culturalism. Accordingly, some of the most addressed questions in the aforementioned debates in Croatia have been related to history interpretations, particularly regarding the Second World War, socialist era and the Homeland war for independence in the 1990s, which have been understood as the national identity fundaments.

Work on the reform accelerated from 2014, during the centre-left wing Government. In October 2014, the Croatian Parliament passed the Education, Science, and Technology Strategy for all levels of education, as a continuation of work on the curriculum reform. Actually, the curriculum reform was only one of 38 Strategy measures in total, however it attracted more public attention than all of the others. An Expert Working Group which is supposed to guide the reform implementation was appointed in January 2015, under the lead of Boris Jokić. A year later, in February 2016, the Working Group presented proposals for a new curriculum. A broad professional and public debate followed, during which almost the whole of Croatian society polarised. A number of faculties, renowned scientists and experts and even the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts expressed a strong negative stand toward the proposed curriculum. On the other hand, a number of other faculties, scientists and experts evaluated it as being really good.

In the meantime a government change occurred. The new, centre-right government was formed in January 2016 and a number of its representatives critiqued the work of the Expert Working Group as well. Under these circumstances the Group collectively resigned in May 2016. The President of the Republic of Croatia tried to mediate and ask them to return to work, but with no success. A day later, more than 50,000 people across major Croatian cities protested in support of educational reform and the new curriculum.

The Ministry of Science, Education and Sport formed the Commission for Improving Education Reform in order to analyse the work of the Expert Working Group. The Commission reflected negatively on a number of issues. However, most work on the matter was postponed due to a new parliamentary crisis. In October 2016, a new government was formed by the center-right wing political bloc again. The new Expert Working Group was appointed only in May 2017, under the lead of Jasminka Buljan Culej, who previously was a member of the Commission for Improving Education Reform. Boris Jokić, the head of the first Working Group, who resigned from the post a year before, was not elected this time despite his nomination. Given that he began to symbolise the reform through previous public debates, this was in part of the public seen as a departure from the announced changes. So, a new public protest was organised, while at the same time a new parliamentary crisis was evolving. Interestingly, Blaženka Divjak, a Croatian mathematician, joined the protest and only eleven days after, in the government’s reconstruction she was appointed as a new minister of science and education. Divjak initiated the dismissal of the Expert Working Group, which came in December 2017. A third Expert Working Group was appointed in April 2018, under the lead of Radovan Fuchs.

In the meantime, subject curricula presented in February 2016 had gone through some revisions, in accordance with some of the comments received in professional and public debates. These are currently being piloted, having been introduced in 2018 to 72 schools across Croatia (8.500 students and 1.500 teachers and professors are involved). Their general application was supposed to follow in the school year 2019/2020. As one of the final steps in the process, the Ministry launched new public consultations on subject curricula proposals from 15 November to 15 December 2018. The newly appointed Expert Working Group received the task of finalising the curricula in question according to the comments received and the task of their alignment with the unique methodology. Most of the subject curricula were handled without significant interventions, while the greatest controversy emerged regarding the history curriculum. The Working Group intervened significantly in the content of the proposed curriculum, resulting in an almost entirely new curriculum.

Minister Divjak refused to accept this new version of the curriculum without public debate and opened new public consultations on the proposal, which lasted from 7 to 22 February 2019. When the consultations ended another three historians were nominated and joined the Expert Working Group with the task of editing the curriculum and preparing the final version. Finally, on 20 March 2019 a new history curriculum was officially announced, that will come into force from the school year 2019/2020 for the fifth grade of elementary school and the first grade of secondary school; from the school year 2020/2021 for the sixth and the seventh grade of elementary school and the second and the third grade of secondary school; and from the school year 2021/2022 for students of the eighth grade of elementary school and the fourth grade of secondary school.

According to one of the last three historians who joined the Expert Working Group, the final text of the curriculum represents a middle way between the two previous versions. In writing this blog it was not possible to thoroughly analyse the major characteristics and differences between curricula, which would require a much deeper and complex study. In this type of scrutiny the crucial question should be on the degree of long urged reform elements included in the curriculum considering the evident influence of politics in its design. The connection between government changes and the changes of experts in charge were obvious, and illustrate how the involvement of politics and ideology in the system of formal education is one of the key channels in sustaining the dominant set of social values.