Revisions to Ukraine’s educational system once again have some asking if it is a European or Russian country.
by Ksenia Korzun 6 October 2010
KYIV | Natalia Salenko, a kindergarten teacher, will take on a new work load next year that she knows little about. That’s when Ukraine will begin requiring preschool education for 5-year-olds.
Although Salenko has taught preschoolers for years, she’s afraid that along with the new requirement will come changes to the curriculum or to the skills that children will be expected to master.
"We’re now preparing children for school. They learn how to read and write, but these are only the basics. I think young children aren’t ready for a more serious load,” she said.
Education officials have assured teachers that the changes will not mean a heavier burden for them or their charges, although they have not released the new plan for preschool education.
Another unknown is the number of students who will show up in public kindergartens next year. The new law allows parents to send their children to private preschools or even to teach them at home. About 463,000 babies were born in Ukraine in 2006, according to the Education Ministry.
Karina Lyanenko, whose daughter, Masha, will begin first grade next year, says she thinks education officials have set their sights on children who are too young for school. "I think a 6-year-old child is not quite ready for the hours of school stress,” she said, noting Ukrainian children used to begin school at 7, then at 6, and next year, at 5. “I think it's going to be a bust."
Authorities are planning changes for older students as well, shaving off one year of the 12-year mandatory schooling. Kyiv says the reduction is needed to save money, but critics say it will shortchange students. They also say the move is more about turning toward Russia’s education system and away from European models.
The changes come on the heels of a summer when the university admissions application period was shortened by a week and admissions requirements were altered.
Some students, parents, and teachers say change has become the education system’s only constant.
A TEST OF ‘EUROPEANNESS’
Education, including the number of years of mandatory schooling, has long been a battleground in a domestic war over Ukraine’s foreign policy. While 12 years is the European norm, 11 years is standard in Russia. The 12-year requirement was introduced in 2001.
"The transition to the 12-year education system was nothing but a test of Ukraine’s ‘Europeanness,’ which it has not passed," said former Education Minister Vasyl Kremen.
Critics argue that the 11-year system will handicap students who want to attend university in Europe. But Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk dismissed those concerns as “invented.” He insisted that Ukrainian graduates’ credentials will be recognized in Europe.
Oles Doniy, the shadow deputy prime minister for humanitarian issues, said abolishing the 12-year education system is a reflection of President Viktor Yanukovych’s aims to Russify the country and sideline Ukrainian culture. "Accordingly, the Ukrainian educational and cultural space in the view of the current government should be merged with the Russian educational space.”
But Alena Tolmachevskaya, a Russian language and literature teacher at a secondary school in Kyiv, heaped scorn on “unscrupulous” opposition politicians who she said see the “hand of Moscow” in the changes.
"The idea of studying 12 years is good, but it was introduced as quickly as it has been cancelled,” she said. “We need to develop a clear plan and implement it gradually.”
Citing ongoing discussions about a 12-year system in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia itself, Tolmachevskaya said, “Maybe after some time the 12-year system will be most appropriate for our children and grandchildren. But any reform requires serious preparatory work, especially when it comes to the future of the country.”
That is where Tolmachevskaya and critics of the recent changes agree. Doniy said the system is being hobbled by constant tinkering.
Likewise, political analyst Alexei Krasnoperov said, the real damage comes from upheaval. “It’s worse when changes occur for the sake of change – haphazardly, randomly, and without any clearly defined goal.”
Krasnoperov rattled off a list of changes made to the educational system in the past two decades, including the transition from 10 years to 11 years and then 12 years of schooling, the shift from a five-point to a 12-point marking scale in secondary schools, half-hearted attempts to align university courses and credits with those in Europe, the introduction of an external, standardized test for university applicants, and, finally, a return to the 11-year system and compulsory preschool education.
“I don’t think that all of the reforms are fundamentally bad. The world is not black or white, and each reform has its positives and negatives,” Krasnoperov said. “However, five reforms in 19 years – that’s a bit much.”
A MATTER OF HRYVNIA
A key reason for the shortened mandatory schooling period was budget constraints. The Education Ministry says eliminating one year of education would save about 4 billion hryvnia ($504 million).
But critics say the new system will incur its own costs, including new textbooks and the provision of preschool education. A source in the Education Directorate of the Kyiv mayor’s office said preliminary calculations put the nationwide price tag at $360 million, although the ministry says any new textbooks would simply replace older ones, per usual practice.
The real savings, though, could come in reduced staffing. Although the Education Ministry says no 12th-grade teachers had yet been hired, as the first class that would have gone through the 12-year system is only in its ninth year, some schools say they were staffing up in preparation.
The shorter system will also cut the number of schools that must operate in two shifts to accommodate all their students, said Olga Demenko, director of the Kharkiv City Council’s education department. Demenko said the change will allow 18- and 19-year-olds to start their working lives or families earlier instead of sitting behind a school desk.
And there’s one other reason officials opted for a shorter system: the prospect of no graduates in 2012, causing universities and military recruiters to sound the alarm.
Students who entered first grade in 2001, when the longer system was adopted, attended school for 10 years (although that change was officially to 11 years, the fourth grade was skipped for that class). They will graduate in 2011. But the class after them would have attended school for 12 years, graduating in 2013. Leaving 2012 as the year without a high school graduation.
Some students, for their part, are happy to ditch the last year. "I think there are too many subjects in our curriculum,” said Marina Lukina, an eighth-grader at a school in Kremenchug in central Ukraine. “Subjects like ‘basic life-saving’ and ‘Ukraine and me’ are weird. You can do without them."