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Albanians go back to school at long last

YUGOSLAVIA. Nearly 500,000 schoolchildren in southern Serbia may soon be re-integrated into the official Yugoslav education system after a six-year boycott.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Albanian leader Dr Ibrahim Rugova have agreed on the normalisation of education in the predominantly Albanian-inhabited Kosovo region.

An agreement was signed at the beginning of this month allowing an "unconditional return of pupils, students and teachers to school and university buildings and the normal functioning of the Textbook Publishing Establishment and all other educational institutions in Kosovo".

Albanians have boycotted state schools and colleges since 1991 when teaching in their language was replaced by a compulsory Serbian-language curriculum.

The Albanians responded by setting up their own system which runs parallel to the official Serbian one.

Classes have been held in overcrowded conditions in private houses and other buildings which lack the basics for organised and effective teaching.

Many "parallel" school buildings lack any form of heating, and during the long harsh Balkan winters, children wear thick layers of clothing in order to keep warm while they study. Textbooks and other essential teaching materials are in extremely short supply.

The system has been financed by remittances from Albanians working abroad. But due to job losses and repatriation, these have now diminished leaving teachers without pay and a generation of children without prospects. For the past two years thousands of children have not attended school at all.

The agreement, hailed as a breakthrough in the dialogue now in progress between the Yugoslav government and leaders of the Albanian community on the future status of the region, stated: "Because of its social and humanitarian value, this agreement is above any political debate. The concern which both President Milosevic and Dr Rugova feel for the future of the Albanian youth of Kosovo has led them to reach this agreement."

Serbian prime minister Mirko Mvic said: "The government of the republic of Serbia welcomes this agreement as one of great civilizational and humanitarian significance because it ensures that Albanian children and young people in Kosovo will no longer suffer from the negative consequences of political differences." On behalf of the Albanians, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) stated that a joint task force would subsequently decide when Albanian children and students would return to the state primary and secondary schools and colleges.

Vice-president of the LDK, Fehmui Agani, said the agreement did not mean the Albanians are going back to Serbia's educational system, but only that they would continue their education in proper buildings.

This leaves two fundamental questions unanswered - which curriculum will the Albanian children follow and how will the reintegration be funded? It has been agreed at this initial stage in the delicate negotiations not to discuss how Kosovo's education system should be financed.

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