Shake-up comes to the old regime

Kevin Smith

The Romanian senate has now approved a long-delayed law allowing major reform of the country's outmoded education system. The Education Act, stalled in parliament since early 1994, finally relinquishes state control after 40 years of central planning.

Although there have been minor attempts to reform Romanian education since the overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989, such moves were largely ad hoc and have had little overall impact. The new law establishes the regulatory framework necessary for lasting change.

The $100 million strategy, hammered out by Romanian academics with foreign financial and advisory assistance, is being supported with a $50 million loan from the World Bank, a 25 million ECU grant from the EU's Phare Fund and technical and financial assistance from the Know How Fund. It focuses on three main objectives: restructuring, modernisation and measures to address critical material shortages in the sector.

Under Ceausescu, priority was given to training the country's youth in narrow technical areas and to "supplying" labour through linking schools to stage-owned enterprises and collective farms. By 1989, fewer than 10 per cent of secondary school-age students were enrolled in general secondary education programmes, compared with 15 to 20 per cent in Poland and Hungary. A once-enviable system was further eroded by chronic under-investment and ideological rigidity.

These factors, coupled with the country's isolation under the communist regime, have left Romania with a school system producing some brilliant students - particularly in the sciences - but severely lacking in up-to-date materials and equipment, and with teachers and policy-makers who have long been out of touch with Western professional developments.

One of the main reforms concerns modernisation of curricula and textbooks. According to Cathy Comisel, a member of the board appointed to design new curricula for English, Romania is looking at the UK model for a national curriculum. "We're attracted to the UK model," she says, "because it has coherent guidelines and yet room also to manoeuvre. After 40 years of centralisation you don't want to just go into free-fall."

A national board for selection of textbooks has been established and later this year international and local publishers will be invited to tender for the contract."A lot of the material is very outdated. History, for example, focuses on the history of the Romanian communist party, congresses, the leaders' speeches and so on. This has all to be rewritten," says Ms Comisel.

According to Romulus Pop, state secretary for pre-university education, the biggest problem facing the architects of the reform programme lies in changing the mentality of those within the system.

"It's easy to say 'be creative, have initiative', but we've always worked under command - the communist party told us what was to be taught and learnt.

"Decentralising the budget also means that headmasters and inspectors have to be trained as managers. A good teacher is not necessarily a good manager and the concept of balancing the books is going to be a huge challenge to most of these people."

It is intended that decentralisation of the budget, delegating responsibility for management, overheads and textbooks to 41 local area authorities, will take place over the next five years.

Teacher training is another major hurdle, says Ms Comisel. "At present, it's too academic. Teaching techniques have been neglected." To this end several British Council-funded training courses in the teaching of English have taken place since 1992.

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