Ethnic 'shift work' burdens education with Balkan divide

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Macedonia Albanian pupils still segregated in the former Yugoslav republic are to receive help from a conflict-resolution specialist

You can imagine the outcry should it happen in the UK. Children from different ethnic groups attend the same school, but do so in "shifts" based on their national origin. They might pass one another in the corridor as they leave or arrive at the school but that's where contact ends.

It would not be deemed a recipe for harmony here, but in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia this is the way schools commonly operate when the pupil population includes significant numbers of ethnic Albanian children.

To say that questions of identity in Macedonia are problematic would be a massive understatement. The country's very right to call itself by its name has been angrily disputed by neighbouring Greece, and Macedonia has been prone to responding in kind in its own defence.

When the recent history of the Western Balkans is considered, Macedonia has been less riven by ethnic spite than most of the other former Yugoslavian republics, but there was conflict between the Macedonian and Albanian fighters as recently as 2001.

A peace deal was eventually reached which saw the Albanians renounce their separatist demands, while the Macedonian side acknowledged that the Albanian language should become official and Albanians given more of a say in state affairs.

But tensions have remained and the ethnic divide in local schools is a salient reminder of this fact. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has now been prompted to step in, in an attempt to improve the situation.

The OSCE is present in more than 56 countries worldwide and works to promote conflict prevention and resolution. Much of the organisation's work in Macedonia has been devoted to closing the ethnic gaps that persist in education.

The OSCE's ambassador, Jose Luis Herrero, wants this to be done sooner rather than later. In mid-August he called upon the authorities in the Macedonian town of Struga, near the border with Albania, to work harder to end the current system which sees Albanian and Macedonian pupils attend separate lessons. He is pressing for the abolition of the present system during the next academic year.

This is easier said than done, as the ambassador himself acknowledges. The two languages are not at all similar, despite evolving in close proximity to one another. Add to that any residual suspicion that persists between the two groups and there might well be strong reasons for leaving things as they are. But Herrero sees things differently.

"We all want there to be more integration with children learning together in the same physical space, though in accordance with their specific needs," he told The TES. "This will be challenging but some activities can be taught to both groups at the same time."

How tall an order this might be was revealed in a study commissioned by the OSCE, published in February this year.

The research - which surveyed 4,000 students from 40 secondary schools - found that around half of pupils had had their ethnic origin commented on by teachers, while a third of the children said their schools did not do enough to foster relations between the different ethnicities.

But for Ambassador Herrero, the most encouraging statistic would have been that some 80 per cent expressed a desire to participate in extracurricular activities with children with other national identities. Left to the pupils, the goal of greater integration might yet become a reality.

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