Written by Dyuti Khulbe
Nestled amidst a variety of landscapes- from the mountain chains of Stara Planina, a natural dividing line running west to east, with over 40,000 cultural heritage sites, of which seven are listed under the UNESCO list, to the myriad of beaches along the coastline of Black Sea, Bulgaria is a perfect amalgamation of old cultures and modern townships. Founded in the seventh century, Bulgaria is the second oldest country, after San Marino, in the European continent.
Because of its rich historical background, Bulgaria also sees an intersection of Greek, Persian, Slavic, Roma and Ottoman cultures. This cultural intersection has also significantly impacted Bulgaria’s politics and society. Modern Bulgarian socio-political society has evolved due to interwoven inherited beliefs, values and practices combined with new influences. The impact of this ever-changing fusion can be seen in different aspects of Bulgarian society, particularly in education.
Before we look into the changing landscape of education in Bulgaria, let’s first understand where the country stands and how some of these factors affect its education infrastructure.
Bulgaria joined the European Union on 1st January 2007 after signing the 2005 Treaty of Accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU. Since then, there have been significant changes in its education sector, especially in terms of funding, investment in educational infrastructure and technology, advancement of its curriculum to meet EU standards and, most importantly, the introduction of a variety of widely spoken EU languages and mobility and exchange programmes.
Moreover, being an upper-middle income of the European Union, Bulgaria has implemented (especially after joining the EU) policies and introduced reforms in various sectors that also increase its proximity to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) standards and practices. It is on the pathway to becoming a member of the OECD. These reforms and policies have been encouraged and facilitated by a strong commitment to EU integration and have led the country to achieve macroeconomic stabilisation and higher living standards for the people in past decades.
However, although Bulgaria is striving towards progress, various hurdles need to be understood and worked upon.
Take education for instance. Bulgaria does believe that education is a vital tool to combat its current problems and will also aid in realising the country’s socio-economic potential. But it has not been so successful. The country has one of the lowest education outcomes in the EU. According to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data, 47% of 15-year-old students failed to achieve sufficient levels of reading proficiency in 2018, as compared to the Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional average of 42% and the OECD and EU average of 23%.
One of the underlying reasons for Bulgaria’s diminished educational progress is the low investment rate in the educational sector. According to the latest data of 2018, only 3.5% of the GDP is spent on education, which is lower than the EU average of 4.6%. It is one of the lowest in the EU.
Even though the world is moving towards digitalisation, Bulgarian classrooms could be more progressive. Most of the teachers find the integration of technology in the classrooms as an effective instrument however, they often complain about the lack of technical equipment and skills required to utilise the existing technology in classrooms. Fewer schools in Bulgaria are digitally equipped when compared to the EU. According to a 2019 report by the European Commission, only 32% of primary school children, 31% at the lower secondary level, and 37% at the upper secondary level have access to digitally equipped schools, as compared to the average 35%, 52% and 72% in the EU respectively. Only 57% of students in the age group 16-19 years possess basic digital skills as basic, which is much below the EU average of 82%.
The past few years have seen investments funded by the EU to enhance digital tools and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) infrastructure; however, a Ministry of Education and Science study revealed that less than 40% of educational institutions had adequate equipment in their computer labs. Further, almost only half of the Bulgarian schools had pre-requisite conditions to enable modern ICT infrastructure and learning opportunities for teachers to enhance their ICT skills.
According to the 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index, Bulgaria ranks at the bottom of the European rankings based on the digital skills of adults and young people. For the same reason, attempts are now being made to address this challenge. The SELFIE tool (a tool developed by the European Commission to help schools understand where they stand in digital education) is already used by 30% of the Bulgarian schools that evaluated how they use digital technologies in teaching and learning. The number of upper secondary classes specialising in ICT has been increased. Interestingly, coding is being offered as a subject starting from third grade, while four universities provide programmes in Artificial Intelligence. This is after the Council of the European Union called Bulgaria to ‘promote digital skills and equal access to education’ in its 2020 country specific recommendations. Bulgaria has also set out ‘Digital Bulgaria 2025’, a national programme for modernising and incorporating IT solutions in all economic and social welfare areas. One notable educational challenge confronting Bulgaria is the structural issues in teaching policies. Most teachers in primary to upper secondary schools are ageing rapidly, as most are older than 50. According to a report by World Bank 2019, around 11% are found to be already 60 years old. Despite raising the teachers’ salaries to make it more attractive, only some were found to opt for the teaching profession. The teacher training is considered more theoretical than practical, and there is no clear policy to measure if the teachers’ skills meet students’ needs nor any system to track the teaching and learning experience of the classrooms.
Discrimination against Roma children in schools
Although providing equal and unbiased education is a fundamental human right for all citizens of the EU countries, the non-inclusive nature of public education consistently denies Roma children from enjoying this right. There are huge gaps in access, quality and treatment of Roma children. One of the primary concerns is school segregation.
Even though school segregation has never been officially introduced or sanctioned by the Eastern and Central European countries, unfortunately, it has always been present. The system of ‘Gypsy schools’ predominantly existed in Bulgaria, where the children enrolled belonged exclusively to the Roma community as they were not allowed to enrol in mainstream Bulgarian schools.
Over the years, especially in the late 90s and 2000s, the policies of the Bulgarian government supported the downsizing of the Gypsy schools. The organised grassroots effort for school desegregation in Bulgaria began in 2000, with several hundred Romani children enrolling from a gypsy school in Vidin into the town’s mainstream schools. This initiative aligns with the historical development of Romani communities in Bulgaria, where, having lived on Bulgarian lands for centuries, Roma has long aspired to integrate into the broader societal institutions, including the educational system. The desire to achieve this goal has existed for a long time and is not limited to the present. Even in past decades, Romani parents with the necessary knowledge and resources made efforts to enrol their children in mainstream schools.
However, this process has remained ever slow in doing so. Many Roma children either remain unenrolled in schools, often drop out or do not receive quality inclusive education. The 2018 UNICEF Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Bulgaria identifies factors such as poverty, limited proficiency in the official language (Bulgarian), prejudice, and discrimination as the primary contributors to this issue.
In the 2018 PISA test, students from more advantaged backgrounds significantly outperformed their less advantaged counterparts, with a substantial gap of 106 points in reading, equivalent to over two and a half years of schooling. While this gap has decreased since 2009 (when it stood at 130 points), this reduction primarily stems from lower scores among the advantaged students rather than an improvement in the performance of disadvantaged students. To summarise, 70% of students facing socio-economic disadvantages encountered difficulties in reading, in contrast to just 25% among their more socio-economically advantaged peers. This gap of 45 percentage points is the widest in the EU. Consequently, the transmission of educational qualification and poverty between generations is a crucial factor influencing overall educational opportunities, early school dropout rates, and subsequent success in the labour market. This concludes that the benefits from schooling are higher for students whose mother tongue is Bulgarian than others.
Students’ socio-economic status strongly influences their aspirations regarding attaining a university degree. In Bulgaria, 64.3% of teenagers generally aim to achieve higher education, slightly surpassing the EU average of 62.4%. Nevertheless, when examining the least privileged students, only 42.8% realise this aspiration, in contrast to the significantly higher rate of 83.3% among their more affluent counterparts.
Moreover, the Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states its concern over Bulgaria’s National Roma Integration Strategy (2012-2020) as it remains constrained. The Committee observes hindrances preventing Roma individuals from thoroughly enjoying their economic, social, and cultural rights. Specifically, there are ongoing concerns about discrimination against Roma in areas such as employment, housing, healthcare, and education, which are further exacerbated by increased anti-Roma sentiment. It is particularly concerned about reports that Roma children increasingly attended de facto segregated schools.
It has been over 20 years since the Bulgarian government initiated its desegregation policy. However, most reports, as we saw, suggest that the progress is slow. The desegregation is a long-term process that requires continuous efforts and, most importantly, an understanding of a multi-layered phenomenon. To ultimately achieve integration, the government must work alongside the communities- both the majority and minority, civil society and international organisations to ensure equitable education for all.
OECD Education and Skills Today https://doi.org/10.1787/57f2fb43-en
European Commission Education and Training Monitor 2020 https://op.europa.eu/webpub/eac/education-and-training-monitor-2020/countries/bulgaria.html
OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Bulgaria https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/57f2fb43-en.pdf?expires=1693415611&id=id&accname=ocid54016941&checksum=77270BEF14631DA8FF9DD3CC0D360C16
Toward an Equal Start: Closing the Early Learning Gap for Roma Children in Eastern Europe: Evidence from a Randomised Evaluation in Bulgaria https://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/sief-trust-fund/brief/closing-the-early-learning-gap-for-roma-children-in-eastern-europe
Discrimination against Roma in Croatia and Bulgaria: A comparative report https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/MRG_ERELA_Rep_EN_E.pdf
Country Assessment and the Roma Education Fund’s Strategic Directions https://www.romaeducationfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/bulgaria_report.pdf
Bulgarian Political Culture and Civic Participation; Antony Todorov https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/sofia/08095.pdf
Europe’s Forgotten Children https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-forgotten-children-roma-community-bulgaria-school/
Taking School Desegregation To Scale – The Way Ahead; Rumyan Russinov https://www.rcc.int/romaintegration2020/romadecadefold//documents/2.%20isc%20meetings/12%2012th%20Meeting%20of%20the%20ISC_February%202008%20(Hungary)/Presentations/Taking%20School%20Desegregation%20To%20Scale%20%E2%80%93%20The%20Way%20Ahead.pdf
UNHRC Universal Human Rights Index Document E/C.12/BGR/CO/6 BULGARIA: CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS View Document E/C.12/BGR/CO/6 BULGARIA: CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS (ohchr.org)
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