Main Challenges of Primary and Secondary Education in The Western Balkan countries



The Western Balkan countries (defined by the European Union as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Serbia) are transitioning, involving both struggles and progress. 

These countries share unique historical events which impact today’s political, economic, and educational system, to name a few. However, each of these countries aspires to build dynamic societies and improve economic competitiveness, making educational reform a central pillar of regional development efforts. Building and maintaining qualitative and equitable education systems is vital for each country’s integration strategies into Europe.



The Albanian education system is complex and inevitably impacted by Albanian political, social, and economic historical development. Education itself is a catalyst for improving these pillars, which raises concerns in Albania about their educational system not contributing to the country’s socio-economic development.

Children at work

Education in Albania is mandatory for children aged six to sixteen. However, many children in Albania are involved in the worst forms of child labor, including mining and forced begging. A study by INSTAT (Albanian Institute of Statistics) and the ILO (International Labor Organization) stated that 7.7% of Albanian children between the ages of 5 and 17 work, often beyond their capabilities. It is estimated that about 54,000 children in Albania work.

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Half of the schools lack basic facilities

Schools in Albania face difficulties in terms of conditions and facilities. In remote areas of the country, schools lack access to heating as well as other necessary and basic infrastructure. According to the UNICEF and WHO’s report, 29% of schools in Albania do not meet the minimum hygienic conditions. The report focused on general needs in schools and showed that hygiene is not the only problem. According to data published, 53% of schools do not have access to the Internet, thus ranking below the European average.

Inclusive education

Albania has a 96% rate of primary education enrolment. However, issues in the educational sector severely affect the most vulnerable categories of children. Children of the Roma minority or with disabilities do not enjoy education. According to the Ministry of Education and Sports of Albania, the official dropout rate for Roma children is nearly 4%. About 34.4% of Roma children 7-18 years remain illiterate as they have never attended school.

Children living in rural and remote areas need to walk for hours, sometimes in harsh weather conditions, rendering inclusive education challenging.

The quality of teachers

Albania is improving the quality of teaching through standard entry state exams. At the moment, there is a significant gap between urban areas and those disadvantaged rural ones. In addition, the percentage of teachers with some level of higher education is below the average across participating countries and economies in the OECD (98%) and the EU (98%) (OECD, 2019[44]). Underprivileged areas face additional challenges in part due to the high migration levels.

Low budget in disposal

Whereas countries throughout the OECD have spent around 5% of their GDP on education in the past years, Albania’s budget has remained at 3%.


Montenegro is a small republic with a population of around 650.000 people and less than 300 schools and one university. The educational system has suffered ten years of isolation due to both lack of investment and a general decline in infrastructure and quality. The academic challenges include, but are not limited to:

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School facilities

The schooling situations differ according to the area, but numerous schools suffer from poor amenities. In rural areas, particularly in the Albanian-minority ones, the schools lack indoor toilets, running water, or secure electrical installations. Furniture in most schools is in disrepair and inadequate supply. There is, additionally, a significant heating issue in schools, especially in mountainous regions. Schools are currently addressing the issue by layering up and using a minimal amount of fuel to heat schools periodically.

Schools are overcrowded

Montenegro’s schools are massively overcrowded. The classes accommodate between 35 and 40 students, creating a problem of space, which is especially acute in secondary schools. They need new facilities due to the population increase in urban areas, where schools operate on two or three shifts. The shift system consequently affects maintenance, so Montenegro must increase investment in this regard.

Teaching methods

Positive teaching methods are not practiced equitably in Montenegro. Traditional practices such as teacher-directed instructions are more frequently used in schools with more disadvantaged students and vocational programmers. Adaptive instructional approaches associated with higher outcomes often occur in schools with more advantaged students and general education programmers.

Despite these challenges, Montenegro generally sees high-school attendance. The languages in official use (Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, and Croatian) are adequately taught and, according to the 2012 study by the Montenegro Statistical Office, 25 to 29 year old’s account for the highest level of education, with a percentage of 28 being educated in colleges.


The population’s educational structure is unfavorable

The 2011 Census data revealed that the population’s educational structure is unfavorable. It further showed that around 34% of the population aged 15 and over barely have a primary-level education. Additionally, most of the population (49%) has secondary education; and only 16% has attained higher education (Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia [SORS], 2013).

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Inclusive education 

Stemming from the definition of the inclusive education, “different and diverse students learning side by side in the same classroom”, it can be deduced that, in Serbia, educational attainment indicators are the least favorable for Roma population; most members have only a primary level of education or lower (87%), significantly fewer have a secondary education (11.5%), and the least have a higher education (less than 1%) (Radovanović & Knežević, 2014). According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report, hundreds of Serbian children with disabilities face neglect and isolation in institutions, leading to stunted intellectual, emotional, and physical development. The 88-page report, “It is my dream to leave this place’: Children with Disabilities in Serbian Institutions,” documents the pressure families face to send children born with disabilities to large residential institutions, often far away from their homes, separating them from their families. In these institutions, children may experience neglect, inappropriate medication, lack of privacy, and limited or no education access.

The challenge of funding

Based on the data published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in September 2021, the Serbian government expenditure on education and training was 3.5% of the country’s GDP back in 2018. This data is concerning compared to the European Union countries’ average of 4.7% for 2017.


Low achievement of students 

The results illustrated by the international testing events in North Macedonia highlight that one of the challenges in the primary education level in North Macedonia is that the learning accomplishments of pupils are critically low. In relation to this, education cycles do not define clear objectives of learning outcomes after each cycle of primary education. The framework curriculum is overburdened and irrelevant to the local environment.

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Between 2013 and 2017, North Macedonia employed an external testing system but failed to achieve better. It diverted the focus from professor-based teaching and shifted it to memorizing information rather than essential understanding and broad logic. This is a recurring issue throughout the Western Balkans Countries.

Inclusive education 

In North Macedonia, as in other WB6 countries, many Roma children are not included in the education system. Attendance and dropout cases are related to the student’s socio-economic backgrounds, such as low parental levels of education, early marriage, and little knowledge of the Macedonian language. In cases of inclusiveness, the dropout rate is too high.

Children with special educational needs are not sufficiently included in the primary education system. Their inclusion in regular schools is not adequately regulated, and appropriate mechanisms have not been introduced. This issue is also related to cultural factors such as the prejudices among parents, teachers, and students on these groups. Teachers are not qualified to work with specific categories of learners. In addition, juveniles from correctional institutions as well as homeless people suffer from inclusion.


Improving textbooks is a lengthy process, but as of now they are lacking in many respects. Books lack elements of multiculturalism, integration, and differential respect. Stereotypes, prejudice, and stigma affect the curriculums.



Ethnically divided education in Bosnia

After the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two separate entities, namely the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. As a mixed population without a majority, there are several problems concerning the children: according to state-level legislation, students have the right to be educated in their language. Each ethnic group has to attend schools that are typically “two schools under one roof” model. In other words, Bosniak and Croat students attend the same schools but are kept separate. They learn different programs and textbooks.

In this country, NGOs such as Humanity in Action and YIHR are asking for a common curriculum to tackle the fact that the youth is growing up thinking divisions are standard.

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Educational funding 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is no balanced wages system for teachers. For instance, in the schools in the canton Herzegovina-Neretva, where a class is conducted in accordance with the Framework Curriculum of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the employment position is paid regardless of the employee’s qualifications. In this sense, someone with a two-year or university degree gets the same wage. This is not the case in the Sarajevo canton, where educational levels are compensated differently.

Evaluation of knowledge

Concerning student assessment, students in Bosnia and Herzegovina have lower achievement rates than those in other countries. Students are tested for their knowledge through memorization but lack evaluative, analytical, or creative skills during schooling. This continues in the second cycle of studies, whereby despite the teaching reforms, results remain insufficient.

On the other hand, there are schools with international systems and programs, but incur large fees.



Kosovo’s educational system experienced two unique events. Firstly, the dismissal of Albanian speakers in 1989 from schools and agencies throughout Kosovo and their replacement by Serbian officials (Shahani, 2016). Secondly, as a direct response to the dismissals, the development of a parallel educational system continued Albanian-based education in 1992. These events left historical footprints on the educational system development.

Based on UNICEF data, the main challenges of education that Kosovo is facing include:

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Low school’s infrastructure

Speaking about Kosovo’s situation means talking about reality merely 20 years after a war. The war’s impact on the education system in Kosovo was devastating. 50% of the schools were damaged or destroyed, and textbooks, equipment, and facilities were vandalized.

Low attendance

Not all children enjoy their right to education in Kosovo. Many students enroll late, and others drop out, leaving the nine years of compulsory education unfinished. 84% of five-year-old children attend pre-primary school, but only 15% of children attend an early education program. 87% of Kosovo’s children and only 24% of children from Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities’ complete upper secondary education.

Inclusive education

Based on the 2011/12 academic year, only 33% of special-needs children were enrolled in education. This is partly due to the lack of coherent and coordinated actions between central and local authorities. In Kosovo, children of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities are being left out of the schooling system. This is also the case for children with disabilities, pre-school age children, returnees, and over-age children.

Children in rural areas are less likely to have accessible quality education. They have little to no access to health care, partly due to the lack of coherent and coordinated actions between central and local authorities and institutions.

Kosovar – Serbs Minority education program 

The engagement of the Serbian community is critical. After the war, Kosovar Serbs refused to partake in the reestablished education system. Kosovar Serbs work with Serbian textbooks, rendering the educational model a parallel one whereby the national government manages a part of it. In contrast, others are managed by Serbian communities and supported by Serbia. The current system creates tension occasionally. There are present multi-lingual schools (Serbian, Albanian, and English) models, which could be a future model.

Challenges shared amongst the six countries include 

  1. Covid – 19 Crisis found the WB6 schools un-prepared

Low participation in early childhood education, low attractiveness of the teaching profession, inadequate educational material or physical infrastructure remain key structural challenges for education in the region (OECD, 2018[14]).

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the main challenge faced by the WB6 countries was the schools’ inefficiency and the lack of adequate equipment for digital learning paired with teachers’ digital skills. Based on PISA 2018 data on the possibility of home-based school learning in the WB6 (OECD, 2019[15]):

  • About two-thirds of 15-year-old students are schooled in institutions where effective online learning support platforms were not available.
  • About two-thirds of 15-year-old students are schooled on premises with insufficient digital devices for instruction.
  • Teachers teach about one-quarter of 15-year-old students without the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction.
  1. Lack of professional services 


In recent years, various schools in the WB6 countries have included professional services in the sociology and psychology fields. Despite this, the system remains inefficient due to the insufficient number of service providers and their approach towards pupils, as they engage in different administrative tasks.


This section will present the results from OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), PISA 2018, where the Balkan countries participated.

  1. The results reveal that overall outcomes from the region are improving. 


  1. Performance in the Western Balkans (average score in reading, 402) is generally lower than that of countries across Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) (476)1, the European Union (EU) (481), and the OECD (487). 


  1. Learning outcomes in the region are highly inequitable. Boys perform worse than girls at rates exceeding international averages. 


  1. Educational spending in the region is low, especially when considering the significant infrastructural investment that many schools need. Schools with socio-economically advantaged students tend to enjoy greater resourcing.


  1. Overcrowded schools in urban areas and shrinking schools in rural areas are other issues resulting from urbanization. 


  1. In the Western Balkans, teacher practices are primarily traditional and centered around the teacher (e.g., delivering a lecture to the whole class), with less emphasis on individualized, adaptive instruction.

This article has been prepared using qualitative study methods, focusing on secondary sources such as reports of the Western Balkan countries’ state agencies, international organizations, and other structures.

By Xhina Cekani


Cover Photo source: United States. Central Intelligence Agency. Library of Congress –

Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP) – Serbia | Data (

8 Facts About Education in Serbia – The Borgen Project

Strategija-za-obrazovanie-ENG-WEB-1.pdf (

Executive summary | Education in the Western Balkans : Findings from PISA | OECD iLibrary (

Pupils Challenge Ethnically-Divided Education in Bosnia | Balkan Insight

Primary-and-secondary-education-in-Bosnia-and-Herzegovina.pdf (

Children in Kosovo | UNICEF Kosovo Programme

Inclusive education | UNICEF Kosovo Programme

core-curriculum-for-pre-primary-grade-and-primary-education-in-kosovo.pdf ( Kosovo’s ghost schools – Kosovo 2.0 (

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