Educating Bosnia

A new law should change the way Bosnia's children learn - and what they are taught about each other.

Educating Bosnia

A new law should change the way Bosnia's children learn - and what they are taught about each other.

Bosnia-Hercegovina's state parliament is on its way to passing legislation that will unify school education for the first time since the war - and do away with the segregation and divisive teaching methods that hamper reconciliation in the various parts of the country.

The bill, which sets out a blueprint for redesigning primary and secondary education from the ground up, was approved by the Bosnian government, the Council of Ministers, on April 16 prior to going to parliament. The draft law is the result of many years of effort put in by the international community and local experts.

Once in place, the new education law will take effect in both of Bosnia's constituent entities, Republika Srpska, RS, and the Federation, which have conducted separate education policies until now. Implementation will be underpinned by entity and cantonal legislation setting out the way teaching is managed and delivered in greater detail.

The law will impose a single system of certificates and diplomas, and will allow teachers and students to transfer from school to school anywhere in the country. It will increase the mandatory period of education from eight years to nine. Schools themselves will benefit from a greater degree of autonomy and increased parent and teacher involvement.

The law provides for a common core curriculum for all schools, the setting of educational standards and addresses the issue of discrimination in the classroom.

"The most important thing about this law is that at state level it sets up a code of conduct (stipulating non-discrimination) for the school system," said Esma Hadzagic, former education minister of the Sarajevo canton.

Reform is long overdue in a country where since the beginning of the war in 1992, education has been hostage to nationalism and outdated teaching methods that emphasise rote learning rather than developing children's reasoning abilities. The reforms have been hampered by the lack of an education ministry at state level to drive them.

Eleven years on, children still attend ethnically divided classes, and there are dozens of schools that provide segregated teaching under one roof.

Textbooks are often loaded with ethnically offensive language. Until last year, areas with Serb and Croat majorities made wide use of books sent from Belgrade and Zagreb. This began to change when the current school year began in September, following an agreement between the various education authorities and the international community. RS has now replaced all textbooks with domestically produced ones, while Croat areas are still using some books from Croatia.

Although the bill now in parliament does not address the issue of textbooks, education experts say new ones will be produced to match the core curriculum.

They are already working on the curriculum, according to Mevlida Pekmez, director of the Sarajevo Teacher Training Institute. She says the multiple curricula that existed until now created a patchwork of incompatible teaching systems.

The new curriculum should ensure that children of different ethnicities spend most of their time in school together and, at the same time, to take classes in designated "national subjects" such as language and literature. The model has already been piloted in Brcko District, with considerable success.

The overhauled curriculum will throw out old teaching methods, which Mevlida Pekmez says, left the student reduced to the status of passive recipient, to be crammed with facts.

"Teachers would lecture and then examine the students, who were expected to learn things off by heart," Pekmez said. "The student should now be expected to observe, research, draw conclusions and participate in team projects, not just be served ready-to-use definitions."

"A curriculum should be a detailed description of skills, values, competencies and attitudes that students should acquire," said Claude Kiefer, senior education advisor with the OSCE mission to Bosnia. "The only objective defined now is the amount of knowledge, and that is outdated."

Experts said teachers will have to be retrained for the new curriculum and the use of new multi-media methods. Pekmez said teacher training used to end with the award of a university degree, but further training is now ongoing.

"At the end of the war, not a single teacher knew how to use the Internet," Pekmez said, "but there is a strong desire on their part to learn new things. Our education is good but many things have changed in the world and we have to keep up."

With the new school year just four months away, and the education law still in parliament, there is some doubt that the new curriculum be ready in time.

There are concerns that the passage of the law may be hindered by attempts to block it by some of the nationalist parties. Religious groups may also create obstacles. Sources close to the OSCE said the Catholic and Serbian Orthodox communities are unhappy with Article 9, which makes religious instruction in schools an ungraded course and forbids compulsory religious instruction for children of different faiths.

In RS, instruction in the Orthodox faith has been a mandatory, graded class for all, an unpopular rule with non-Serb returnees. Compulsory religious instruction runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires the state to ensure that education of children is "in conformity with their (parents') religious and philosophical convictions".

In the event that the law gets bogged down in parliament, it may be simply imposed by the Office of the High Representative. But the deputy head of the OSCE mission, Ambassador Zipper de Fabiani, was cautious on the likelihood of this. "It's far too early to think of imposition. I would ask you to let the parliament have its procedure first," he said.

Both the OSCE head of mission Ambassador Robert Beecroft and Dr Sonja Moser-Starrach, Special Representative of the Council of Europe, have urged the parliament to adopt the law as quickly as possible.

For Bosnia, modernising its education system is a priority if it wants to join Europe. Educational reform is one of the conditions that must be fulfilled by 2009 for the country to join the next round of EU enlargement.

"It's the last train for Europe," Esma Hadzagic said. "We can't remain isolated, and if we play it smart, we can finish first."

Passing the new law will be a first step towards this, but Bosnia still has a long way to go before its education overhaul is complete.

Daniela Valenta is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo

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